House, M.D. and the science of psychogenic illness

This explanation didn’t sit well with everyone, but it was consistent with the scientific study of emotions, which we now know have collective in addition to individual origins (Durkheim, 1912). One insight provided by current research in this area is that people can “catch” emotional states from others, much as they would an illness (e.g., Fowler & Christakis, 2008), a biologically hard-wired human tendency that has served at least one evolutionarily adaptive function: communication. To illustrate, think of facial expressions, a type of emotional gesture that conveys information such as “I’m happy” or “I’m scared.” These emotions have in the past signaled to others when the environment was safe, and when there may have been predators or other hazards worth avoiding (Ekman, 1992). Language is not necessarily better for these purposes, because what emotions lack in specificity, they make up for in speed.

Emotions have the capacity to spread quickly within groups of individuals because of the natural human tendency to mimic the affective reactions of others (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Thus, mimicry is one mechanism for emotional contagion. If one person exhibits, say, a fearful expression because of the presence of a nearby predator, the threat will be communicated by others noticing and then reflexively imitated. Through mimicry, the facial cues associated with emotional states transmit important information throughout human groups, as they simultaneously make its members actually feel different than they did before the contagious outbreak.

In turn, the efficacy of mimicry as a mechanism for emotional contagion hinges on the fact that we have difficulties fathoming the true sources of our emotions. Otherwise, how could we truly feel sad, or angry, or whatever, just because the people around us are? The answer lies partly in the very nature of emotions themselves.

Here’s how it works. Any particular emotional experience begins with an initial physiological response to some stimulus in our environment: the pulse quickens, the breath shortens, or something similar occurs. We then have to make sense of that response by applying a label to it. It is only after we have applied this label that we are ready to have an emotional experience. Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer (1962) called this two-step process – physiological response plus cognitive label - the Dual-Factor Theory of Emotion. According to this theory, it’s not immediately apparent whether those first-date butterflies are due to nerves, or to love at first sight, and amazingly, this sort of ambiguity applies to many instances of experienced emotion. Because the same physiological reaction (e.g., heart palpitations) can serve as the basis for many different potential emotions (e.g., fear, love), these labels can easily become mixed-up and, ultimately, misapplied.

In one classic study (Dutton & Aron, 1974) testing this theory, male participants were asked to cross either a rickety old suspension bridge or a solid, sturdy one. At the end of the bridge, an attractive female experimenter provided these males – at this point either relatively relaxed or experiencing increased arousal, depending on which bridge they had just crossed – her phone number in case they wanted to “talk further.” The results were that the males who had crossed the scary bridge were much more likely to call the woman, presumably because they had misinterpreted their physiological response to the dangerous bridge situation as physical attraction towards the woman. In technical terms, they had misattributed their arousal.

The upshot of all this is that there is a fundamental arbitrariness involved in the construction of emotional experience that makes emotional contagion possible. It turns out that emotions are not quite the intensely personal phenomenon they may seem to be. We can easily be swayed by those around us to interpret our own physical sensations differently than we would in the absence of others and thus to temporarily share their emotional experiences. Partly, this is what makes emotional contagion possible.

Emotional contagion, however, is not exclusively responsible for the events that transpired in “Airborne.” The situation was actually quite a bit worse than that. The passengers became truly ill, with many genuine physical symptoms to show for it. At the end of the episode, we’re led to believe that these ailments had only psychological origins. People became convinced that they were getting sick, which caused them to actually get sick. Mass hysteria had gone beyond the emotional sphere and engendered bona fide physical ailments. Is something like that possible?

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