Thursday, February 26, 2015

SPSP 2015: The Contagious Spread of Affect

I was fortunate to attend the first session of the emotion pre-conference this morning and had a chance to hear about some amazing research conducted by Wendy Mendes (my post-doc advisor), Sara Waters, and Tessa West. The research examined the extent that affective states are transmitted between individuals.

The researchers reasoned that social living organisms are widely characterized by synchronous actions and states--with humans groups being particularly likely to synchronize their emotions and behaviors (here is a profound example of our capacity to synchronize during communal events).

Mendes and colleagues sought to examine the extent that contagious affect can be transmitted between the most intimate of individuals (mothers and their babies). In the research, mothers were separated from their babies for a stressful speech task that was either a positive (head nodding and encouraging evaluators) or negative stressor (stoic and disapproving evaluators). Following the speech, mother's were reunited with their babies and both individuals' sympathetic nervous system responses were recorded.

<Side Note: The difficulty in assessing infant physiological arousal cannot be understated here. WOW!>

What Mendes and colleagues found was that in the negative speech task, mothers showed heightened sympathetic nervous system arousal (their heart was pumping harder), replicating past work on stress responses. What was fascinating though was that the babies, who were not present during the stress task, showed similar increases in sympathetic arousal when reunited with the mothers.

What transmits these contagious affective states? In follow up research Mendes and colleagues found that a similar procedure where mothers and babies had physical contact following the stress induction elicited contagion, whereas reuniting the mothers/babies without allowing them to touch (i.e., setting the infant in an adjacent high chair) halted the contagion process. Physical touch might be a way for infants to catch their mother's affective states--presumably through feeling heat/sweat on the skin that accompanies high arousal states.

Cool Studies!

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