You know that exhaustingly upbeat person at the office who has a habit of reminding you that smiles are contagious? Well, you might want to hold off on rolling your eyes. There’s a lot more to that played-out platitude than you think. 

The idea of behavioral empathy is nothing new. Humans are social creatures, and we tend to mimic those around us. You know how you pick up a little more of an accent when you go back home to visit family? Or how about the way everyone faces the same direction on the elevator at your office? How others act has a big effect on us and vice versa. We’ve all been in a meeting that was a total drag because somebody walked into the conference room with an attitude. But some people are just dramatic, right? Most of us know we should check our emotions at the door and be professional. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

In a recent interview on NPR’s show Invisibilia, two scientists at the University of Hawaii dug a little deeper into the effects we have on each other. It turns out that not only is obvious behavior contagious, but very subtle movements can be just as powerful. “When we watch other people, for some reason, we’re wired up to get in sync with them on so many things that it kind of boggles your mind. And they calculate that it’s so fast that you couldn’t possibly do it consciously — it’s got to be going through the brainstem,” says Elaine Hatfield, one of the psychological researchers. She and her husband and fellow researcher, Dick Rapson, found that people in the same room tend to sync breathing patterns and even blink in time with each other. And it’s not just the simple, automatic things that sync up. Emotions are on the table too.

Hatfield and Rapson got curious about this behavioral alignment after they noticed something very strange during a meeting. They were speaking with someone who was very animated, energetic, and seemed excited. While the two expected to be affected by the positive energy, they just kept yawning even though neither of them was tired. How could this upbeat behavior have the opposite effect?

The two had a suspicion that there was more going on than what they saw on the surface.  “What we think was going on is that we were picking up, underneath her cascade of words, depression,” Rapson says. It turns out that we all project small, almost imperceptible movements and ticks called “microexpressions.” Though Hatfield and Rapson weren’t immediately aware of it, they were both automatically mimicking tiny nonverbal cues from their client. “We get real pale, little reflections of what others are thinking and feeling,” says Hatfield. It turns out that when we start subconsciously acting out those microexpressions ourselves, the behavior can recreate the emotion associated with that behavior.

Whether we know it or not, we begin to think and feel like those around us. No matter how much you try to mask or ignore a distracting emotion, chances are, it will weigh at least a little on the moods of your coworkers and friends. The good news is, though, their emotions will have a similar effect on you. So, if you’re feeling down or frustrated, a great way to bring yourself back up is to spend some time with someone who’s in a better mood. It turns out those smiles really are contagious after all.


See the original video and article from NPR’s Invisibilia here to learn more about this fascinating phenomenon.