Mood is contagious. Measuring collective mood is difficult. As an old trader, my proxy for collective mood has been the stock market. Simplistically, when the stock market is rallying (bull market), it reflects general optimism. When the stock market is falling (bear market), it reflects general fear or pessimism. While there are always segments of society experiencing their own bull or bear markets independently of the rest of society, as a broad and generalized proxy for collective mood, I find the stock market is a reasonable gauge.
It is a well-researched phenomenon that mood and emotions impact decision making (Lerner et al., 2015). There is also a strong body of research describing how mood and emotions are contagious (Barsade, 2002; Raafat, Chater and Frith, 2009; Baddeley, 2010). When the people around us are fearful, it is hard not to experience some level of fear ourselves. When the people around us are positive or euphoric, individually we tend to experience a buoyed sense of well-being.
Over recent weeks, this phenomenon has expressed itself in the stripping of grocery shelves of toilet paper and other staples as a fear reaction to the COVID19 virus. Subsequently, we have seen this sense of fear express itself in the stock market with an aggressive panic driven sell off.
During these moments, it can be difficult to remove oneself from the contagion of collective emotion. While our individual circumstances may lend themselves to feelings of anxiety during times like these, often our personal feelings are exacerbated by the collective feelings of the people around us or in society generally. Sometimes, it is difficult to distinguish the predominant source of our own mood and emotions. Is it a rationally explainable function of personal circumstance? Or is it a reaction to the growing visceral expression of the mob? Often it is a bit of both, but it’s helpful to find space in your self-awareness to be able to distinguish which and by how much.
When our mood is altered or exacerbated by emotional contagion, our capacity for rational and objective decision making is diminished. We can measure this for ourselves by the level of shame we feel heading back to the carpark with a shopping trolley loaded with extra toilet rolls. We know it’s not rational as we sheepishly walk back to the car, but we couldn’t help ourselves in the moment. Our rational minds will try and explain our behaviour away, but our shame will highlight the truth of it.
This isn’t an exercise in self-flagellation. I’m merely suggesting that mood contagion is common and that it can materially impact our capacity for rational decision making and is difficult to avoid without awareness and strategy.
So what to do? Personally, I follow a simple process that helps me to retain some semblance of independence of mind. I’m still human, but it gives me a chance to choose powerfully on how I think and behave.
Firstly, clear your emotions before you engage your rational mind. You can do this via meditation, exercise, listening to music, or whatever form you would typically use to release pent up emotion. Clearing your emotional settings allows for objectivity when we look to identify our next actions. Personally, I utilize a form of meditation which is based on a process I’ve developed over the years called self- CARE (Compassion, Awareness, Regulation, Awareness). This process enables me to clear my emotional attachments to current beliefs, which allows me to look at what’s in front of me with eyes that are not emotionally charged.
Once you’re free of emotional attachments, you’ll then be able to more clearly identify the emotion you were experiencing and put a label on it. Fear, anger, sadness, or euphoria. Whatever the emotion, give it a name. What do you think are the circumstances that are causing you to experience this emotion? It’s the stock market, it’s my job insecurity, it’s my child’s broken wrist, it’s Richmond winning the flag. By naming it, you own it, can take responsibility for it and can do something about it.
Then finally, gather the facts around the circumstance that lead to the emotion. The purpose of gathering facts is to answer the question, “what is my next action?” If you are armed with facts, then it’s easier to distinguish whether your fear is there to serve a useful purpose. Sometimes being fearful is rational, if it causes you to act in a manner that shifts you out of danger. In the case of COVID19, going to the WHO website and reading their latest situational report, not clicking on a scary headline leading to a clickbait website. Armed with facts, you are better able to make a plan and then act on it.
Notice that I haven’t asked whether the source of my emotion is external to me? Despite the impact of emotional contagion, being too hasty in assigning my own emotional experience to external sources doesn’t allow me to gain insight around my own thinking and circumstances. By being mindful and taking ownership of my emotional experience, I can now make choices that can positively impact my outcomes.
Baddeley, M., 2010. Herding, social influence and economic decision-making: socio-psychological and neuroscientific analyses. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1538), pp.281-290.
Barsade, S., 2002. The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(4), p.644.
Lerner, J., Li, Y., Valdesolo, P. and Kassam, K. (2015). Emotion and Decision Making. Annual Review of Psychology, 66(1), pp.799-823.
Raafat, R., Chater, N. and Frith, C., 2009. Herding in humans. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(10), pp.420-428.