Nine DogsAt the beginning of the summer I took an uplifting trip to the Bay Area, where I gave a lot of talks and climbed a lot of hills. One of the very best things that happened was the chance to give a speech to some dogs. Seriously.

One of my speaking engagements was at the San Francisco Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), and I was being invited to address an all-staff meeting. So it was perhaps the least surprising place to find dogs in the audience, but it was still a pretty striking experience. I’d launch into a story about something unfortunate that happened to me once, and the dogs would howl softly and plaintively. When I then talked about how I triumphantly managed to make things better, the furry listeners seemed to pick up the vibe and made a range of happy dog noises. 

Multi ethnic business team at a meeting. Interacting. Focus on womanApart from being impossibly endearing – yes, I did pat several of them – it was a good illustration of some research I read last year, which suggested that dogs really do pick up emotions in the air around them. And that, in turn, is a good reminder of the fact that humans are equally subject to emotional contagion. Studies have found that our moods can sync up with others nearby within five minutes, even when no words are exchanged.

The scientific jury’s out on the exact mechanism behind this emotional contagion, but nobody doubts that it exists. So it’s worth remembering that you have it in you to be a subliminal force for good every time you decide to walk into a room with a smile on your face. (And if you also decide to wag your tail, I suspect you’ll put a smile on everyone else’s face even more quickly.) Woof!

  • Marta Zielinska

    Hi Caroline! Reading this article I’m thinking of a situation when there are two people in the room, one who is in a great mood and the other who is really down. In that case, who is likely to take over the other’s mood? Is it intensity of the mood (strong positive or negative emotions visible) or maybe just the type of emotions (positive more likely to be contagious than the negative) that will determine who will sync with whom?

    • cmc_webb

      Great question Marta – intensity matters, for sure. But if people are feeling equally strongly, evidence seems to suggest we’re more sensitive to negative signals than positive ones. Probably an evolutionary mechanism that has kept us safe. It certainly means that if someone in a group is in a bad mood, it may take some deliberate effort on your part to send things in a more upbeat direction. But the good news is that it’s still possible to make a difference through your own demeanor – even if only mitigates part of the impact of the negative person.

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