Feelings spread through groups of people, right? Not long ago I was riding in the car with my wife when another driver behaved aggressively as we sped down the freeway. It was frightening and maddening. As the other car cut her off, my spouse reacted irritably. In hopes of calming her I pointed out that the dangerous driver must have been feeling pretty crummy to act as he did. His rage threatened to infect us, almost like a psychic virus. I suggested we build up immunity and try to keep his poison out of our minds. It isn’t often that a husband can change his wife’s thinking, but on this occasion my words helped a little.
So I’ve been thinking about this ever since. Consider the classic story of the boss yelling at the manager, the manager punishing a worker, the worker going home and insulting his wife, the wife scolding the child, and the child kicking the cat. The angst that drove the boss to act out gets propagated and ends up hurting the hapless family pet.
We see variations on this all the time. In every stock market crash negativity spreads so rapidly that securities can lose half their value in a day. Terrorist attacks are intended to inject paranoia and despair into a population, and they often succeed. Arguably, the massive US debt that now weighs down our economy resulted from the (second) Iraq war, which never could have been launched save for 9/11. Psychic toxins spread swiftly and do great harm.
I’m reminded of Richard Dawkin’s concept of a meme: “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins used the example of religion, which transmits highly specific ideas about God and morality. He proposed that as they are passed from person to person, concepts replicate with occasional modification; over time the most ‘successful’ (i.e., most adopted) memes come to dominate group thought.
Perhaps the phenomena I’m discussing here could be referred to as affemes, or ‘affective memes.’ The propagated tendencies aren’t ideas that can be modified over time (like memes). Instead, we see transmission of mood or emotional tone. And affemes aren’t replicated mental constructs like memes, because all that’s diffusing is strong feeling, not a specific idea. Thus, a raging parent will affect the child, but the child may become fearful rather than rageful.
An affeme doesn’t have to be negative. Kindness spreads too. And again, it doesn’t replicate in the strict sense of the word. If one child offers another a chance to play kickball during recess, the included youngster will be more inclined to share cookies at lunchtime. What’s transmitted is the uplifting emotion, not the specific act.
Perhaps we can distinguish a total of just two affeme types: negative and positive, or malignant and beneficial. We could call these malaffemes and benaffemes, respectively. Nearly every time we interact with another person, we unconsciously broadcast affemes of one sort or another. The task for anyone devoted to personal and world peace, then, would be to build immunity against malaffemes while learning to generate and appreciate benaffemes.
OK. I’ll admit introducing all this terminology probably just clouds the issue. Sayings like, “don’t fight fire with fire” and “turn the other cheek” have long guided the wise to resist absorbing negativity from others. There is nothing new here.
Still, I like viewing the widespread social toxicity we experience today as a contagion. That way I am able to see those who offend me as ill and suffering rather than mean and subhuman. If I feel a negative affeme penetrating, I can quickly recognize the incipient infection and mount my mental immune system. On several occasions I’ve found this strategy effective.
When we don’t resist malaffemes, they spread until we encounter irritable, hostile people at every turn. Not only do others become more unpleasant as the negativity diffuses through the population; we are also more likely to view them that way. On the other hand, if we resist the contagion and broadcast counterbalancing benaffemes, we generate kindness in the world and are more inclined to see small instances of it.
Personally, I don’t buy into the Judeo-Christian belief (or meme) that Good and Evil exist as personified forces battling for human souls. But there is a sense in which negativity and positivity are locked in an ongoing struggle for ascendance. If we can see how moods spread through populations, and how we internalize both the pain and happiness of others, we can begin to make choices about which influences to absorb and encourage, and which to reject. The world might become a bit friendlier as a result.
At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that both so-called positive and negative emotions can be constructive or destructive. Depending on the context, a painful emotional state may actually be a benaffeme. During a recent weekend workshop devoted to grieving, we all expressed a lot of painful feelings, but these were in the service of healing. For that reason, I would consider the emoting beneficial, despite the pain felt by participants. If someone had laughed out loud while another was sobbing about loss, the lightening of tension might have felt positive to the person laughing, but it would have hurt the person grieving. Thus, I’d have considered the laughter a malaffeme.
The central issue is constructive (healing) versus destructive (harming) behavior. Anger could be a benaffeme if employed to stop child abuse. One needs to look at the big picture; the perpetrator might feel humiliated but the youngster would be saved, which certainly outweighs the objections of the former. (And eventually even the abuser might feel grateful, if prevented from harming an innocent.)
We can all watch the affemes we project as well the ones we internalize. What we send out into society should be chosen with care: most often we do well to act kindly, but sometimes forceful words are needed. Wise behavior and strong immunity serve both collective and personal wellbeing.
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Last reviewed: 5 Sep 2012