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A Window Into How We Are Invisibly Connected To One Another

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Actions, like diseases, are contagious. We'd like to think we are independent individuals, yet we feel some invisible force that pushes us to conform to others. It's a perfect subject for the NPR podcast Invisibilia, and Invisibilia's Lulu Miller has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CANDID CAMERA")

ALLEN FUNT: Here's the candid subject.

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: OK, so we see a poor, unsuspecting man walk into an elevator that has been secretly rigged up with cameras. And he stands there waiting for the door to close when all of a sudden...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CANDID CAMERA")

FUNT: Here comes the "Candid Camera" staff...

MILLER: ...Two people walk in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CANDID CAMERA")

FUNT: ...The man with a white shirt, the lady with a trench coat.

MILLER: And weirdly, they face the wrong direction. They face toward the back wall of the elevator.

DICK RAPSON: Poor, little guy is very confused.

MILLER: To help us make sense of what's about to happen to this guy, we brought in two psychological researchers from the University of Hawaii - Elaine Hatfield...

ELAINE HATFIELD: Aloha.

MILLER: ...And her husband/colleague Dick Rapson.

RAPSON: Aloha.

MILLER: So anyway, back to this guy in the elevator. He keeps on facing in the right direction.

RAPSON: And he looks at both of them facing the wrong way, looking very puzzled.

MILLER: But when a third person comes in and faces the back wall...

RAPSON: Now he turns immediately to the back wall.

MILLER: And the dance is on.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN STATE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S SUITE FOR JAZZ ORCHESTRA NO. 2 - WALTZ 2)

MILLER: "Candid Camera" observed this phenomenon again and again. An unsuspecting victim of walk into that elevator and end up imitating whatever the people around him were doing.

Now the first guy's initial slow turn to the wall is what Dick and Elaine call conformity.

HATFIELD: You don't want to look like a fool.

MILLER: But sometimes the victim begins following what the people do so quickly that it goes by another name.

RAPSON: Contagion.

MILLER: Contagion, when the imitation is so fast it looks...

RAPSON: Like it was choreographed.

HATFIELD: When we watch other people, for some reason, we're wired up to get in sync with them on so many things.

MILLER: Some are more obvious - how you imitate people's postures and speaking patterns. But others are quiet, like how if you're talking to a friend, over time you may begin to blink as one.

HATFIELD: And they calculate that it's so fast that you couldn't possibly do it consciously.

MILLER: And it's not just each other's physical movements we take on, but emotions, too. And this is Dick and Elaine's real specialty - emotional contagion.

RAPSON: I'll tell you how we first started to come across the notion of contagion. We were therapists, and we remember a client who came in who was talking very quickly and energetically. But I found I started to yawn. And Elaine started to yawn. I wasn't tired at all. So what we think was going on is that we were picking up, underneath her cascade of words, depression.

MILLER: That was their idea, that the depression was somehow being telegraphed to them nonverbally. So they looked into it and found out that, indeed, emotions leak out a person's face in these very measurable, consistent ways called micro-expressions.

HATFIELD: Split-second expressions of fear.

RAPSON: Joy.

HATFIELD: Sadness.

MILLER: Because our faces actually imitate the tiny micro-expressions we see on other people, the strange result is that the corresponding emotion is produced inside us.

HATFIELD: We get real pale, little reflections of what others are thinking and feeling.

MILLER: And for Dick and Elaine, the result of this realization is that even though you walk around thinking of yourself as an individual...

RAPSON: I think that's a delusion.

HATFIELD: We're going to slip in to being like the company we keep.

MILLER: It's like without quite being aware of it, we are all one organism - a heaving, swirling organism contracting the feelings and thoughts of the people around us.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN STATE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S SUITE FOR JAZZ ORCHESTRA NO. 2 - WALTZ 2)

INSKEEP: Lulu Miller from NPR's podcast Invisibilia. Their fall season launches next month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.