Emotional Contagion

November 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)

When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place on the tatami floor with the others,  my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor.  The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.

I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.

It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.

Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in his youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.

I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated.* Now that assumption was shattered.  But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on the feelings of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.

When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – we need our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.”  In that search, we look to others. And the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotion we see all around us evokes the same emotion in us.  We experience that emotion as personal. But in an important way, it is also social.

* Twenty years ago today, on the 30th anniversary, Barry Wellman recalled he was sitting in a Social Relations class when Stanley Milgram burst in to announce the news. That a president could be assassinated was so incredible that Wellman was sure that Milgram was doing some sort of experiment. When another student in the class turned on his transistor radio so that everyone could hear the the news reports, Wellman remained convinced of his definition of the situation and that the radio was merely part of Milgram’s elaborate hoax. (Wellman’s account is here.)


Bob S. said...

In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated. Now that assumption was shattered.

I'm not trying to be rude or discourteous but I have to ask about this.

Given the history of the country in particular and the world in general regarding assassination of world leaders; why would you take it for granted?

While our country has been less prone to assassination then many; our history has several, including the Lincoln Assassination which no child could make it through school with learning about.

I was 6 months old when Kennedy was killed so much of the mystic or impact...not sure those are the right words...did effect me like I see in so many others.

Jay Livingston said...

You’re absolutely right. It’s possible to look back in our history and see assassinations and other political violence. But when Kennedy was shot, I don’t recall many people saying, “Yeah, not really a surprise.” Yes, we all learned in our history classes about Lincoln and that other guy. But that was history, not part of the continuous American stream we were still floating in. The implied message was that our country was different now. No teacher ever ended the class that day by saying, “And this is still the sort of thing we can expect.”

My impression is that by 1963, people who had grown up in the 50s and probably the 40s, 30s, and even 20s felt that the country was different – safer, more civil, less violent. Assassinations were just not part of their experience. The Kennedy assassination changed that. When the next assassinations came – MLK, Malcolm, RFK – people were horrified but not so surprised.

It’s like 9/11. As with JFK, very few people were saying, “Well, of course, what did you expect?” People were stunned. In their mental image of reality, the assumptions that they had, this was something that could just not occur. Only in retrospect, can you go back and – to use the metaphor so common at the time – connect the dots.

People who grew up in the 60s may never have had that rosy naivete regarding assassinations. If someone tried to assassinate Obama, I doubt that many people would be stunned or even surprised.

Bob S. said...


I'm not arguing, I'm simply stunned by the view point.

My impression is that by 1963, people who had grown up in the 50s and probably the 40s, 30s, and even 20s felt that the country was different – safer, more civil, less violent

Race riots, union strikes that included bloodshed, the crime sprees of the "Roaring 20s"...I don't see the country was different, I see naivety. I see denial of reality.

Either that or selective editing of history.

Few assassinations were ever part of the American experience. We really have a fairly benign and violence free exchange of power in government. However that doesn't mean our country is or ever was free of violence. For me, this is especially hard to understand given the people of the 60s were those who experienced World War 2, the Korea War, lived under the specter of the dawning atomic age.

It’s like 9/11. As with JFK, very few people were saying, “Well, of course, what did you expect?” People were stunned. In their mental image of reality, the assumptions that they had, this was something that could just not occur.

Decades of bombings by Muslim extremists and people were stunned by another -- granted greatly more horrific bombing. The USS Cole, the Beirut barracks, the 1st Attack on the World Trade Center.

Can you explain why people are so willing to forget those incidences?

I really am not trying to argue your view point as much as trying to understand it in the face of such overwhelming evidence that people are and always have been violent thugs with a thin veneer of civilization on top.

Jay Livingston said...

In the late sixties, in the wake of the assassinations and riots, some historians wrote articles and books reminding Americans of their violent past. Many people dismissed these accounts as mere propaganda from leftist anti-Americans. Ditto for the reaction to H. Rap Brown’s assertion that violence was as American as cherry pie.

We can keep all sorts of erroneous ideas in our heads not just because these are more comfortable – it’s nicer to think of the world as a peaceful, predictable place – but because we are rarely confronted with evidence to the contrary. We don’t go around looking for contradictory evidence, and if we do come across such evidence we discount it. So we can carry the image of the US as a safe and peaceful country because most of the time for most of us it is. And every day that is safe and peaceful for me reinforces my belief.

Is texting while driving safe? Of course not. Everyone knows that. But people still do it? I would guess that they do it because most of the time, it does not lead to an accident. Each time a person does it without consequence further reinforces the assumption that “I know how to do it safely.” So when the person does crash while texting, it’s a something of a surprise to him, even though it shouldn’t be.

It’s only in retrospect that these things become obvious. Once something happens, it’s easy to go back and point to all the things we should have seen. On Monday, I could show you a dozen reasons why it was obvious that the Jaguars were going to beat the Texans. I would feign amazement at how ignorant and self-deluding were all those who bet on Houston or made them a 10-point favorite. As Yogi implied, prediction is much easier about the past.

Even after the fact, lots of people resist. In the 60s, many people on the left denied that crime was really increasing. In the 80s and 90s and even later, people on the right were denying that inequality was increasing. In the 2000s, there were housing-bubble deniers, and many people were taken by surprise when the bubble burst. In this decade there are still global-warming deniers. All these erroneous believers had at least some evidence for their positions.