The Bruce Hutchison Interview

Now more than ever, we live in a time when we face an invisible enemy. The pandemic surges and social relations are fraught with turmoil. Emotions are on edge and people fear for their lives. We face turmoil, but turmoil does not come without emotions. Little has been written about the power of emotions and emotional contagion in this time of global turmoil until now.

In his new book, Emotions Don’t Think: Emotional Contagion in a Time of Turmoil, now available from Crossfield Publishing, Dr. Bruce Hutchison describes emotional contagion as one of the most powerful forces at play in society and in politics in the last few decades, building to the 2020-21 crescendo.  We need to learn about how to handle it to help us adapt to today’s stress. Dr. Hutchison’s book helps us learn how to do that.

(You can read an excerpt from Emotions Don’t Think here.)

Emotions are contagious and infectious and often spread from one person to another, so you can get infected by emotions when you are around people. This affects people during troubled times. Emotions don’t think and yet so many people base their decisions on emotions, including their votes.

Dangerous, infectious emotions spread like a virus and infect others. Pessimism, cynicism, depression, fear, hate, panic, anxiety, disgust and suspicion are all contagious. So are violence and conspiracies. These emotions spread and put people into turmoil. People use these emotions to think, but emotions can only feel. They don’t think.

Bruce Hutchison, Ph.D. writes the kind of book that is needed in the times of emotional turmoil that we live in. A retired clinical psychologist with over 50 years of experience performing psychotherapy, counselling, consultation and assessment, Dr. Hutchison has experienced and identified emotional contagion in many of his sessions with his clients, when emotions move and flow from client to therapist. He has appeared on TV, radio, and has travelled giving many speeches and talks about various topics in bettering oneself. He lives in Ottawa with his wife Catherine and their cat.

Is the world properly equipped to handle the amount of stress in today’s climate?

No, there is a lot of stress in today’s climate. Many people learn how to handle it with various strategies of stress management. They usually handle stress as it relates to daily living, stress with spouses, family, children, neighbors, and workplaces, among others. Strategies such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and related therapies are very effective, as are strategies such as meditation, relaxation, and mindfulness. 

“Many people get a sense of a worried emotion flowing around them. I write about how to overcome emotional contagion in our lives today.”

But in 2020 and even in the years leading up to it, stress has increased from other impersonal, social and political sources. We often hear people say “What is the world coming to?” In the past year the coronavirus and the pandemic, which are understandably very stressful for most people, added to the stress.  There have also been impersonal aspects involving social trends, like cancel culture, and political

developments, with much conflict and divisiveness. Feelings that politicians are corrupt and ineffective have been with us for many years, and have seemed to be worsening in the past year. In my opinion, contagious emotions related to these issues have been circulating and making a significant contribution to the increase in stress. 

Some businesses are powerful and impersonal, and many seem dishonest and unethical. People question whether many of them can be trusted. This triggers contagious emotions like suspicion, cynicism, pessimism, depression, demoralization, panic, anxiety and helplessness. These emotions about these impersonal social trends seem to strengthen, worsened by the pandemic, and feelings about whether governments were prepared for it and are handling vaccines properly.  Emotions about these issues add stress to our lives. This is a different type and degree of stress than we have experienced before.  It is hard to get a handle on, it is impersonal and yet affects us personally, and we feel helpless in overcoming it. These emotions become contagious as they spread and strengthen. Many people get a sense of a worried emotion flowing around them. I write about how to overcome emotional contagion in our lives today.     

Is being aware of your emotions still seen as being weak? What are some stigmas that you think are still detrimental for people to overcome and what can be done to improve things?

I think some people, especially with the advent and growth of advanced information technology, are less familiar with emotions and may see being aware of them as a sign of weakness. In fact, however, this is a bias. Being aware of them is a strength. People usually prefer to deal with the visible and tangible, like numbers and keyboards, hammers and nails, and let advanced information technology do the rest for us. Intangible, abstract aspects such as emotions are unfortunately relegated to a lesser position in society, to the detriment of all of us.  

Emotions become very powerful when people are unaware of them. They lurk under the surface where they become very powerful. You can’t have turmoil without emotions and yet very few people write about them as significant factors or identify them as a significant issue despite the emotional turmoil affecting the world recently. Society has been in turmoil in many places in the world in recent years, to the point that it and it has become prevalent in the western world. And when emotions are shown in research in psychology to be contagious, so that we catch emotions from others, it is not hard to see how emotional contagion is making a significant contribution to the turmoil we have been experiencing. You can’t control what you are not aware of. 

Some people see emotions as “soft” aspects as compared to strength and character.  Many people in the military and in police forces have thought of emotions as “soft”. Historically they have had to fight in wars where they had to be “strong,” and emotions were thought of as an indication that a person was “weak”, as being emotional may mean they couldn’t handle weapons. We live in a different time now, a time

where being aware of inner emotions, how to handle them, and the effect that emotional contagion can have is a strength. But it is not “either-or”, as I talk about in the book, as there are times that we need to suppress emotions to function, and other times where we need to be aware of and sensitive to the emotions we are feeling. This enables us to learn how they affect us and how we should best handle them.

There are many methods of emotional regulation developed in psychology and they have usually been reserved for dealing with various emotional or psychological disorders. It is past time that they need to enter society’s mainstream, as society itself seems to have a disorder, given all the turmoil that has been present. I attempt to help this happen because Emotions Don’t Think. I introduce them in this book along with the application of Emotional Contagion to the mainstream of society.

Are emotions somewhat still a mystery to us?

Yes, very much so. They are abstract, intangible, hard to define. Scientific research has a hard time with emotions so it is not surprising that most people do. Some people have a hard time recognizing their own emotions and tend to push them down instead of accepting them and dealing with them. Clinical psychologists, however, assist people with emotional regulation and we are attempting to do so in this book on a societal-political level, hoping that the mainstream of people will realize the value in looking at ways to manage emotional contagion since it seems so destructive. 

You’ve been working and living inside your new book now for some time – how has it changed from how you first felt about it when you began to now?

Interesting question.  I first started writing the book at the beginning of 2020, based only on the political developments at the time, where it was apparent to me that unbridled emotions were running rampant in the political world without many people being aware of what was happening.  When emotions run rampant, as they were in 2020, you can end up with the annis horribilis, or horrible year, that we had. People need to be aware of the flow of their emotions internally and how they can derail their plans, so they can manage their own emotions, as strong emotions uncurtailed will usually result in an end to a political movement.

What research went into your new book?

One of the disadvantages of my retiring and moving to a new province as I did, where I was semi-retired for five years before fully retiring, is that I lost access to a university library that I had while I was an assistant professor. It was good that I had a membership with two national psychology associations, the Canadian and American Psychological Associations, so I could still have reference to many library resources. I was never a researcher in emotions or emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is a field in social psychology and it has a close link to my area, clinical psychology, because of the spread of contagious emotions like cynicism that occurs when people gather that affects their health. I gathered a lot of material from the internet on the field of emotional contagion that I discuss in the book, especially articles in those areas that are not part of the field of psychology, like newspaper articles on social trends.  I combined that with my knowledge from clinical psychology, experiences with clientele and the perspectives I take on things as a trained psychologist to write the book.

You’ve retired from practicing psychology – what are some of the biggest changes you noticed in your half a century in the field?

When I entered the field in the late 60s psychologists were just moving into the field of providing psychotherapy and counselling. Primarily we were doing psychological testing and diagnostic assessment and still do that in a consultation we provide. But more and more psychologists, particularly those of us in clinical, counselling, health and rehabilitation psychology moved primarily into providing treatment with various forms of psychotherapy and counselling. With the research that psychologists perform into psychotherapies to determine what works, we have developed many various empirically validated approaches, which means treatment approaches that have been proven to work effectively with different people with different problems.  They are available for us to use with people who need psychological therapies. As well, more and more psychologists entered private practice to provide service, whereas earlier on most of us worked in hospitals and other institutions, especially in Canada. I began private practice in the mid-80s and moved into it full-time later in my career.   

You explore something called interpersonal trust and say that this type of human trust is on the decline. Can you elaborate on this?

Almost daily in the news or in our personal lives, we hear about situations that happen that reveal issues of corruption, favoritism, personal enrichment, bribery, patronage, police brutality, etc. So it is hard to trust people because they may be more on guard. People do not necessarily know their neighbors well as they used to decades ago. We have heard of cheating in sports, relatives being awarded government contracts, and many other unscrupulous situations. The Pew Research Centre says that 71% of Americans feel that interpersonal confidence has worsened in the past 20 years and that 49% of Americans think that people are not as reliable as they used to be. People are not as close and as trusting as they used to be, not being sure if they can trust others, some having no one to confide in or share concerns with who they can trust to handle it well. There is more loneliness. There are fewer opportunities to be open and trusting with their emotions and feelings. Doing this is crucial for mental health. This is one of the reasons why mental health and physical health issues are on the increase, as bottling up feelings, emotions and concerns have serious costs on our physical and emotional health. I think this is why emotional contagion is now on the increase, as some people are likely so needy for emotional affection and validation that they absorb it from strangers they observe or people in the public persona through emotional contagion.  

Is emotional contagion a mental illness?  Isn’t emotional contagion a healthy, uplifting phenomenon?

No, and yes. Emotional contagion is an important part of healthy living in our lives. People who are happy and well-adjusted will absorb healthy emotions from others when they assess them as adding to their well-being. When we absorb negative, contagious emotions from others, such as fear, anxiety, anger, cynicism, suspicion and others without being aware of it and managing it, it can contribute to unhealthy emotional, social and mental lives, and can constitute a serious emotional and mental problem and contribute to physical problems. Absorbing unhealthy negative emotions, however, does not constitute a mental illness.     

Why have emotions been overlooked as important in this regard?

Some people are secretly uncomfortable with their own emotions and the emotions of others and prefer a cognitive, rational, thought-based approach to understanding life’s issues so they can get a handle on things. We can be in charge of our thoughts and behavior but our emotions are abstract and hard for some to understand so they often get buried and ignored. The role of emotions is therefore unfortunately overlooked, as many mistakenly regard emotions and even psychology as a “soft” field in comparison to law, medicine, engineering, and others, although physicians, lawyers, police and politicians deal with the negative, often destructive emotions of others on a daily basis. There is no doubt that emotions are one of the most central, crucial part of our existence as human beings and now we are discovering that contagious emotions can affect us in society to the point that they become problematic. As I say in the book, you can’t have turmoil without emotions and so we have to learn to deal with emotions and manage emotional thinking when forming decisions and positions on controversial, important topics to prevent turmoil in society.