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Believing in "Bad Vibes"

Exploring the science of emotional residues



iStock/Deborah Cheramie

Imagine that your co-worker has just moved into a new office. The woman who used to work there spent many unhappy months in the office complaining about her job. In fact, she ended up quitting in a fit of rage. Upon moving into the office, your co-worker tells you that she senses some “bad energy” leftover from the previous employee. Would you believe her? Or would you think she’s a tad crazy?

Or imagine instead that you’re choosing between two apartments. They are identical with one exception: you happen to know that the former tenant in one of the apartments was an extremely happy, joyful person. Would you be more inclined to choose that apartment, based on an expectation that you might experience some lingering good feelings?

Your answers reflect how much you believe in “emotional residue,” which is the idea that emotions can hang around a physical environment, long after their owners have left. New research suggests that at a gut level, most of us believe that emotional residue exists. However, the culture we’ve grown up in determines the extent to which we consciously and openly endorse those beliefs.

Krishna Savani of Columbia University, along with his colleagues, ran several identical studies using both American and Indian participants. In an initial study, he asked participants whether it’s possible for emotions to travel outside of the human body. Many of the Indian participants agreed with this possibility, while most Americans disagreed with it. However, when Savani measured people’s beliefs in more subtle ways, he found that both Americans and Indians seem to believe strongly in emotional residue.

He had participants from both countries read scenarios about David, a college freshman who moves into a new dorm room. The previous student who lived in the room was described as having spent a lot of time there feeling either very happy or depressed. Savani asked his participants to predict how David would feel a couple of weeks after living in his new room. Both Indians and Americans predicted that David would feel similarly to the student who had lived there before. In other words, he’d feel happy if the previous student had been happy and sad if the previous student had been sad.

Using a different scenario, Savani looked at people’s beliefs about how emotional residue influences other people’s behavior. He had participants read about Margaret who sublets an apartment from a woman named Alice. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Alice spent the last couple of months in the apartment feeling very sad, due to problems she was having with her boyfriend. Margaret moves into the empty apartment and immediately begins feeling very happy. Savani asked his participants, “To what extent do you think Margaret’s behavior is surprising?” Both Americans and Indians said they found Margaret’s behavior surprising. They expected her to feel sad after moving into a space that had witnessed so much recent sadness.

In a final study, Savani looked at whether beliefs in emotional residue influence people’s actual behavior. He ran an experiment where he gave people a choice of two different rooms in which to fill out a survey. The sign on the door of one room indicated that the previous occupants had spent the past two hours recalling happy life events. The sign on the other door indicated that the previous occupants had spent the last couple of hours remembering unhappy life events. He then made note of which room the participants chose to enter. Savani found that the majority of both Americans and Indians chose to fill out their surveys in the room where they thought people had previously spent time recalling happy memories.

To find out whether people chose the room simply because it was associated with more positive feelings, Savani also examined his participants’ beliefs in emotional residue. He discovered that people who were more likely to believe in emotional residue were also more likely to choose the room with the happy sign. Therefore, beliefs in emotional residue, and not general positivity, seemed to be driving his results.

In India, people often burn incense to clear out emotional residue. Americans may engage in similar rituals in their attempts to get rid of “bad energy.” Such rituals could include anything from keeping windows open, to saying prayers, to aromatherapy. An article published in the New York Times earlier this year profiled a feng shui expert who, for a fee, helps new apartment dwellers clear out the negative energy accumulated by previous tenants.

Beliefs in emotional residue have some interesting implications for behavior. For example, might people be willing to pay less for a home or office after being told that the previous occupants experienced a lot of negative emotions there? Might someone choose a less beautiful home over a more beautiful one, if the less beautiful house was thought to have less emotional residue? The answer to these questions may depend on how long people believe that emotional residue tends to hang around.

The question of whether emotional residue actually exists remains to be answered, but intriguing new research suggests that it may have biological underpinnings. A well-publicized study from earlier this year demonstrated that human tears emit a chemical that other people detect and respond to. Specifically, women’s tears were shown to reduce testosterone and sexual arousal in men. Research by Wen Zhou and Denise Chen of Rice University have demonstrated that human sweat glands emit distinct chemicals when people experience different emotions. In addition, they showed evidence that other people can sense those chemicals at a later point in time. Taken together, these new findings suggest that our intuitive beliefs in emotional residue may be more than just superstition.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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