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117. Identifying empathy and mental imagery as mechanisms underlying the contagious spread of worries
Studies show that anxiety disorders spread within social networks, but we lack insight into the mechanisms underlying this contagion. Because basic research shows that i) empathy facilitates vicarious fear learning and ii) mental imagery amplifies emotions, we hypothesized that these processes could mediate the spread of worries (a central symptom of generalized anxiety disorder). In Study 1, 165 participants were told they would see extremely distressing pictures that could cause intrusive mental images (“flashbacks”). Participants rated how worried they felt and wrote their thoughts about the upcoming study before seeing ratings and text ostensibly provided by another participant. We manipulated these stimuli so the other participant was either extremely worried about the upcoming study or they were calm. Participants rerated how anxious they felt and again wrote their thoughts about the study. Both self-reported worry and use of anxiety-related words when writing about the study significantly increased following exposure to the worried partner but not the calm partner. Thus Study 1 induced contagious worries, and Study 2 used this paradigm to test mediating mechanisms. Results from 218 participants showed that worry contagion was related to both empathy and vivid mental imagery of anticipated distressing pictures. These studies establish experimental methods for investigating worry contagion and suggest that modulating empathic responses and/or mental imagery might “inoculate” individuals against this contagion.