The science behind why people get so mad on BART

It always happens so fast. One minute, you’re all squished like sardines in a BART car, unhappy but coexisting. Then, one person muscles in, mumbling and cursing about everyone else. Soon, there’s more mumbling and, in the blink of an eye, a confrontation. Two or more commuters shouting at each other, leaving everyone else avoiding eye contact and counting the minutes left confined in the Transbay Tube.

Is there something about public transit that makes people disproportionately angry so fast, often over seemingly small slights? Research says yes.

According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, your brain responds when you’re confronted with a strange face in your personal space bubble. Neural signals fire, resulting in feelings of irritation or anxiety. Losing personal space — a physical zone that’s different for everyone — can amplify negative feelings, the research found. It’s likely a deep-seated need: maintaining defensible personal space is a safety necessity.

But personal space isn’t about pure numbers. It’s about density, a problem BART riders know all too well.

The famous behavioral sink mice experiment, published in Scientific American in 1962, put larger and larger populations of mice into enclosed spaces. At peak population, mouse society broke down: females neglected their babies, violence spiked and health declined.

At the time, it was thought overpopulation was the problem. Today, scientists who have replicated the experiment with humans believe it’s not quantity that make us lose control. It’s our declining personal space; as that diminishes, the amount of social interaction increases. Too much social interaction, and everyone’s behavior sinks.

You probably already instinctively knew this. Even if you’re not the type to start a fight over getting a seat, even the most mild-mannered soul feels their hackles rise on a crowded train.

There’s another emotional component: behavioral contagion. For the purposes of this BART thought experiment, the phenomenon occurs when the rules of polite society are turned down. It’s often the result of one or two individuals. In a group-based society or situation, various social pressures keep most people in line. But once one person breaks the rules, it’s like everyone has been given permission to do so. An extreme example of this are hysterical contagions, like the uncontrolled dancing outbreaks of the Middle Ages. Once one person went wild, the effect carried through the community.

In the case of your 5:05 p.m. Richmond train, everyone was loosely holding it together until one furious person screamed, “Move in!” The conversation thus breached, everyone is more likely to pop off.

Similarly, psychologists talk about the concept of emotional contagion. It has two steps. The first is non-conscious mimicry, like frowning back when someone frowns at you. The second step is an actual transference of emotions. In essence, by frowning, you’ve now made yourself sad.

“Thus, when you encounter a co-worker on a bad day, you may unknowingly pick up your colleague’s nonverbal behaviors and begin to morph into an unhappy state,” Monmouth University professor Dr. Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr. told Scientific American.

Researchers have found lots of evidence emotional contagion is more potent with negative emotions than positive ones. There’s an evolutionary imperative behind this; it’s more important for your lizard brain to perceive negative or threatening emotions than something more innocuous, like happiness. So when that angry person turns to you, you might mirror their rage, even without realizing it.

So what should you do to keep yourself from hitting the (literal or metaphorical) roof on BART?

— Understand your limitations and personal space needs. If possible, get past the first wave of commuters near the train doors to give yourself a little more space further into the car. Or, even though it feels like forever, wait five more minutes for that Pleasant Hill train. Your mental health will thank you.

— Be conscious of your mood. Are you really that mad or did a small irritation turn into a blow-up because someone else is furious? Take a deep breath and recalibrate.

— Focus on something — anything — else. Your book, a podcast, put on some music that drowns out a bit of that infuriating mumbling. You’re so close to home. You’re going to make it.

Katie Dowd is an SFGATE Senior Digital Editor. Contact: katie.dowd@sfgate.com | Twitter: @katiedowd

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/emotional-contagion-public-transit-rage-SF-BART-14361422.php.

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