Emotional Contagion

What Is Emotional Contagion?

Emotional contagion is the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expression Opens in new window, vocalizations Opens in new window, postures Opens in new window, and movements Opens in new window with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally.

In principle, emotional contagion occurs when you unconsciously “catch” the emotions of others from their expressions (as you might catch a cold). Thus, we talk about contagious fear and infectious laughter (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994; Provine, 1997).

Most social psychologists agree that emotional “packages” comprise many components such as conscious awareness; facial, vocal, and postural expression; neurophysiological and autonomic nervous system activity; and instrumental behaviors.

Different portions of the brain process the various aspects of emotion. Yet—because the brain integrates the emotional information it receives— each of the emotional components acts on and is acted upon by the others.

Emotional contagion is like noticing that other weavers are using a particular thread color, say for example, green, and starting to use same green color yourself, even without being consciously aware of doing so. Many examples of emotional contagion are found in accounts of war, when soldiers infect one another with either fear or courage, and children pick up on either the fear or the courage of their parents.

Emotional contagion is a largely involuntary response to other people’s emotional expressions, but the exact mechanism is unclear. It may come from mimicking or modeling others’ expressions, but we do know that it cannot involve sophisticated mental processes because infants “catch” others’ emotions so readily. Even newborns cry in response to the distress cries of other newborns. Children pick up on their parents’ depression and are likely to become less content and more withdrawn themselves (Downey & Coyne, 1990; Gotlib & Whiffen, 1991: 191-196).

The Mechanism of Emotional Contagion

There is considerable evidence that the process of emotional contagion occurs in three stages:

  1. Mimicry
    People appear to automatically mimic or synchronize their facial expressions, vocal productions, postures, and movements with those around them. Daters, for example, might catch themselves mimicking their date’s silly giggle or angry, sarcastic demeanor. People are capable of doing this with startling rapidity, automatically mimicking or synchronizing a number of emotional characteristics in a single instant.
  2. Feedback
    People tend to feel pale reflections of emotions consistent with the facial, vocal, and postural expressions they adopt. The link between facial, vocal, and postural expression appears be quite specific. When people mimic expressions of fear, anger, sadness, or disgust, they tend to feel a pale reflection not just of any unpleasant emotion but with those specific expressions (e.g., those who mimic a sad expression feel sadness, not anger or shame). For example, college students assigned to share a room with a deeply troubled roommate may start feeling increasingly anxious and depressed themselves during the semester.
  3. Contagion
    As a consequence, people tend, from moment-to-moment, to “catch” others’ emotions.

People's Susceptibility to Emotional Contagion

The Emotional Contagion Scale (ECS)—developed and translated into many languages including Finnish, German, Greek, Telugu, Japanese, Portuguese, and Swedish—is designed to assess people’s susceptibility to catching joy and happiness, love, fear and anxiety, anger, and sadness and depression, as well as emotions in general.

Personality theorists who have administered this scale in a variety of cultures have discovered that there are cultural, personality, gender, and situational differences in peoples’ susceptibility to emotional contagion. People are most likely to catch others’ emotions in two kinds of relationships—those involving love or power.

We are particularly susceptible to contagion in the company of those we like and love and those who possess power over us. Thus, we see cases where highly expressive people influence less expressive people more than the reverse (Sullins, 1991). Powerless people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than powerful people. People who are sensitive and responsive to others are more likely to catch emotions from others; people who are insensitive are more likely to infect others with their own feelings. Individuals are more susceptible to the emotional tone of groups than groups are to those of individuals (Hatfield et al., 1994).

Closeness is also a factor, both literally and figuratively. Since contagion operates through emotional expression, the susceptible person must be able to observe the other’s expressions, which is most likely when they are in physical proximity. Closeness in the sense of intimacy also facilitates emotional contagion; people who like or love one another are more likely to experience emotional contagion than are strangers or enemies (Hatfield et al., 1994: 167-174).

The pitfall of emotional contagion is that it is possible to be either too susceptible or infectious. You can be so sensitive to others’ emotions that you are more in touch with theirs than with your own.

Nathanson (1987: 285) notes that “One of the little discussed phenomena of family dynamics is our willingness to accept the mood of the dominant member.” You can be overwhelmed, buffeted about, and outright victimized by others’ feelings. Developing skills at countercontagion may be important to you (Cappella, 1995).

On the infecting side, you can be so expressive that you overwhelm others and force your emotions on them. The trick, then, seems to be to achieve a balanced sensitivity to your own and other people’s feelings and to be aware of the effects they are having.

Emotional Contagion vs Empathy: Their Relatedness

Emotional contagion may be a more primitive form of empathyOpens in new window that lays the groundwork for later, more sophisticated developments (Barnett, 1987; Thompson, 1987).

Both emotional contagion and empathy involve feeling with other people. In case of emotional contagion, one person catches the other’s emotions from his expressions and they become her own, but in the case of empathy, one person imagines herself in the other person’s position and feels the emotions that go along with it. For example, you may empathize with someone else’s embarrassment when you see him being forced to sing the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” but you know that you are identifying with his emotions. You are not feeling them directly yourself. You feel his embarrassment, but he is the one who is making a fool of himself (R.S. Miller, 1987).

Although newborns are capable of emotional contagion, true empathic abilities develop only when children come to recognize others as separate individuals with their own subjective states. So, empathy begins to appear at ages 2 to 3 years, perhaps from the groundwork laid by emotional contagion (Hoffman, 1987:51).

The conditions that facilitate empathy are similar to those that facilitate emotional contagion—similarity, physical co-presence, and familiarity with one another (Barnett, 1987: 154-155; Hoffman, 1987: 67).

It is easier to empathize with someone who is a lumberjack like you, is standing next to you, and has been your co-worker for years than it is to empathize with the foreman sitting in his office over there whom you have just met. In addition, expecting a cooperative interaction facilitates empathy, whereas expecting completion tends to make people counterempathic. If you think you will have to work with your co-worker but against your foreman to hammer out a contract, you will tend to empathize with the co-worker rather than with the foreman (Lanzetta & Englis, 1989).