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What Is Emotional Contagion?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Emotional contagion is a scientific term describing the way people's moods can spread to other people around them. For example, if one family member or co-worker is particularly happy or sad, everyone else in the group may start to inexplicably feel the same way, sometimes without even realizing what is causing their reaction. There is still some debate about the exact mechanism behind emotional contagion, but there have been numerous studies on its effects, and its occurrence is considered to be fairly well-documented. Some business management experts feel that managing emotions can be crucial to maintaining a positive work environment, and some people have even practiced the use of exaggerated emotions as a way of manipulating others.

One of the primary theories about the mechanism behind emotional contagion is the idea that it is related to ancient animal defense tactics. Most social animals are very sensitive to the moods and behaviors of other animals in their group, often for the sake of self-protection. If there are a group of prairie animals all grazing together, and one of them starts to act panicky, the others will generally become afraid as well, and sometimes the whole group will take off running at the same time. Some group animals have even more complex behaviors based on mood, and whole groups can be taken over with playfulness or nervousness all at once.

Another possible reason for emotional contagion in humans is empathy. Most people automatically try to understand how those around them feel so that they can get a better sense of where everyone is coming from. In order to do this, they often actually try to experience other people's emotions, which could potentially lead to experiencing the same moods. Many people also unconsciously mimic the facial expressions and mannerisms of others, which might have a tendency to inspire certain moods.

Emotional contagion is thought to be a major factor in business productivity, and the fact that negative emotions seem to have a stronger effect than positive emotions is one of the main reasons. If there is one person in a room who's feeling especially down, all those around him could be pulled into a vortex of negativity, which could make everyone perform less effectively. It's also thought that emotional contagion might play a big role in the quality of a person's family life.

Some people have tried to make use of emotional contagion as a way of purposefully affecting people's moods and decisions. For example, a salesman might put on an act of extreme happiness as a way to make everyone in his audience feel the same way and hopefully help persuade them to purchase his product. Similar tactics could also be used by a manager at a business to help make workers feel more positive.

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Discussion Comments
By Telsyst — On Feb 28, 2014

Our moods don't just respond to the emotions of those around us, but also to less noticeable external factors.

For example, studies have shown that reading something written in red ink makes us angry and anxious.

In addition, yellow or white walls in a doctor's office or other uncomfortable place is said to instantly affect mood.

By Glasis — On Feb 28, 2014

You're right, Certlerant, phony people can be disconcerting. But, being around someone who is constantly depressed or negative is just as bad.

There is nothing worse than watching one person constantly work to bring down everyone else in a group or meeting.

By Certlerant — On Feb 27, 2014

Those with even the slightest degree of emotional attunement can usually tell when someone is feigning positivity or happiness, such as the salesman mentioned in the article.

This tactic can backfire because, although people appreciate the effort to keep everyone happy, most people feel awkward or uncomfortable around a person who is abnormally positive or upbeat, especially if the person always acts that way.

Everybody has bad days, and people just naturally feel more comfortable around and relate better to those who display a normal emotional range like everyone else.

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