Emotional Contagion

Emotional Contagion Definition

Emotional ContagionEmotional contagion is the phenomenon that individuals tend to express and feel emotions that are similar to those of others. When someone tells you with a big smile that she passed an important test, you smile as well. If, on the other hand, your friend tells you his father passed away last week, you feel depressed, not so much because of the recollection of your friend’s father, whom you don’t know, but mainly because your friend is so sad. In other words, you do not only observe your friend’s emotions, but they also affect your own emotional expressions and emotional state. Thus, emotional contagion is a form of social influence.

Emotional Contagion Context and Function

Emotional contagion may occur between two persons but also in larger groups. Think of collective rage that spreads among a group of workers when facing their superiors, who argue that the financial cuts are a necessary measure to make the organization healthy again; or the panic that flows through a community, because of a series of crimes committed in the neighborhood; or of the shared sentiments of a crowd moved by a speech of their leader. In all of these cases, emotions are, in large part, elicited because people catch each other’s emotions: People are sad, elated, frightened, or angry because they see others in their immediate surroundings experiencing these emotions.

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Why would emotional contagion occur? The most important function of emotional contagion is that it smoothens social interactions and facilitates mutual involvement and emotional closeness, because it helps to synchronize and coordinate the interaction. Communication is simply better when you have the feeling that another person understands your feelings and feels with you rather than when the other person is completely unaware of your emotions. This not only would lead to a better conversation, but it may also improve feelings of intimacy or friendship with the other person. A similar function applies to larger groups where emotional contagion enhances positive feelings between ingroup members (and sometimes negative feelings toward outgroup members) and thus strengthens social bonds.

Emotional Contagion Explanations and Evidence

Emotional contagion has been described as a multiply determined process, consisting of both automatic processing of others’ nonverbal displays as well as more conscious information processing of others’ emotional expressions and behavior. To date, most research has been focused on the first aspect of emotional contagion, which has been referred to as automatic mimicry: We unconsciously tend to mimic and synchronize our own nonverbal expressions with the nonverbal expressions of other people. Thus, we smile, frown, move, cry, sit, or stand in the same way as others, without necessarily being aware of our copying behavior. The bodily feedback from this mimicry would change our subjective feelings accordingly. In other words, we do not merely smile, or frown, but our smiling or frowning makes us feel happy, or angry, in accordance with these nonverbal displays. Various studies have provided support for automatic mimicry. For example, individuals show more happy and sad faces in response to movie characters or mere photos showing the same expressions; they start yawning or laughing when seeing others yawn or laugh; individuals even imitate others by tapping their feet, stuttering, or expressing pain. It is less clear, however, to what extent persons also feel similar emotions as a result of this mimicry.

In addition to this more automatic mimicking behavior, individuals may try to empathize or identify with another person at a more conscious level, resulting in feeling and expressing similar emotions.

There are different factors that may facilitate emotional contagion. The first factor relates to the nature of the relationship between persons, namely, empathy. When individuals love, like, or identify with others or share their goals, they are more likely to catch the other person’s emotions. More intimate relationships are therefore characterized more by emotional contagion than are relations between professionals or between strangers. Indeed, it has been shown that dating partners and college roommates became more emotionally similar over a year. This emotional contagion effect applied to both positive and negative emotional reactions to events and could not be explained by increasing similarity in personality variables. In addition, the amount of empathy one may feel with the other person also reflects individual differences: Some individuals are simply better able to empathize than others. Finally, empathy may also occur in less intimate relations. Here, empathy may depend on whether one shares goals or not. For example, the expectation to cooperate with another person leads to more empathy.

Other potential determinants of emotional contagion have hardly been studied empirically. One factor may relate to the nature of the event eliciting the emotions in the first place. We may expect others’ emotions to be more contagious when the nature of the eliciting event can be interpreted in different ways. For example, should one feel anxious (or calm) when in a waiting room for a medical test, or should one feel angry (or sad, or happy) at the George W. Bush administration for the war in Iraq? Still another important factor may be the intensity of others’ emotional expressions and the nature of these emotions. When expressions are more intense, they may be more contagious; on the other hand, some emotions may be more contagious in nature than other emotions. For example, it is harder not to smile when someone smiles at you than it is not to frown when someone frowns at you.

Emotional Contagion Implications

Emotional contagion may explain specific group behaviors, as well as the emotional development of interpersonal relations. Most research has focused on automatic mimicry, testing this phenomenon in different contexts and with various nonverbal behaviors. However, the phenomenon is still rather unexplored and needs further examination, in particular with respect to the conditions under which it occurs.


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