When you hear someone sneeze, what do you do? Back away? Move closer?
Most of us wouldn’t move closer because we know that there could be contagious germs coming from that sneeze, and that we could catch them. But what if I told you that our emotions tend to be even more contagious than any sneeze germs? That whether we intend to or not, we are constantly sending and receiving emotional messages, and catching each other’s emotions. It’s an effect known as emotional contagion.
This phenomenon illustrates the importance of being aware of and managing emotions – of practicing emotional intelligence. Because as we’ll see, emotions spread through a number of mechanisms, most of which we’re not even aware of as they are happening. And the better we understand how emotional contagion works, the more we can make it work for us. Let’s take a look at the science behind it all.
Gesundheit! The Surprising Case of Emotional Contagion
Research reveals the many ways emotions spread, its impact on groups, and how we can leverage this phenomenon for optimal performance
Why Emotional Contagion Is Constantly Happening
To understand the phenomenon of emotional contagion, it helps to understand the basics about emotions. What’s the purpose of emotions? They serve to focus our attention and motivate us to action in a way that helps us survive and thrive. They provide information about our interior world and about our relationships. And for this survival function to operate optimally, we are highly sensitive to emotional signals in the environment. One person’s emotions are affected by others’. Just as herd animals would benefit from rapidly passing messages about risk and reward, emotional contagion seems to be adaptive for humans to function in groups. This system can enable a rapid communication of opportunity and risk, mediate a group interaction, and help humans attend to social rules and norms such as maintaining harmonious interaction with a powerful ally.
Did you know we ‘catch’ emotions from others – even when we’re not consciously paying attention? It’s the neural basis of empathy & it tells us a lot about our relationshipsClick to tweet
This sensitivity, this process of catching others’ emotional states, is known as emotional contagion. And research has found that emotional contagion happens through a number of mechanisms – maybe because the quicker we can get and understand this valuable emotional data, the better.
Some of these make total sense; others made me stop and say, “Really?”
From Posture to Facebook Drama, Emotions Spread Through Various Mechanisms
Studies of mood and human behavior have shown that feelings spread from one person to another through a number of mechanisms.
In a landmark study from the Universität Würzburg in Germany, researchers found that voice inflection is one verbal cue that transmits emotional data. In the study, participants were asked to listen to an emotionally impartial speech read by an actor using happy, sad, or neutral voice inflection. When later asked to rate their emotions, participants reported having emotions consistent with those of the speaker. Furthermore, when asked to rate their attitude toward the speaker, participants consistently liked the speaker with the sad voice least. 
Non-verbal communication cues, including facial expressions, posture, and specific behavioral patterns, have also been linked to the transmission of emotional data between people.  This matches up with my own experience. Growing up, my dad (who was a loving, caring father) had a tendency when he was angry to be completely silent – but I could still feel his emotional state by the way he looked, the tightness of his facial muscles, and the way he walked. This is important to keep in mind: we’re all transmitting emotional data, and others are often catching it, even if we don’t intend to. Silently sulking in our own misery doesn’t actually spare others in the way we think that it does. Emotions spread in many ways.
Emotional contagion works in many ways, so sulking silently isn’t a very effective way to hide emotionsClick to tweet
So does that mean we have to be with someone for emotional contagion to occur? Actually, no. Research from Facebook found that the number of positive or negative posts a user saw influenced the content of users’ future posts – evidence that emotions can be contagious even in the absence of face-to-face interaction and nonverbal cues. 
Emotional contagion can occur through a number of mechanisms, which often work in tandem but don’t have to, as evidenced by the study from Facebook.
But considering this, how does emotional contagion play out in groups? Sigal Barsade’s experiments at Yale University provide amazing insight into the role of emotional contagion in groups, especially when it’s the leader’s emotions, and the impact that the group’s mood has on performance.
Spreading Like a Virus
In Barsade’s experiments at Yale, a trained actor was placed within group contexts and directed to participate in the groups’ activities while enacting varying levels of pleasantness and energy. The groups were working to assign a pay bonus; they had a fixed amount of money they could spend and had to allocate it based on a set of performance criteria. After the activities were completed, participants were asked to complete self-assessments of their mood. Results of the study clearly suggested that the effect of one group member’s emotions had an unconscious affect on the mood of the other group members. This held true both for “positive” and “negative” moods .
There are different opinions of the effect of positional power / authority on mood contagion. It may be that those with authority and those who are either liked or respected have a greater effect. What is clear is that leaders affect the group mood:
“In a study of the influence of the contagion of mood of a group leader on group members, the positive mood of the leader positively influenced group members at both the individual and collective level with the opposite for leader negative mood. The leader’s positive mood also had a subsequent influence on group coordination and effort”
Emotional Contagion and Performance
Given that mood is contagious, one important consideration is the effect of mood on performance. Some authors focus on the idea that “positive” moods have a positive effect on performance, but in reality sometimes a “negative” mood is appropriate.
In the Barsade study discussed above, a negative group member seemed to disrupt the groups and reduce efficacy, while having a positive confederate was associated with increased cooperation, fewer group conflicts, and heightened task performance. Likewise, in a similar study, Alice Isen assessed radiologists, finding positive mood enhanced their accuracy. Positive mood has a far-reaching effect on work performance, supervision, decision-making, and even on team members voluntarily acting for the good of the organization .
On the other hand, in some situations a “bad mood” is more effective. For example, Elsbach and Barr found that people in negative moods use a more structured approach to decision-making. Here’s a quick breakdown of times when a positive mood would be most effective, and times when a negative mood would be appropriate:
Benefits: Promotes creative problem solving, efficiency in decision-making, and thoroughness in performing tasks
Costs: Promotes risk aversion, leads to susceptibility – difficulty discerning weak and strong arguments and being easily persuaded by peripheral cues (e.g. expert label)
Benefits: More likely to use a structured decision protocol completely and correctly, and less likely to rely on peripheral cues
Costs: Increased pessimism and negative judgments of others, Increase risk taking when potential benefits/losses are large 
Please Spread Emotions Responsibly
The evidence that an individual’s feelings affect others – and that these feelings in turn affect performance – illustrates the importance of being aware of and managing emotions, especially for leaders, educators, salespeople, parents, politicians, athletes – really any person concerned with their influence on others.
One challenge is that this emotional exchange can occur without conscious attention. In other words, whether they know it or not, people are affecting others. If emotional intelligence allows people to monitor and manage this exchange, developing emotional intelligence will improve people’s ability to successfully interact with others.
My current goal is to simply be more aware of my own emotional state and when I feel like I am catching others’ emotions. If you have any helpful tips for how to do that, please leave a comment as I am happy to learn from each other.
If you are interested in learning more about emotional intelligence and how to improve yours, I recommend reading Get Started with Emotional Intelligence. It’s short, simple and powerful.
Or to dive deeper into emotional contagion, download our white paper and free slides by clicking on the button below.
Joshua Freedman is COO of Six Seconds – The Emotional Intelligence Network; he is the author of At the Heart of Leadership, the SEI Leadership Report, and the Organizational Vital Signs climate assessment.
 Neumann, R., & Strack, F. (2000). “Mood contagion”: The automatic transfer of mood between persons. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (2), 211-223.
 Gallese, V. (2006). Intentional attunement: A neuropsychological perspective on social cognition and its disruption in autism. Brain Research, 1079. 15-24.  Adam D. I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory and Jeffrey T. Hancock (2014). “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.” PNAS 2014 June, 111 (24).  Barsade, S.G. (2002). The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47 (4), 644-675.  Barsade, S.G., & Gibson, D.E. (2007). Why does affect matter in organizations? Academy of Management Perspectives, 36-59.  Elsbach, K., & Barr, P. (1999). Effects of mood on individuals’ use of structure decision protocols. Organization Science, 10 (2), 181-198.
- EQ Drives Team Performance Across Industries in the UK - May 14, 2020
- Feeling Pain to Clarify Purpose: What Can COVID-19 Teach Us About the Climate Crisis? - April 30, 2020
- 3 Habits to Maintain Hope in the Face of Adversity - April 6, 2020