Emotional Contagion: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Key Takeaways

  • Emotional contagion, first characterized by Elaine Hatfield, describes how people who observe the emotions and behaviors of another tend to copy those emotions and behaviors. For instance, when someone smiles happily around others, those around them are more likely to smile and feel happy.
  • Emotional contagion can spread through facial expressions, vocal tone, and posture. Emotional contagion can arise from interactions between people as well as interactions between people and non-humans.
  • Not everyone is affected by emotional contagion in the same way; Verbeke categorizes people according to their ability to “catch” and transmit emotions.
  • Advertisers and technology companies have long utilized emotional contagion to associate positive feelings with their brands. This has been derided by some critics as “emotional engineering.”
Emotional Contagion
Emotional contagion refers to the phenomenon where people unconsciously ‘catch’ the emotions of those around them, resulting in a transfer of mood between individuals in a group.

Definition and Background

Emotional contagion is a phenomenon where the observed behavior of one individual leads to the reflexive production of the same behavior by others.

These “copiers” then feel the same emotions as the person who made the original behavior change (Panksepp and Lahvis, 2011).

Behavior can be transmitted by facial expressions, voice, posture, movements, and other instrumental behaviors from one person to another (Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson, 1994).

The recognition of emotions according to facial expressions is universal in world cultures (Brown, 2004), and facial expressions can communicate emotions ranging from approval to expectations and emotions.

Thus, facial expressions have an important social and psychological role in human interaction.

Emotional contagion arises from studies that show that observers witnessing a facial expression have an “affective” (emotional) response that mimics the emotions expressed by the person with the original facial expression (Hess and Blairy, 2001; Lundqvist, 1995).

Researchers such as Barger and Grandey (2006) attribute this mimicry to an attempt to “affiliate or empathize with others.”

As early as 1759, economic philosophers such as Adam Smith observed that people imagine themselves in each other’s situations and display “motor mimicry” (Hatfield, 1993).

Indeed, theorists on emotions, such as Theodor Lipps, contended that empathy was caused by motor mimicry of others’ expressions of emotions.

The Emotional Contagion Hypothesis

Elaine Hatfield (1993) was the first to suggest the emotional contagion hypothesis and defined emotional contagion as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”

Early sources suggest that emotions can be “caught” in several ways, including, as Adam Smith argued, conscious reasoning, analysis, and imagination.

However, Hatfield (1993) offers several propositions about the causes of emotional contagion and believes that the causes of emotional contagion are more “subtle, automatic, and ubiquitous than previous theorists have supposed.” Hatfield outlines two main mechanisms: mimicry and feedback.

Sources of Emotional Contagion

Hatfield (1993) notes that people automatically and continuously mimic and synchronize the facial expressions, voices, postures, movements, and instrumental behaviors of others.

Hatfield draws on the research of social psychophysiologists who had found that facial mimicry can be nearly instantaneous and that people’s facial expressions, as measured by electromyographic procedures, tend to reflect, at least on a rudimentary level, on the changes in the emotional expression of the people they are observing.

College students, as one study showed, can synchronize their facial movements within 21 milliseconds (Hatfield, 1993).

In one such study, Ulf Dimberg of the University of Uppsala measured the facial electromyographic activity of students as they observed people with happy and angry facial expressions.

Participants who saw happy facial expressions had more muscle activity in the muscles of the cheeks, and those who saw angry facial expressions had increased muscular activity in the brow muscle regions (Dimberg, 2012). Mimicry crosses age boundaries.

Other researchers have found that infants mimic facial expressions shortly after birth. This pattern of mimicry, Hatfield observed, is not limited to facial expressions.

For example, conversational partners who rate their conversations positively show similar speaking durations, rate of speech, and latencies of response. Similar behavior has been observed in posture and general body movements (Hatfield, 1993).

Emotional Contagion and Facial Feedback

Hatfield (1993) also proposes that the activation of and feedback from facial, vocal, postural, and movement mimicry can affect the subjective emotional experience.

To do so, she drew on Charles Darwin, who argued that emotional experience should be affected by feedback from facial muscles. Another influence was reviews of literature contemporary to her research, which showed that emotions could be enhanced or subverted to some extent by facial feedback.

Hatfield notes that researchers used three strategies to get participants to adopt emotional facial expressions.

Firstly, researchers may ask participants to exaggerate or hide their emotional reactions, create spatial arrangements that will lead to participants unconsciously mimicking the facial expressions of others, or “try to ‘trick’ subjects into adopting various facial expressions” (Hatfield, 1993).

Regardless of the method of inducing facial expressions, researchers have found that the emotional experiences of their participants tend to be affected by their facial expressions.

In one example of such an experiment, James Laird attached sensors to the faces of participants between their eyebrows, on their mouths, and on the corners of their jaws.

The experimenter used these electrodes to shape the facial expressions of participants into different emotional expressions. Laird found that this shaping of facial expressions led to changes in how participants perceived their own emotions.

For example, those whose facial expressions had been fixed to a frown felt less happy than those whose faces had been fixed to a smile (Laird, 1992).

In another study, Ekman et al. researchers asked participants to produce one of six emotions — surprise, disgust, sadness, anger, fear, or happiness — by reliving an emotional past event or arranging their facial muscles to mimic these expressions.

They then measured the activity of the autonomic nervous system, which controls physiological processes associated with emotion, such as heart rate and blood pressure.

The researchers found that both reliving emotional experiences and flexing facial muscles produced effects in the autonomic nervous system equivalent to feeling those emotions (Ekman et al., 1983).

All in all, these studies showed that people are likely to feel the emotion associated with the facial expressions that they have (Hatfield, 1993).

Emotional contagion can also encompass verbal and postural feedback. People’s emotions can influence intonation. For example, Scherer (2003) reports that happy people produce sounds with small amplitude variation, large pitch variation, fast tempo, a sharp sound envelope, and few harmonics.

Building off this communications research, one study from Hatfield et al. (1993) showed that when asked to replicate sound patterns with characteristics associated with joy, love, anger, fear, or sadness, these emotions impacted those of the participants.

Transmissibility of Emotional Contagion

Some people are more susceptible to transmitting or “catching” emotions than others (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016). Verbeke (1997) categorizes these people on two axes: those who are “powerful transmitters of emotions” and others who “might be powerful catchers of emotions.”

Because these traits are not mutually exclusive, Verbeke created four categories of people: charismatics, empathetic, brands, and explansives. Charismatics, according to Verbeke, can both infect and easily catch emotions.

Empathetics catch emotions easily but are less likely to infect others with their emotions.

Expansives readily infect others but are unlikely to catch emotions (this may be evidenced, for example, by their insensitive behaviors).

Blands, meanwhile, are unlikely to infect or be infected by emotions (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

The transmissibility of emotions can be altered by whether or not the emotion is congruent or incongruent with a behavior.

Aylward (2008) details that when participants see an emotion incongruent with a behavior (for example, a cashier who fails to smile at a customer), they will take on the emotions more slowly and less intensely than when the observed actions are congruent with the person’s emotion.


Emotional Contagion and Technology

Companies and researchers have recently designed studies that simulate emotional contagion among people online.

In particular, these researchers are interested in the questions of how people express emotions online and how people “catch” the emotions of others through the sheen of social media and other digital communications (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

Scholars argue that emotional contagion can stem from the interactions mediated by technology and the technology itself (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

This can have both positive and negative effects. For example, automated call center software incapable of detecting nuanced changes in conversation can irritate customers.

There are also several limitations to spreading emotional contagion online, as even video conferences can decrease the relevance of personal identity and present few opportunities to mimic body posture and rapid emotional reactions (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

Marketing and Emotional Contagion

Practically, creating positive emotional contagion has become a so-called “marketing imperative” (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016). In Japanese shops, for example, some marketers have used “smile-scanning software” to analyze smiles, eye movements, lip curvature, and facial wrinkles.

The results of such have been used to train employees to display more genuine smiles. Those who go through such training report increased customer satisfaction (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016). Such initiatives fall under the category of “emotional engineering.”

Advertisers can tailor positive or negative emotions to specific tasks, groups, or periods. Historically, the advertising industry, over the past several decades, has been using emotion research to weave together compelling, memorable narratives and to create positive associations with brands (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

This “emotional engineering” has garnered attention and controversy from companies such as Facebook, which sponsored a study that sought to verify the effects that manipulating the emotional tone of posts from friends had on Facebook users (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

Meanwhile, some companies have attempted to couple emotional contagion with technology itself. In one such Coca-Cola marketing initiative, the company created two campaigns that intended to elicit happiness from customers and link positive emotions to Coca-Cola products.

Customers who bought Coca-Cola from vending machines in the south of Brazil, for example, heard Coca-Cola’s signature “happiness everywhere” song when the drink was dispensed.

In Singapore, the machine dispensed bottles only after people “hugged” the machine. Reportedly, people who witnessed these initiatives “caught” the emotions they intended to transmit (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

Movies and Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion can be transmitted by media as well as face-to-face interactions.

For example, several studies have demonstrated that so-called Dunchenne smiles (smiles indicative of emotion, typically with creased eyes) appear when participants watch pleasant movies (Giuliana and Carvalho, 2016).

One such study to demonstrate this effect is Ekman (1993). Emotional contagion transmitted through video does not just apply to positive emotions.

For example, when watching people in disgust, people tended to replicate a disgusted facial expression (Bavelas et al. 1986), and those who watched videotapes of people describing the happiest or saddest events of their lives tended to feel happier or sadder, respectively (Hsee, Hatfield, Carlson, and Chemtob, 1990).

Emotional Contagion: Visual vs. Auditory Stimulus

Emotional contagion can spread to people through both exclusively aural and exclusively visual means. One of the most commonly cited reasons for listening to music is that music can elicit strong emotions (Juslin and Laukka, 2004).

Historically, researchers neglected studies of how music impacted emotions, as theorists believed that emotions evolved so individuals could deal with situations significant to either reproduction or survival (Cosmides and Tooby, 2000; Darwin, 1872).

Thus, researchers believed that music could not induce typical emotions because of happiness and sadness because music had no intrinsic survival value (Kivy, 1990; Scherer, 2003).

Lundqvist, Carlson, Hilmerson, and Juslin (2009) set out to provide empirical evidence for this phenomenon and found that music can trigger the experiential, expressive, and physiological components of the emotional response system.

The researchers asked 32 participants to listen to popular music composed with either a happy or sad emotional expression and measured self-reported emotion, facial muscle activity, and the activity of the autonomic nervous system.

The researchers predicted that those who listened to music categorized as happy would experience more self-rated happiness, less self-rated sadness, more activity in the muscles that upturn the mouth, a higher heart rate, greater skin conductance, and higher finger temperature.

The researchers also predicted that women would show more pronounced responses to music than men, following previous studies (Lundqvist et al., 2009).

As the researchers predicted, happy music did generate more muscle activity associated with smiling, greater skin conductance, more feelings of happiness, and fewer feelings of sadness than sad music.

This supports the idea that the music participants listened to became congruent with the emotions expressed in the music.

Emotional contagion can also spread through exclusively visual stimuli. According to Lang (1995), pictures can evoke the effect associated with a certain reflex, as well as startle reflexes.

In this study, Lang collected a large emotional picture library and attempted to measure the reflexes that participants had in response to these photographs. In particular, Lang used an acoustic probe and measured the blinking component of the startle response — rapid blinking is characteristic of being startled.

Those who witnessed “shocking” pictures, the researcher found, exhibited a startle response, and those who looked at pleasant scenes showed evidence of inhibiting the startle response.

In general, the more provocative the photograph, the more intense the mimicry. This confirmed the findings of previous animal studies.


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.