Emotional Contagion Theory Explained


Many diseases are contagious. If someone has influenza, for example, and you come into contact with them, then the virus may spread through personal contact. In a couple of days, you begin to feel miserable just as the other person begins to rebound from their viral infection. Then if someone comes into contact with you, they have a chance to get the flu from you.

What if emotions acted in the same way? That is the principle of the emotional contagion theory.

By definition, an emotional contagion is the transfer of one person’s emotions and triggered behaviors to another person, who will experience similar emotions and triggered behaviors in response. This is because emotions can be shared through both implicit and explicit processes.

How Can Emotions Spread Like a Disease?

There are two ways that emotions tend to spread from person to person like a contagion.

1. Imitation. If someone smiles at you, then the response is that you will often smile back. If someone yells at you, there is an urge to yell at them back.
2. Choice. If you fake an emotion, the brain may still trigger an emotional response to the “faked” emotion. If you are angry and frown, but then you force a smile, it can make you feel happier than if you hadn’t faked the smile.

When it comes to emotional movement between people, mimicry seems to be the foundation of the contagion.

But it isn’t the only factor, because the emotional contagion theory also involves a transfer of the behaviors that are triggered by an emotion. If someone is angry at the government, they might pick up a brick and smash a window. A riot forms because the anger and the behavior transfer to other individuals, so more people are angry and throwing bricks.

How does that transfer take place? Because there is a shared life perspective that has been triggered as well.

Shared Experiences Create Bonding Opportunities in Humans

What is your favorite sports team? For this example, let’s say you’re a fan of the Chicago Bears. Now if you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, you’ve probably already said something like, “No way.” Or maybe you’ve laughed and said, “But the Bears still suck.”

If you see someone who wears the gear from your favorite sports team, you feel differently about that person than if you saw someone wearing gear from a rival sports team. If you were also a Bears fan, you’d feel a sense of camaraderie with that other person. If they were a Packers fan, you’d probably cross the street to avoid them or maybe you’d make a negative comment about what they were wearing.

This is how the emotional contagion theory forms. There are several influencing factors that can create an emotional convergence, but they are all based on our shared experiences. We automatically look for common ground. If we can find it, then we begin to feel some of the same emotions that the other person is feeling, which can then result in similar behaviors being triggered.

Yet some people never seem to experience an emotional contagion or experience behaviors that others are experiencing, even if they have a large number of shared experiences. Why is it that some people are influenced, but others are not?

There Must Be an Openness to Receive the Contagion in the First Place

If you want to avoid catching the flu, you attempt to close off your body from the contagion. You wash your hands more frequently and thoroughly. You’d avoid people who look to be sick. You might even change your diet, add vitamins to your daily routine, or bring along a travel bottle of hand sanitizer. The goal is simple: to prevent the disease transfer.

People can do the same thing with an emotional contagion. In order for an emotion and its behavior to transfer, there must be an openness to the transference in the first place. If an individual has decided that they will not be influenced by the emotions and behaviors of someone, then they are removing the “openness factor” of the contagion.

There are many different ways that openness can be eliminated. If you see someone pick up a brick, you might be angry as well, but you also don’t want to risk jail time by being involved in a riot. So you walk away, closing off the contagion.

Emotions are one of the ways that humanity is truly unique. How we feel is just as important as what we do. By understanding the emotional contagion theory, we can prevent negative transfers so that it becomes easier to choose happiness in everything that we do.