Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Emotional contagion

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Emotional Contagion is the name given to the subliminal process by which an individual comes to experience another person’s feelings as their own. It is associated with empathy, but where empathy is the conscious interpretation and understanding of another’s emotions, emotional contagion is an experience of emotional synchronicity. It forms the basis of interpersonal communication.

How are emotions "caught"?[edit | edit source]

Contagious yawning is an example of involuntary mimicry

The process of emotional contagion goes through three stages; mimicry, facial feedback and then contagion (Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson, 1993). As people communicate, they express themselves not only through language, but also through gesture and facial expression. Throughout a communication exchange, people are constantly reading each other’s faces and body language and then subtly reflecting it, in a process called mimicry (Andersen & Guerrero, 1998). When a person displays an emotion on their face, they get a subjective experience of that emotion i.e. they start to feel it as their own. This is explained through the facial feedback hypothesis (Reeve, 2009).

Mimicry[edit | edit source]

When two people are in conversation, they are consciously and unconsciously monitoring the expression and body language of the other person. This process is called mimicry and it often occurs entirely without conscious thought (Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson, 1993). Mimicry is one of the most fundamental forms of communication and is thought to be an important part of social interaction. It begins in infancy, with research showing even neonates engage in some form of mimcry (Doherty, 1997). It is believed to play a significant role not only in emotional contagion, but also in related functions such as rapport, empathy and helping behaviour (McIntosh, 2006); it is a way of expressing a synchronicity of emotional state between partners (Andersen & Guerrero, 1998). This synchronicity can occur as a large expression such as flinching or wincing in response to another’s injury or as very slight movements of cheek or brow muscles which can only be measured using special equipment (Andersen & Guerrero, 1998; Fujimura, Sato & Suzuki, 2010). An impaired ability to mimic has even been associated with autism, which has led to the theory that this impairment could be the cause of the social interaction issues found in the disorder (McIntosh, 2006).

The degree to which we mimic can be measured using electromyography (EMG). EMG records minute muscle movements and in the study of mimicry, is used to measure the movement of facial muscles in reaction to prototypical expressions of emotion (Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson, 1993). Researchers have used this measurement as a way of
Smiling elicits a strong emotional response
establishing what factors influence mimicry. In the study conducted by Fujimura, Sato & Suzuki (2010), the researchers used EMG to measure participants’ responses to images showing expressions of different emotional valence and intensity (arousal). They found that while there was no difference in the level of response between high- and low-arousal unpleasant expressions, there was a difference in the level of response to high- and low-arousal pleasant expressions. The results indicate that the emotional valence of an expression is relevant to degree of mimicry.

Another influencing factor is liking; McIntosh (2006) used live models, rather than photographs, as emotional stimuli to determine whether liking and familiarity impacts on the level of mimicry experienced by the observer. He measured the responses of the observers using EMG and found that both liking and familiarity are influential factors in mimicry, and that smiling in particular was influenced by positive social relationships. These results were supported by their findings that social group membership as well as emotional valence was an influencing factor on the degree of mimicry; their investigation into the impact of group membership on mimicry found that group membership was only relevant when the expressed emotion was negative. Participants only mimicked the negative expressions of in-group members, however happiness appeared more universal, with mimicry occurring regardless of the expresser’s group membership (Bourgeois & Hess, 2007).

Facial Feedback[edit | edit source]

The relationship between mimicry and subjective affect is usually explained through the facial feedback hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, the role of facial feedback begins and ends with the triggering of a given emotion. Once the emotion has been activated, the affective response kicks in, prompting additional cognitive and physiological responses which serve to maintain the emotion over time. Tomkins (1962, in Reeve, 2009) outlined three elements of facial behaviour which lead to emotional response:

1. Movements of the facial musculature

2. Changes in facial temperature

3. Changes in the glandular responses located in the facial skin

These changes are themselves triggered by the limbic system in response to either an internal or external emotional stimulus. It is the limbic system which selects the appropriate emotional expression e.g. a smile. The brain then interprets the facial changes associated with the expression and in turn triggers the subjective experience of the emotion. It is only than that physiological arousal occurs (Reeve, 2009).

Placing the facial feedback hypothesis in the context of emotional contagion is the Interpersonal Facial Feedback Hypothesis. The IFFH proposes that since it is the act of mimicking that triggers the facial feedback, it is in fact the partner’s emotional expression which leads to the subjective affective experience, rather than one’s own expression (Andersen & Guerrero, 1998).

Individual Differences[edit | edit source]

Susceptibility and Measurement[edit | edit source]

Susceptibility to emotional contagion is thought to be subject to the common bases of individual differences, i.e. genetic predisposition, early emotional experience, gender and personality traits (Doherty, 1997). It has also been found to vary not only between individuals, but also between interactions. Factors such as the gender of the expresser (Wild, Erb and Bartels, 2001), the level of liking (McIntosh, 2006), group membership (Bourgeois & Hess, 2007), and power dynamics (Hsee, Hatfield, Carlson & Chemtob, 1990; Dasborough, Ashkanasy, Tee & Tse, 2009) all have an impact on how likely a person is to “catch” an emotion. Even the type and intensity of the expressed emotion can influence the intensity of the contagion (Fujimura, Sato & Suzuki, 2010).

The Emotional Contagion Scale was designed by Doherty (1997) to measure the susceptibility of an individual to emotional contagion. The scale was based on Hatfield and colleagues’ theory of emotional contagion and takes the form of a 15 item scale. It aims to measure individual differences across five basic, cross-cultural emotions (love, happiness, fear, anger and sadness), by determining how likely a person is to mimic those emotions. The scale has been published on the website and can be found here: Emotional Contagion Scale (Bourg Carter, 2012).

Gender[edit | edit source]

The relationship of gender to emotional contagion is a complicated one. The “appropriate” expression of emotion is governed by cultural display rules which vary according to gender. These rules serve to regulate which emotions are expressed, how they are expressed and the degree of expressiveness (Sonnby-Borgström, Jonssön & Svensson, 2008). The research into gender differences in emotional contagion has had mixed results, no doubt due in part to these display rules. An early study into the effect of gender on emotional contagion hypothesised that because women were more emotionally expressive than men, women would score more highly on the Emotional Contagion scale. Their results confirmed that not only did women score more highly in the scale, but also reported higher levels of subjective emotion and were assessed to be displaying more emotional contagion than the male participants (Doherty, Orimoto, Singelis, Hatfield & Hebb, 1995).

In contrast, the study conducted by Wild, Erb and Bartels (2001) found that there were only minor differences between men and women in their subjective experience of “caught” emotions. They did however find that both men and women had a stronger subjective emotional response when the emotional model was female rather than male. Sonnby-Borgström, Jonssön and Svensson (2008) found that gender differences came into play when the expressive model was displaying a threatening emotion such as anger. The responses of women to angry faces tended to be more expressive and whereas men suppressed their emotional expression or even displayed a smiling tendency. The authors hypothesised that this was due to the effect of socialisation in the expression of emotion, with women more likely to try to communicate their distress and men more likely to mask or suppress it, something which is consistent with the concept of hegemonic masculinity. Despite the marked difference in the findings of all three studies, all can be interpreted as supporting the idea that cultural norms and display rules are responsible for any gender differences in the expression of emotional contagion.

Emotional Contagion in the Workplace[edit | edit source]

Customer Experience[edit | edit source]

Emotional contagion is widely used in service industries to encourage customer satisfaction; it is the rationale behind the concept of “service with a smile.” Research shows that customer mood can be influenced by the emotional expression of an employee (Pugh, 2001; Barger & Grandey, 2006; Hennig-Thurough, Groth, Paul & Gremler, 2006). Barger and Grandey (2006) tested the effect of mimicry in employee-customer interactions. Their results indicated that the strength of an employee’s smile predicted the strength of the customer’s smile. They found that the more the customer smiled, the more likely they were to have a positive post-encounter mood and that this mood served as a predictor for customer satisfaction.

Hennig-Thurau and colleagues (2006) also studied the impact of smiling on employee-customer relationships. In contrast to Barger and Grandey’s field study, Hennig-Thurough and colleagues set their experiment up in a laboratory using actors to portray the employees. The actors used deep versus shallow acting in the role of employee, to test whether primitive emotional contagion, i.e. unconscious mimicry, or conscious emotional contagion, the active reading of mood, was the predictor of customer mood. Their results suggest that employee authenticity, approximated by deep-acting, was a greater predictor for customer satisfaction than superficial smiling. Hennig-Thurough and colleagues have interpreted this finding to mean that the role of mimicry in employee-customer encounters is overstated, however, given the subtle and unconscious nature of mimicry, it is possible that people are able to detect insincerity from minute facial cues and so do not mimic insincere expressions.

Leadership[edit | edit source]

Charismatic leaders have been found to have a positive influence on team cohesiveness

Affect management is an important part of leadership within organisations; positive affect has been found to have a beneficial effect on employee motivation, creativity, task performance and well-being (Bono & Ilies, 2006). The mood of a team can be influenced by its leader. Leaders who have been rated as highly charismatic have been shown use emotion to influence their employees, and there is an association between the perception of charisma and the expression of positive emotions (Bono & Ilies, 2006; Johnson, 2008). Sincerity is another important factor; if the leader is perceived to be "faking" positivity, the team affect will suffer (Dasborough, Ashkanasy, Tee & Tse, 2009). Dasborough and colleagues (2009) also found that a highly negative interaction between a leader and a single follower can not only spread negative affect throughout the team, but also through the team to the entire organization.

An awareness of emotional contagion might be critical for the health of an organisation (Dasborough, Ashkanasy, Tee & Tse, 2009) but it is also important for the leaders themselves (Hsee, Hatfield, Carlson & Chemtob, 1990; Dasborough, Ashkanasy, Tee & Tse, 2009). Research has shown that those in a dominant position can be more susceptible to emotional contagion than their subordinates. In a remarkable study by Hsee and colleagues (1990), contrary to expectation, they found that those students who were put into the dominant position within the experiment displayed and experienced higher levels of emotional contagion than their powerless partners. Applying this research to an organisational context, Dasborough and colleagues (2009) propose that followers are instrumental in determining group affect. Through emotional contagion processes, followers can express disapproval for a leader, which, given the pervasive and subtle nature of emotion contagion, can ultimately have the effect of undermining the leader’s authority throughout the organisation. As Dasborough and colleagues point out, this is not necessarily a bad thing; if the negative affect is caused by poor management, then this mode of communication may eventually lead to situation being addressed.

Emotional Contagion in the Helping Professions[edit | edit source]

While emotional contagion can be advantageous in certain work contexts, in environments of high emotionality, susceptibility to emotional contagion can be detrimental to the psychological well-being of the professional. In helping professions such as psychotherapy and nursing, professionals are often exposed to high levels of negative emotion (Hatfield, 1994; Omdahl & O’Donnell, 1999). While emotional contagion has the advantage of allowing a professional to read a patient’s emotional state, it can only be of benefit if the “caught” emotions can correctly identified as having an external origin (Hatfield, 1994). In Omdahl & O’Donnell’s (1999) study, emotional contagion was found to be a major predictor of emotional exhaustion and a lack of occupational commitment in nurses. Omdahl and O’Donnell attribute this relationship to a lack of education about the distinction between empathy and emotional contagion. It seems that an ability to separate those emotions which have been “caught” from those which are genuinely the professional’s own, is critical to their emotional well-being (Hatfield, 1994; Omdahl & O’Donnell, 1999).

Summary[edit | edit source]

Emotional contagion is a primitive form of emotional interaction. It occurs subliminally and automatically during interpersonal communication as people unconsciously mimic the expression of their communication partner. This mimicry stimulates facial feedback, prompting the brain to trigger a genuine emotional response. Once this response occurs, the individual subjectively experiences the other person’s expressed emotion. The degree to which an individual is susceptible to emotional contagion is determined by individual differences, social/cultural context and the type and intensity of the emotion being expressed.

Knowledge of emotional contagion can be used across different work contexts. In its simplest form, it can be demonstrated that customers who receive a smile are more likely to feel satisfied with their encounter. On a more subtle level, it can be used by leaders of teams to help with employee productivity and job satisfaction as the affective climate of a team or organisation can have big impacts on such outcomes. A need for awareness around emotional contagion is also true of the helping professions, where it can be used to assist with psychotherapy, or as a way of isolating external emotions from one’s own; a necessary defence mechanism for nurses prone to emotional exhaustion.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Andersen, P. A., & Guerrero, L. K. (1998). Principles of communication and emotion in social interaction. In P. A. Andersen & L. K. Guerrero (Eds.). Handbook of communication and emotion: Research, theory, applications, and contexts. San Diego, CA, Academic Press.

Barger, P. B., & Grandey, A. A. (2006). Service with a smile and encounter satisfaction: Emotional contagion and appraisal mechanisms. Academy of Management Journal, 49(6), 1229-1238.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012, October 20). The emotional contagion scale. [Web Log Post]. Retrieved from

Bourgeois, P., & Hess, U. (2008). The impact of social context on mimicry. Biological Psychology, 77(3), 343-352.

Bono, J. E., & Ilies, R. (2006). Charisma, positive emotions and mood contagion. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(4), 317-334.

Dasborough, M. T., Ashkanasy, N. M., Tee, E. Y., & Tse, H. H. (2009). What goes around comes around: How meso-level negative emotional contagion can ultimately determine organizational attitudes toward leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(4), 571-585.

Doherty, R. W. (1997). The emotional contagion scale: A measure of individual differences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21(2), 131-154.

Doherty, R. W., Orimoto, L., Singelis, T. M., Hatfield, E., & Hebb, J. (1995). Emotional Contagion Gender and Occupational Differences. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19(3), 355-371.

Fujimura, T., Sato, W., & Suzuki, N. (2010). Facial expression arousal level modulates facial mimicry. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 76(2), 88-92.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(3), 96-99.

Hatfield, E. (1994). Introduction. In E. Hatfield, J. T. Cacioppo & R. L. Rapson (Eds.), Emotional contagion: Studies in emotion and social interaction (pp. 1-6). Retrieved from

Hennig-Thurau, T., Groth, M., Paul, M., & Gremler, D. D. (2006). Are all smiles created equal? How emotional contagion and emotional labor affect service relationships. Journal of Marketing, 58-73.

Hsee, C. K., Hatfield, E., Carlson, J. G., & Chemtob, C. (1990). The effect of power on susceptibility to emotional contagion. Cognition and Emotion, 4(4), 327-340.

Johnson, S. K. (2008). I second that emotion: Effects of emotional contagion and affect at work on leader and follower outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(1), 1-19.

McIntosh, D. N. (2006). Spontaneous facial mimicry, liking and emotional contagion. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 37(1), 31-42.

McIntosh, D. N., Reichmann‐Decker, A., Winkielman, P., & Wilbarger, J. L. (2006). When the social mirror breaks: deficits in automatic, but not voluntary, mimicry of emotional facial expressions in autism. Developmental Science, 9(3), 295-302.

Omdahl, B. L., & O'Donnell, C. (1999). Emotional contagion, empathic concern and communicative responsiveness as variables affecting nurses’ stress and occupational commitment. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(6), 1351-1359.

Pugh, S. D. (2001). Service with a smile: Emotional contagion in the service encounter. Academy of Management Journal, 44(5), 1018-1027.

Reeve, J. (2001). Understanding Motivation and Emotion. New York: Wiley.

Sonnby-Borgström, M., Jönsson, P., & Svensson, O. (2008). Gender differences in facial imitation and verbally reported emotional contagion from spontaneous to emotionally regulated processing levels. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 49(2), 111-122.

Wild, B., Erb, M., & Bartels, M. (2001). Are emotions contagious? Evoked emotions while viewing emotionally expressive faces: quality, quantity, time course and gender differences. Psychiatry Research, 102(2), 109-124.}}

External links[edit | edit source]