The Power of Emotional Contagion

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Have you ever had the sense that moods are contagious? Have you noticed that one person’s bad mood can bring down a whole group or, the opposite, one member’s excitement can ripple throughout the entire team?

Good news: you’re not imagining things. This phenomenon is called “emotional contagion,” and it refers to the subconscious “sharing” of moods among people in a group. From a physiological perspective, here’s how it works: “Mirror neurons” in our brain fire when we observe a behavior and activate the parts of our brain that reflect that behavior. For example, one study exposed participants to images of various facial expressions for thirty milliseconds at a time—not long enough to consciously recognize them—and found that participants displayed increased electrical activity in the muscles needed to mimic the faces they’d been exposed to.

You can learn more about mirror neurons and the phenomenon of emotional contagion in this BrainCraft video.

So What Does Emotional Contagion Have to Do with Communication?

The short answer: quite a bit.

Consider your goals in any communication setting. In very broad strokes, you want to convey a message to an audience (receiver) in a way that elicits a particular response (likely agreement). So when we throw emotional contagion into the mix, we’re adding a layer deeper than the message, itself. We’re adding information about how you (the sender) feel about the message, and how the receiver ought to feel as a result.

Let’s bring this idea to life in two different scenarios: A formal presentation and a team meeting in the workplace.

Emotional Contagion in Formal Presentations

In a 2000 study at Universität Würzburg in Germany, researchers had participants listen to an emotionally neutral speech that was delivered in either a slightly happy or slightly sad voice. The researchers found that participants “caught” whichever mood the speaker was conveying.

And you’ve likely seen this, yourself, as an audience member. If a speaker is slumped over the podium with a blank face and monotone voice, you aren’t likely to internalize a word he says. But if his vocal tone, posture, facial expressions, and gestures convey his passion—whether he’s angry or excited or in grief—you can’t help but pick up on them, yourself.

So next time you get behind a microphone, consider how you want your audience to feel about what you’re telling them. Do you want them to be as excited as you are? Do you want them to be incensed? Relaxed? Thrilled? If you convey these characteristics and moods in the way you communicate, you can bet they’ll catch on.

Emotional Contagion in the Workplace

While the bulk of the research on emotional contagion has focused on one-on-one conversations and formal presentations, one researcher, Dr. Sigal Barsade, has found that the phenomenon plays a significant role in group dynamics as well.

She divided study participants into groups that were tasked with role-playing a salary committee negotiating how to allocate funds. Each group included one actor who’d been assigned to convey one of four different moods: enthusiasm, warmth, irritability, and sluggishness.

Not only did the actor’s mood spread as predicted but it also affected the way each group worked together. Groups in which the actor had “spread” positive emotions cooperated better, argued less, and were ultimately more satisfied with their performance than the groups in which the actor had infused negativity. However, in post-mortem discussions about the group performance, none of them attributed their success or failure to the actor’s emotion—the effect was, again, subconscious.

Consider the opportunities a leader has, then, to use emotional contagion to her team’s advantage. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Barsade says, “By not only allowing emotions into the workplace, but also understanding and consciously shaping them, leaders can better motivate their employees.” She cites an environment in which the manager consistently looks angry—eventually, employees will feel more at home expressing anger than joy at and about their work. On the other hand, she says, a playful or joyful spirit at the top will permeate the rest of the organization, leading to improved employee satisfaction, productivity, and long-term commitment.

So next time you’re gearing up for any sort of communication—whether it’s a big presentation, a team meeting, or a one-on-one with a friend or colleague—consider the impact your emotions can have on the outcome of the event, and focus on making sure your presence reflects the emotions you want to inspire.