Emotional Contagion – When Feelings Go Viral

emotional contagionAre you aware of the extent that your emotions may affect others? Your verbal and face-to-face cues are surprisingly influential in determining the feelings of those who are listening and observing. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion. It is recognized by behavioral psychologists as a kind of interpersonal influence.

Studies reveal that emotions (either positive or negative) spread among group members like viruses. Emotional contagion often occurs at a subconscious level. In other words, people are unaware that their emotions may have been affected by another person’s mood with whom they are in close contact.

But it goes even deeper than a transfer of emotions. Research by Sigal Barsade has demonstrated that when emotional contagion takes place, the judgment and quality of group decisions are also impacted. Let’s review a study that shows how the emotions of a single person can significantly impact an entire group’s performance.

Business school students were divided into small groups for a simulated management exercise. Each had to role-play a department head advocating for an employee to get a merit-based increase. At the same time, all the students were part of a “salary committee” negotiating how best to allocate a limited amount of bonus money. In essence, they had to balance getting the most for their own candidate, while maximizing the overall benefit to the company. Each group was also seeded with a confederate (an actor) who was trained to convey one of four different mood conditions:

• cheerful enthusiasm
• serene warmth
• hostile irritability
• depressed sluggishness

The researchers were able to identify several effects of emotional contagion. Groups in which the confederate had “spread” positive emotion experienced an increase in positive mood. But the emotional contagion was not limited to a spread of feelings. These groups also displayed more cooperation, less interpersonal conflict, and believed that they had performed better on their task than groups in which negative emotions were spread by the confederate. In addition, groups in which people felt positive emotions made decisions that allocated the available bonus money more equitably.

When the participants were asked why they allocated the funds the way they did, and why they thought their group performed the way it did, they pointed to factors such as their ability to negotiate, or the attributes of the “candidates” they had been assigned. They were completely blind to the fact that their behavior and decisions (and that of their group) had been influenced by the displayed emotion of the confederate.

This study underscores the importance for leaders to be aware of emotional contagion among members of work groups or teams. Anyone has the potential to create an environment where emotions will spread. All this person has to do is visibly and consistently display their feelings – and other members of the team become susceptible to catching this emotional virus.  The overall effect would be positive if the emotion that spreads is conducive to a high-performing team.  But, it works both ways.

Perhaps you have heard the expression, “one bad apple can spoil the whole basket.” Negative emotions that are frequently expressed by a single disgruntled employee can certainly impact an entire group’s attitude – and therefore their performance. These employees need to be identified and actions taken to mitigate the poisonous atmosphere from their overt negativity. This could mean a private coaching or counseling session. Or, you may have to remove this individual from the team if this behavior persists.

As a leader, you can leverage this knowledge of mood contagion to create the right environment. It starts with self-awareness of your own emotions. The majority of communication occurs with non-verbal cues. These include all types of communication do not have a direct verbal translation. Examples are body movements, body orientation, nuances of the voice, facial expressions, details of dress, and choice of objects. Time and space can also be perceived as having nonverbal cues.  In other words, nonverbal cues include all the ways you present and express yourself, apart from the actual words you speak.

Imagine that you encounter a co-worker who is usually friendly and talkative.  Not only does this person fail to acknowledge you with a casual ‘hello’, but they walk by with their head down, tight lips, and with both hands in their pockets. When you approach them and ask if they are okay, their response is a terse, “I’m fine.”  Do you believe what they say, or what you see in their non-verbal cues?

When a person sends a mismatched message (where non-verbal and verbal messages are incongruent), recipients almost always believe the predominant non-verbal message over the verbal one.   According to Darlene Price, a body language expert, how we say something is more impactful than what we say. In some studies, nonverbal communication has been shown to carry up to 93% more impact than the actual words spoken, especially when the message involves emotional meaning and attitudes.

Before you talk to your team about any significant event or business decision, consider what emotions you would like to spread. Then deliver your message with emotions (and non-verbal cues) that match your desired outcome.

Do you want people to feel good about an accomplishment? Do you want them to be inspired to reach the next goal? Make eye contact. Keep your arms open while you talk. Use an upbeat tone. Don’t just say congratulatory words, let them hear and see your enthusiasm and gratitude!

One situation that requires thoughtful use of cues to convey the right emotion is when a supervisor or manager conducts a personal safety conversation.  Specifically, if the employee does not perceive from your body language, verbal tone, and actions that you are sincere, it does not matter what words you use to assure the person that you care about their safety.

Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

In summary, we communicate not only with words, but also with other verbal and non-verbal messages.  Further, the emotions that we express can influence how others feel. This cycle of emotions can be contagious and ultimately affect an entire group.  To have the largest impact on the feelings (and actions) of others, consider the impact of emotional contagion.

How you deliver a message can have a greater impact than the message itself.



The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior. Sigale Barsade. Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol 47, No. 4. December 2002. pp 644 – 675.

Well Said!: Presentations and Conversations That Get Results.  Darlene Price.  Amacom. 2012. ISBN-10: 0814417876

Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma.  Patti Wood.  New World Library. 2012. ISBN-10: 1577319397

Graphics: ID 51292455. Sangoiri. Dreamstime.com

About David Galloway

David Allan Galloway is author of Safety WALK Safety TALK, instructor of an online course with the same title, leadership coach, keynote speaker, and President of Continuous MILE Consulting. He has over four decades of industry experience, with leadership roles in Operations, Research, Product Development, Quality, Engineering, Logistics, and Strategy.

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