Why is it a more intense experience watching a scary or thriller movie with others than by oneself? How can a charismatic speaker seemingly "infect" an entire crowd with emotion, and how is emotion so quickly transmitted throughout a crowd or mob? The answer is the emotional contagion process, which has been researched extensively since the 1980s.
Research in nonverbal communication has demonstrated that emotions can be transmitted very quickly (and sometimes silently) from one person to another. In our pioneering study, we placed highly emotionally expressive individuals in a waiting room with two non-expressive persons. They were told that we were late in setting up the experiment, and asked to fill out a questionnaire (actually a scale to assess mood). They were then told to sit quietly with absolutely no talking while we finished setting up. The desks were arranged so that the 3 people faced one another. After a few minutes the experimenter returned and gave them another questionnaire (the same mood scale). We found that the non-expressive persons' moods changed over the time to be more like the mood of the expressive person. Regardless of the expressive individual's initial mood (bored, upbeat, or agitated), the other members became "infected" by the expressive person's mood.
Research shows that some people are naturally emotionally expressive, and more prone to influence the moods of others (the "emotionally-contagious" individuals) and others are more susceptible to others' emotions. There are scales that measure both emotional expressiveness and susceptibility/sensitivity to others' emotions.
Here are some sample items for emotional expressiveness:
• I have often been told that I have expressive eyes.
• People immediately know when I am angry or upset with them.
• When I get depressed I tend to bring down those around me.
• I often laugh out loud.
These items measure susceptibility to emotional contagion:
• I tense when overhearing an angry quarrel.
• I cry at sad movies.
• Being with a happy person picks me up when I'm feeling down.
• If someone I'm talking with begins to cry, I get teary-eyed.
People vary greatly in terms of their emotional expressiveness and susceptibility to emotion (although we all are expressive and susceptible to some extent), but it only becomes problematic in extremes. Moreover, it is important that persons who are highly emotionally expressive temper it with the ability to regulate and control emotional expressions (i.e., being able to "turn it off"). Similarly, regulation is needed to keep susceptible persons from becoming overwhelmed by the emotions of others. It's all about balance when it comes to emotional communication.
Friedman, Howard S. & Riggio, Ronald E. (1981). Effects of individual differences in nonverbal expressiveness on transmission of emotions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 6, 96-102.
Riggio, Ronald E. (1986). Assessment of basic social skills. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 649-660.
Doherty, R. William (1997). The Emotional Contagion Scale: A measure of individual differences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21, 131-154.
Read more here:
Riggio, Ronald E. (1987). The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, How to Get It, How To Use It. NY: Dodd-Mead.
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