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Emotional Contagion

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Emotional contagion refers to the phenomenon in which a person unconsciously mirrors or mimics the emotions of those around them. Emotional contagion can be triggered by nonverbals such as facial expressions as well as by overt conversational or behavioral cues: A smile can spread from one person to another, and someone who is complaining can bring someone else down. People are often unaware of their susceptibility to another's mood or emotions, and an understanding of this phenomenon can help someone both regulate their own emotions and avoid dampening the moods of others.

Early research on this phenomenon dates back to the mid-twentieth century, with work becoming more prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. Among early researchers, Elaine Hatfield, of the University of Hawaii, explored many aspects of relationships and found that humans copy each other’s emotions and behaviors.

Emotional Contagion In Relationships

In a relationship, depending on the emotions we share, we can feel closer to a person or we can feel pulled apart. This phenomenon involves both positive and negative moods.

What does emotional contagion look like in close relationships?

It is easy to feel happy when your friend is happy. Likewise, if your friend or partner is angry, you may feel that anger as well. Emotional contagion is tied to empathy. Positive feelings can lead to deeper intimacy, and negative ones can bring on tension and conflict.

Can emotional contagion affect a group of people?

Yes. Co-workers or other group settings—say, a sports event or a political rally—are indeed affected. Research from the University of Rochester showed that just being in the room of a highly motivated co-worker can enhance someone's motivation. Equally, people in a group can absorb malcontent and dissatisfaction.

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Stopping the Spread of Negative Emotions

Just being aware of the negativity around you is a first step to neutralizing charged emotions. Observing a tense situation, rather than living in it can help. If you step back and observe, you can be more analytical and clinical about the situation.

How do I stop my bad mood from spreading to loved ones?

If one is aware of the possibility of social or emotional contagion, one can work on emotional regulation in the presence of others. If you suspect it will be impossibly to regulate your mood, you may reconsider being in a social context. However, it is important to keep in mind that social interaction, especially with friends and family, can ameliorate mood and contribute to overall well-being. The decision to isolate oneself when already feeling low is a serious one—talking it over with a trusted individual may be in order. 

How do I compartmentalize my feelings?

Compartmentalization is not denial or the act of burying feelings, it is about shelving negative thoughts and emotions. For example, you might give yourself time to think about your anger after your coffee in the morning. Some people are better than others at compartmentalizing how they feel, but we can all learn how to put emotions aside when needed.

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