Emotions are contagious: Learn what science and research has to say about it

It’s true—emotions are contagious, and it’s called emotional contagion. Learn what science and research says about how easy it is to “catch” other’s emotions, positive and negative.

We’ve all heard that laughter is contagious. You may have also heard someone say they are a “sympathetic crier,” meaning if they see someone crying they’ll likely start tearing up too, even though they don’t have a reason to cry. It’s funny how you can take on the emotions of another person, as if emotions or feelings are contagious. But it’s true—emotions can really be contagious. It’s called emotional contagion, and sharing emotions can happen easier than you’d think.

Emotional contagion is simply when one person’s emotions or behaviors are mimicked by another person’s. Often times, these emotions or behaviors happen subconsciously. According to “Are You Catching Other People's Emotions?” in U.S. World and News Report, upbeat emotions such as enthusiasm and joy, as well as negative ones such as sadness, fear and anger, are easily passed from one person to another, often without either party realizing it.

John T. Cacioppo from the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago explains that the more expressive someone is, the more likely you are to notice that expression and mimic it. He continues that the muscle fibers in your face and body can be activated unbeknownst to you, at much lower levels than if you were to perform those movements yourself. It’s those muscle movements that trigger the actual feeling in the brain.

It’s been said it’s easier to catch an emotion than it is to catch a cold, but how is that exactly? Social networks is the answer! According to researchers Nicholas Christakis, professor at Harvard University, and James Folwer, associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, social networks have clusters of happy people and unhappy people within them that reach out to third degrees of separation.

Christakis and Fowler say a person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. Their research found happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks in large clusters of other happy people where each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9 percent.

What about catching the negative emotions? Yes, you can catch those too and their effects can be damaging, as they can lead to sadness, depression, fatigue, decreased energy and stress. You’d think that with such negative impacts, you’d stay away from those who emit negativity. It’s just not that easy though.

Research from University of Oklahoma and University of Texas at Austin shows that when individuals dislike the same people or find a common dislike of something in general, all of a sudden those individuals have a bond that easily turns into a friendship because it’s a connection.

What’s the life lesson in this? Take a minute and reflect, asking yourself:

  • What types of emotion do I give off and how does that affect others I interact with such as my family, roommates, team mates, colleagues, etc.?
  • How easily do I let others effect my emotions? Do I even know it is happening? Check out the Emotional Contagion Scale to see how vulnerable you are.
  • Are the people in my social networks the type of people I really want to surround myself with?
  • Are there actions or changes I need to make?

Emotional contagion is actually a skill you can work on. Become aware of the emotions you exude toward others that they might pick up. Likewise, try to acknowledge when you’re picking up on the negative or positive emotions of others and create change if needed.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to Michigan State University Extension programs, read our 2016 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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