What is Emotional Contagion?

You ever watched America’s Funniest Home Videos or one of the multitudes of similar videos on YouTube in which some poor schmuck is assaulted in his area after unwisely riding a skateboard along a thin aluminum pole and you immediately clutch your own nether regions in sympathetic pain? Or how about when you see someone rise up suddenly only to smack their noggin on an open cabinet door? Do you instinctively grab your own head? What you are experiencing is something called emotional contagion. Although it may sound like some sort of communicable disease, emotional contagion is actually a term that refers to the communication of an emotional response to an event that actually happens to someone else. This contagion of emotional responses can be as obvious as putting a hand to your head when you watch someone else bang theirs, or as subtle as smiling because someone has smiled at you.

That last example is a perfect indication of the depth of emotional contagion. Service industry outlets from fast food restaurants to department stores drill into their employees the value and importance of smiling and greeting the customer. We have an all you can eat pizza buffet down here called CiCi’s Pizza that is as well known for the collective greeting of “Welcome to CiCi’s!” each time someone new enters the establishment as they are for their pizza. It doesn’t take the millions of dollars that have been spent in research on the subject to know that people who are engaged in a conversation with someone who smiles tend to smile themselves more often than when engaged in conversation with people who don’t exhibit such positive external attributes. This is true whether the content of the conversation is upbeat or depressing.

What is the point of emotional contagion? For one thing, there is the communicable part of the disease. The physical responses stimulated in listeners it a method for facilitating conversation. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone who just sits there looking like Donald Trump when he’s been asked to talk about someone other than himself? That deer-in-the-headlights response is not conducive to engaging in long-term conversation.