Emotional Contagion: How We Pass Our Emotions onto Other People

Emotional Contagion: How We Pass Our Emotions onto Other People
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Every time we interact with someone, the mechanisms of emotional contagion start turning. It doesn’t matter if it’s your significant other, group of friends, or coworkers; your relationships are affected by the way you interact.

That’s why, like Daniel Goleman said, every one of us has huge influence over the feelings of the people we interact with every day, whether positively or negatively. But… what are the mechanisms that make all this happen?

Emotions are contagious

The way the bus driver or your spouse greets you at the beginning of a new day has the power to make you feel ignored, bitter — or on the other hand, valued. Even though emotions are invisible, they’re as contagious as a virus. There’s a lot going on under the surface of a relationship.

Emotional contagion as pictured by two friends, one crying.

Emotional transmission is a primitive, unconscious process that has a lot to do with our survival as a species. The mechanisms are part of an emotional dance people use to get in sync with each other, by copying facial expressions. It all starts with a smile, an angry look, or tears shed. All it takes is seeing someone express an emotion for you to start to show signs of the exact same emotion.

While we’re all genetically programmed for emotional contagion, some people are better at passing on their emotions or catching other people’s emotions. They’re hypersensitive, like emotional sponges absorbing every trace of emotion around them. They may be HSP’s (highly sensitive people).

But there’s also another side to that coin. There are also people incapable of feeling emotions, like psychopaths. But what are the mechanisms that underlie emotional contagion?

The role of mirror neurons in emotional contagion

There are neurons in our brain that Goleman says work like a kind of “neuron wifi” to connect with other brains. They take what we see in other people and reflect it within us. Hence the name mirror neurons. They’re the neurons responsible, for example, for when you get emotional watching a movie. They make you feel shock when someone gets injured.

When mirror neurons activate, they trigger the same brain circuitry active in the people you’re watching. That’s how you end up feeling that emotion as your own, even if you’re not actually experiencing it naturally. So it’s in mirror neurons and other parts of your brain, like the insular cortex, that we find an explanation of the phenomenon called emotional contagion.

But who ends up setting the emotional tone for a group? According to various studies, nobody is the most emotionally expressive if it’s a group of equals. On the other hand, if it’s a work or school context, where there are power differences, the most powerful person in the room is the one who will set the tone for everyone else’s emotional state.

A group of friends laughing.

Empathy vs. emotional contagion

When people hear about emotional contagion they sometimes automatically associate it with empathy. Even though they have some commonalities, and are sometimes interchangeable, they’re not exactly the same thing.

Empathizing is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, thinking about their worldview and feelings. It’s a true art that not everyone knows how to use, but it would be very helpful if they did.

But putting yourself in the other person’s shoes doesn’t mean detaching yourself from your own emotions. All it means is remembering the other person is there and trying to understand them.

On the other hand, emotional contagion means making other people’s emotions your own. You’re essentially unable to not experience their emotions as if they’re your own.

Think of empathy as getting into the water and emotional contagion as drinking a glass of water. In the first case you do it to experience and understand how the fluid feels. But in the second case you do it and it becomes a part of you.

That said, it doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally need both of them. Sometimes if you want to be empathetic you need a small dose of emotional contagion. That is, as long as you avoid emotional hijacking.

Emotional contagion isn’t bad. Although it takes away some of your freedom, if the contagious emotions are positive, then the more the merrier! Who doesn’t love a bout of contagious laughter?

To conclude here’s an interesting video on the subject and a question for you: what emotions do you want to pass onto other people?

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.