Going Viral with Emotional Contagion

Episode 001: December 8, 2017

Imagine you’re out sailing on a windy day. You can’t see the wind, but you’re definitely aware of its presence and its effect on the waves, the boat, the hair that’s flying in front of your face. Like the wind, you can’t see emotional contagion, either. It’s different, though, because its effects often aren’t apparent at all.



It’s flu season in my neck of the woods, so everybody’s hyper-conscious of germs and viruses and anything that could possibly be contagious.

Which is inspiring this episode, about a different kind of contagion, one that, like the flu you can prepare for and minimize its effects. Build up your well-being antibodies enough and you could even become a carrier of a different condition, one that actually benefits others.

To get started, imagine for a moment that you’re part of a group of three people charged with getting stuff done. It could be a work team, a committee in a community organization, or even your family.

I’m going to use a workplace example, but keep those other kinds of teams in mind as you listen, too.

So you’re part of this three-person team.

Your two colleagues are equally qualified, competent, and dedicated to their jobs. They’re good at what they do. Assets to the organization.

You have a good professional relationship with each of them, one that’s based on mutual trust and respect.

Except there’s this one thing.

One colleague, more often than not, is upbeat, pleasant, positive.

The other, uh, not so much. In fact, they never miss an opportunity to point out something that’s wrong.

The positive colleague isn’t fake or cloying or smarmy. They don’t ignore setbacks or annoyances. They just don’t nurse them, either. And they seldom miss an opportunity to notice the good.

Whenever anyone mentions something positive to your downer colleague, though, in the blink of an eye, they “yeah, but” that positive into a pile of pessimism.

It’s not just that their cup is half empty. They act as if it’s filled with muddy grounds from their cold, weak coffee and, oh, if that cup itself isn’t chipped and cracked yet, it will be soon.

Take a moment and let yourself imagine – if you’re not driving, maybe close your eyes – and really experience what it’s like to be in a meeting or working on a project or just making small talk with your upbeat imaginary colleague.

Sure, we’re facing a big challenge, but we’ve got what it takes to manage it.

Got it? Now let yourself experience – eyes closed if you can do it safely – the same scenario with your downer imaginary colleague.

Everything’s hard, frustrating, doomed to failure. It’ll never work, and even if it does, somebody else will get all the credit for our hard work.

If you’re like most people, you probably felt a bit lighter, more energized, when you thought about being around the more positive person. Thinking about the negative one likely made you feel a bit blech inside, sort of heavy, and maybe even a little tired.

If you were with them in real life, instead of imagining it, day after day, there’s a good chance that they would have a significant impact on your mood, actions, and decision making, and chances are, you wouldn’t even notice where it was coming from.

So the purpose of that little scenario:  to help you get a sense of a phenomenon called emotional contagion.

Here’s a fancy definition:

Emotional contagion is “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.”

Translation: emotional contagion is “catching” someone else’s emotional state.

And believe me, it’s viral like no cat video on youtube you’ve ever seen.

Why is emotional contagion important to Positive Navigators?

Because it affects our well-being, which affects our doing and our enjoyment – or lack of enjoyment – of that doing.

And we usually don’t even know it’s there.

Imagine you’re out sailing on a windy day. You can’t see the wind, but you’re definitely aware of its presence and its effect on the waves, the boat, the hair that’s flying in front of your face.

Like the wind, you can’t see emotional contagion, either. It’s different, though, because its effects often aren’t apparent at all.

Researcher Sigal Barsade looked at the effects of and the extent to which people even notice emotional contagion in a study where she used business school students as the subjects. They were assigned to teams charged with discussing and deciding whether a fictional employee should get a raise. What they didn’t know, was that Barsade’s team stacked the subject teams with one member who secretly demonstrated a particular emotion during their discussions, either cheerful enthusiasm, serene warmth, hostile irritability, or depressed sluggishness.

The result: not only were teams more likely to approve the raise when the “planted” member displayed cheerful enthusiasm, they were also more positive and cooperative, with less interpersonal conflict and higher performance – all without having even an inkling that they were affected by emotional congation.

In another long-term study, people who had happier neighbors were found to be happier themselves – and the effect of a happy neighbor was in evidence not just next-door, but four houses away.

In a study of whether NBA players were quoted after a loss with positive or negative statements, those that made more positive remarks after a loss weren’t just more likely to win their next game, they were consistently more likely to also beat the point spread set by bookmakers in Vegas during those subsequent wins.

So emotional contagion is a thing, it spreads like a virus, and it’s in season all year round.

It can affect – or perhaps, infect – your emotional state toward the positive or the negative. And we’re seldom aware it’s even happening.

And every one of us is a carrier. Our emotions don’t just affect ourselves. Emotional contagion theory indicates that they affect those around us, as well.

Now it’s time to try it out, and, no, I’m not going to suggest that you put on a happy face and act wildly positive all the time to see how many frowns you can turn upside down.

Remember, Positive Navigation isn’t about faking happiness or pretending away the negatives. One thing that it is about is being intentional about noticing, especially in noticing the good, without attempts to pretend away the bad.

Your assignment, should you choose to experiment with it is simply this: notice.

Pay attention to whether you’re picking up on upbeat moods of those around you. Or if the downers in your orbit are bringing you down with them.

Pay attention to times your moods seem to be affecting other people’s moods.

For now: just notice the role of emotional contagion in your daily life.

It’s the first step toward inoculating you from being overwhelmed by the negatives in a world that seems, more and more, to be exploding with them.

Now’s your time to hop to it: notice the positive or negative affects of those around you and the effect it has on your emotional states. And for fun, why not try to infect someone with a little dose of genuine positivity?

Thanks so much for listening to the Positive Navigation podcast – as well as  for liking it, commenting on it, subscribing, and sharing it with a friend. Or a bunch of friends.

Podcast Congation – why not?

Until next time, check out the show notes at Florence Moyer dot com slash podcast.

Now get out there and be well, do good, and enjoy the ride.

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