Emotional contagion may be involved in mob psychology crowd behaviors, like collective fear, disgust, or moral outrage, but also emotional interactions in smaller groups such as work negotiation, teaching and persuasion/propaganda contexts. It is also the phenomenon when a person (especially a child) appears distressed because another person is distressed, or happy because they are happy. The ability to transfer moods appears to be innate in humans.
To date, most clinical research has focused on the effects on non-verbal (and often non-emotional) displays, and relatively less has been studied about the impact of contagion effects on emotional feelings. Emotional contagion and empathy are have an interesting relationship; for without an ability to differentiate between personal and pre-personal experience (see individuation), they appear the same. In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm explores the autonomy necessary for empathy which is not found in contagion. Fromm extolled the virtues of humans taking independent action and using reason to establish moral values rather than adhering to authoritarian moral values. Recognizing emotions and acknowledging their cause can be one way to avoid emotional contagion.
Transfers of emotions have been studied in different situations and settings. Social and physiological causes are the two largest areas of research.
The research of Sigal G. Barsade of The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania shows the impact of positive emotions on work groups. "Emotional contagion, the transfer of emotion between individuals, and its influence on work group dynamics was examined in two managerial simulations using multiple, convergent measures of emotions and group dynamics. The studies tested hypotheses on differential contagion effects due to the degree of pleasantness of the emotion, and the energy with which this pleasantness was conveyed. After determining that emotional contagion existed in groups, I then examined the influence of emotional contagion on individual-level attitudes and group processes. As predicted, experiencing positive emotional contagion led to improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceptions of task performance - all as rated by self, other group members, and outside video- coders. The opposite was the case when experiencing negative emotional contagion. Theoretical implications and practical ramifications of emotional contagion in groups and organizations are discussed."
Robert Levenson Phd. researches human psychophysiology. Levenson uses longitudinal studies of married couples physiological responses. He measures how empathy requires a calm and receptive emotional environment for the couple to be in physiological sync. When an emotional hijacking is taking place (anger or argument) empathy declines and the cognitions of the spouse are blocked. Dr. Ed Diener maintains that genetics influences our positive and negative dispositions. David Lykken offers an emotional set point theory he backs up with habitability studies of twins.
Psychologist Elaine Hatfield theorizes emotional contagions as a two-step process. Step 1: We imitate people, if someone smiles at you, you smile back. Step 2: Changes in mood through faking it. If you smile you feel happy, if you frown you feel bad. Mimicry seems to be one foundation of emotional movement between people. Hour old infants are wired to mimic a person's facial gestures. When you smile, the baby will smile.
Martin E.P.Seligman, Ph.D. uses synchrony games to build children’s learning that "your actions matter and can control outcomes". When a baby bangs on a table the adult bangs on the table, replicating the action. This is one way emotional learning can be validated by an adult.
Albert Bandura believed that individuals, especially children learn aggressive responses from observing others, either personally or through the media and environment. In his famous Bobo doll experiment he had children watch a Bobo doll being hit and kicked. He showed that violent behavior increased when modeled for children.
H.G. Wells created panic when his radio theater broadcast "War of the Worlds". People believed that the Earth was being invaded from outer space beings.
Vittorio Gallese posits that Mirror Neurons are the cause of intentional attunement in relation to others. Gallese found a class of premotor neurons that discharge when macaque monkeys execute goal-related hand movements in themselves or when watching others. One class of these F5 audio-visual neurons will fire with action execution and observation, and with sound production of the same action. Research in humans shows an activation of the premotor and parietal areas of the brain when action perception and execution experiments have been preformed. Gallese continues his dialogue to say humans understand emotions through a simulated shared body state. The observers’ neural activation enables a direct experiential understanding. "Unmediated resonance" is a similar theory by Goldman and Sripada (2004). Empathy can be a product of the functional mechanism in our brain that creates embodied simulation. The other we see or hear becomes the "other self" in our minds.
The amygdala is the part of the brain mechanism that underlies empathy and allows for emotional attunement and creates the pathway for emotional contagions. The basa areas including the brain stem form a tight loop of biological connectedness, re-creating in one person the physiological state of the other. Howard Friedman, a psychologist at University of California at Irvine thinks this is why some people can move and inspire others. The use of facial expressions, voices, gestures and body movements transmit emotions to an audience from a speaker.
The concept of insulating oneself from emotional contagion is called emotional detachment. Alexithymic conditions may be one avenue people use to avoid emotional contagions. Primary alexithymia has a distinct neurological basis and a physical cause, such as genetic abnormality, disrupted biological development or brain injury (an example would be stroke). Secondary alexithymia results from psychological influences such as sociocultural conditioning, neurotic retroflection or defense against trauma. Secondary is often seen in post- traumatic stress patients. Secondary alexithymia is presumed to be more transient than primary alexithymia and hence more likely to respond to therapy or training.
Carol Tavris in her review, "Pursued by Fashionable Furies" has this to say about Author Elaine Showalter; Elaine Showalter, a professor of English and president- elect of the Modern Language Association, has written a spirited Freudo-literary analysis of what she calls hysterical epidemics and what social scientists call emotional contagions or mass psychogenic illnesses. Her six examples are chronic fatigue syndrome, gulf war syndrome, recovered memories of sexual abuse, multiple personality disorder, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction. She knows full well that throwing the first three into the mix will infuriate thousands of people who believe they are suffering from unidentified organic disorders or the aftereffects of trauma. She braves not only their wrath, but also that of the feminist therapists and writers whose credulous endorsements of recovered memory and satanic abuse have contributed to these epidemics. Carol Tavris takes a critical look at what is behind some emotionally contagious diseases. She sifts the organic from the psychological reasons that people are diagnosed with emotionally contagious labels. Tavris suggests critical thinking as the inoculation against false beliefs.
Imago therapy helps people use strategic communication skills to build better relationships. Dr. Harville Hendrix developed this program to teach people how to stop and think about what they are feeling then effectively express their feelings. This stops run-a-way emotions from being transferred in relationships and becoming unhealthy habits.
Howard Gardner has developed his multiple intelligence theory to include; Interpersonal intelligence is concerned with the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people. It allows people to work effectively with others. Educators, salespeople, religious and political leaders and counselors all need a well-developed interpersonal intelligence. Intrapersonal intelligence entails the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one's feelings, fears and motivations. In Howard Gardner's view it involves having an effective working model of us, and to be able to use such information to regulate our lives. The use of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence can create an atmosphere of growth for individuals.