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The five: emotional contagion

The Guardian logo The Guardian 24/01/2021 Ian Tucker
a girl sitting on a table: Photograph: FlairImages/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: FlairImages/Getty Images

Teen virus

a girl looking at the camera: Studies have apparently found that women are more vulnerable to emotional contagion than men. © Photograph: FlairImages/Getty Images Studies have apparently found that women are more vulnerable to emotional contagion than men.

Last week, scientists from the universities of Oxford and Birmingham published research describing how teenagers’ moods were affected by those of others around them – and that bad moods were more potent. They also found that when a teenager “catches” a low mood from a friend, the friend’s outlook becomes more cheerful.

It’s a synch

A number of studies in the 1990s fleshed out the concept of emotional contagion. The idea is that humans synchronise with the emotions of those around them, either unconsciously or consciously. Typically, we may mimic other people’s expressions, vocalisations and movements. At its most basic level, if someone is happy and smiles at you, the act of smiling back improves your mood.

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Downward spiral

In 2014, Facebook was used to study emotional contagion. After manipulating the emotional content of 700,000 users’ news feeds, the researchers found that after being exposed to negative content users shared less positive and more negative posts. The experiment demonstrated that personal interaction and non-verbal clues weren’t necessary for emotional contagion. The study proved highly controversial – several other teams published papers questioning its ethics.

Factored in

According to Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii, there are factors that increase our openness to emotional contagion, such as: feeling we have a connection with someone; being skilled at reading non-verbal clues; having a tendency to mimic people and; our awareness of and ability to read our emotional states.

More feeling

Studies have found that women are more vulnerable to emotional contagion than men. A 2011 study of 48 pairs of friends found that, after talking with a troubled friend, women’s moods were more likely to deteriorate but men’s moods were less changed, whether the troubled friend’s mood improved or not.


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