Emotional Contagion, Empathy and Compassion



If you ever felt like you didn't want to be around someone because they had bad energy you've likely experienced emotional contagion. There are also those people you just want to be around because they put you in a great mood, make you feel calm and relaxed and good about yourself. The Dalai Llama is one of those people everyone says that they want to be around.


Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness that it is happening. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments. You've probably experienced it yourself in your workplace or family. Teams are easily influenced by the moods or attitudes of one another or their leaders. One family member can spoil the mood of everyone at the dinner table if they have had a rough day or (in the case of a teenager a rough few years). You might even notice it on an airplane or in a movie theater if there is more than one baby. All it takes is one of them to start crying, and the whole bunch will follow along.


Emotional Contagion is even possible through social networking. Studies have shown that the positivity and negativity of people's posts can be manipulated by what and who is introduced in their stream.


Additionally, research shows that in life social networks ( friend groups) happiness can spread. So much so that if a friend of your friend gets happy it will have a ripple effect. You should hang out with happy people because happiness spreads. One study of 5,000 individuals over 20 years concluded when an individual becomes happy, the network effect could be seen up to three degrees.


Most researchers take emotional contagion along with the discovery of mirror neurons as evidence that we are hardwired for empathy and therefore, compassion.


In 1992, a team at the University of Parma, Italy discovered mirror neurons in macaque monkeys. A group of cells in these monkeys fired when monkeys performed an action AND ALSO when they OBSERVED someone else doing that same action. The monkey picked up a banana, and a group of cells fired, and then when that same monkey watched another monkey pick up and peel the banana, the same group of cells fired.


Studies have shown that humans have the same mirror system in their brains. What does this have to do with compassion? Think about when you watch someone stub their toe or get jabbed with a needle. Do you wince? This is the mirror neuron effect. You are imagining what another person is feeling and perceiving it from their viewpoint. We know that our brain has the structure built into it to perform this task of empathizing as if it were essential to our survival to do. It has been suggested that mirror neurons may contain the neurological ground rules for compassion.


Emotional contagion is described as the most primitive form of empathy. While emotional contagion is just catching another's emotion unknowingly, empathy refers to our ability to feel and perceive another's viewpoint. Empathy is the building block of compassion. Compassion can be defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.


How does emotional contagion work? Researchers who study emotional contagion think that the primary, although not exclusive way, emotional contagion works is through mimicry and feedback. In conversation, people tend to unknowingly mimic their movements with the facial expressions, voices, and postures of others and that our emotions are activated by this process.


It is believed that this form of empathy evolved before verbal communication and aided in communication which helped in human survival.


Emotional contagion is often at play in our lives when we have feelings and don't understand where they are coming from. Most of our difficulty with emotions happens when they have control of you, and you are reacting to them without awareness. If you are struggling with a difficult emotion in any particular situation of your life, whether it is at home, in the workplace with a coworker, in a friendship, or with your child, it may be beneficial to ask your self where the feeling might be coming from and if it is your feeling, or maybe someone else's that you've caught Sometimes a disconnect between the circumstances and your feelings can be a clue, or, the intensity of the feeling can be as well. Practicing RAIN and writing in a self-compassion journal can help you to determine what might be happening.


You may realize that a particular person is struggling with negativity or depression and that you are catching their emotions. If that is the case, your choice may be to get some space, or to try to influence them with a more optimistic perspective. Or conversely, you may notice that you feel energized and positive when you are around certain people and that their emotions are catching. You also may decided to work on spending time with more positive people. If you are a leader of a team, you may realize there are emotional contagion factors at work on the team and you need to do some rearranging or adjusting.


Knowing about emotional contagion can help you mindfully and intentionally pay attention to the role it plays in your home and work life, so you can begin to see more clearly how to address it.



Ehrenfeld, T. (n.d.). Reflections on Mirror Neurons. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/reflections-on-mirror-neurons.


Hatfield, E. (1993). Emotional contagion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


James H Fowler, Nicholas A Christakis. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, December 4, 2008




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