The phenomenon of Emotional Contagion

10 March 2023

The power of emotions is now well-known and established. Emotions influence people’s mental and physical well-being and impact our judgments, evaluations and decisions daily. Simply put, emotions direct our everyday behaviour. Following this, an interesting theory should be considered: emotional contagion. 

Emotional contagion was first explained by Elaine Hatfield in 1993 and described as ‘the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronise facial expressions, vocalisations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally’. Emotional contagion refers to the automatic adoption of the emotional state of another person, the key word being ‘automatic’ meaning beyond human conscious control. We simply can’t help it, for example, to smile when we see another person smiling.

To better understand it, this phenomenon refers to the human tendency to copy the behaviour of others and that reproduction leads to feeling the same emotions as the person or people first copied. As the definition states, one’s behaviour is copied through the mimicking of facial expressions, body language, speech patterns, and verbal tones. The innateness of this tendency has been confirmed by several studies that have found these same behaviours in infants only a few days old.

Studies have shown that the mirroring of positive and even negative emotions can have several implications in different contexts. For instance, a 2019 study has shown that, in the workplace, negative emotional contagion (e.g., anger) leads to more cognitive errors and accidents than when positive contagion takes place. In the context of retail, instead, emotional contagion and more specifically genuine smiling have been found to improve product evaluation and satisfaction.

Emotional contagion can occur both through face-to-face interactions but also via television, social media, ads and so on…A 2020 study focused on the concept and impact of the emotional contagion of static images/pictures in ads. Even in this case, it was confirmed that the facial expression of the model can strongly influence the perception and evaluation of the product featured in the ad. Regardless of the context, emotional contagion affects human behaviour and also our behaviour as consumers. 

It goes without saying that this phenomenon can be a powerful tool for brands to incite in consumers positive emotional associations with their products. This association would, of course, lead to positive consequences such as an increase in sales, increased engagement, brand loyalty and much more…

A 2016 piece already explained how being able to create positive emotional contagion has become a “marketing imperative” and interestingly, it all goes back to the creation of emotional content, advertising and branding. Coca-Cola is a great example of a brand that, through its marketing and advertising, creates positive associations through the eliciting of happiness. Think about it, how many times watching a Coca-Cola ad, especially a Christmas one, have you felt a bit more overjoyed and happier? 

Emotional contagion is a truly interesting phenomenon and certainly a powerful one. By acknowledging its power and the better way to apply it, brands and businesses can have profound positive consequences. It is fundamental, however, to tailor specific emotions according to the people targeted and the periods of time, otherwise, it would produce a counter-effective result. 

If you are a brand or business that would like to discuss more about how to include the phenomenon of emotional contagion in your strategy, email us. We can help you. 




Barsade, S.G. (2002). The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influence on Group Behaviour. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47 (4), 644-675

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J., & Rapson, R.L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Isabella, G., & Vieira, V.A. (2020). The effect of facial expression on emotional contagion and product evaluation in print advertising. Management Journal, 55(3), 1-17.

Kuppens, P., Realo, A., & Diener, E. (2008). The role of positive and negative emotions in life satisfaction judgement across nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 66–75.

Petitta, L., Probst, T. M., Ghezzi, V., & Barbaranelli, C. (2019). Cognitive failures in response to emotional contagion: Their effects on workplace accidents. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 125, 165–173.

Singer, T., & Tusche, A. (2014). Chapter 27: Understanding Others: Brain Mechanisms of Theory of Mind and Empathy in Neuroeconomics, Decision Making and the Brain. 513-532.