The Ripple Effect (Emotional Contagion in Groups)

domino effect

The ripple effect affects people like a domino effect.

The ripple effect is emotional contagion in groups, which is more precisely the transfer of moods among people in a group. This is an interesting phenomenon, and I am sure many of you are familiar with it.

It is obvious that the moods of others affect us, and spending time with someone negative will increase your own negativity. In a study (Barsade, 2002), the author wanted to examine this in an experimental setting.

He did so by hiring a trained confederate who manipulated and monitored different moods, and it was found that both outsiders (observers) as well as participants reported differences in mood depending on the mood of the confederate.

Today, the subconscious, automatic, and emotional contagion has accumulated most of the evidence. This kind of contagion occurs through non-verbal communication, i.e. imitation.

Imitation is thought to be an innate human tendency, and infants who are only a few days old, do in fact show the tendency to imitate. Once people imitate they will experience the emotion itself, and this is the basis for the emotional contagion in groups.

Social comparison theory states that people compare their moods with those of others, and then act situationally appropriate. People use emotions as social information cues, and these emotions do have contagion effects as well as the cognitive perspective taking (putting oneself in the situation of another).

Negative stimuli, and negative events do elicit stronger emotional, behavioural, and cognitive responses than either neutral or positive ones do.

The way a person expresses emotions is also contributing to the contagion process. If the emotional expression is energetic, then the ripple effect is greater.

Strong negative emotions will have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect due to the social feedback system: When someone is in negative mood, then it is very likely that his negative emotions influence the mood of the group.

Increased arousal and energetic emotional responses are tightly related; this arousal will increase a person’s emotional involvement. Emotional contagion influences cognitions, behaviours and attitudes, and the manipulation of moods can therefore be used to change these.

The good thing about all this is that positive emotional contagion has a similar effect on us as negative contagion has, so it is all about facilitating the positive moods.

A beneficial effect of facilitating positive moods is that positive moods are associated with increased cognitive effort, problem-solving strategies, and feelings of self-efficacy (Barsade, 2002).

Image: Edward Badley