Emotional Contagion and Beyond

Toxic bosses. Debbie Downers. Our language reflects the idea that some people have a real emotional effect on their fellow workers. Now, interesting research not only confirms this idea but adds to it in several important ways:
– It’s not just a few people who infect others with their moods; everyone has a measurable impact on those around them, for better or worse.
– This effect is consistent over time.
– This effect is different than “emotional contagion,” a short term effect caused by a temporary mood.

In The Way You Make Me Feel: Evidence for Individual Differences in Affective Presence, researchers Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein describe their findings from studying 48 work groups. They found that a significant part of their subjects’ moods were formed by the “trait affective presence” of others. This was particularly true for negative effects.

Emotional Contagion

In trying to identify the consistent, long-term effect people had on those around them, the researchers attempted to control for “emotional contagion.” That is, if a person happens to be in a good or bad mood, that mood can be transferred to others. While not insignificant from a management standpoint, contagious emotions were not the target of the researchers, who were looking for effects largely independent of the mood of the moment.

Internal Moods

One piece of good news is that an individual’s own emotional set point is also a powerful force. This characteristic, called the “trait affect,” was particularly potent for positive emotions. Unfortunately, positive emotions were also less likely to be transmitted to others.

Who’s The Worst?

If you want to keep a positive work environment, what kind of person should you avoid hiring? Eisenkraft and Elfenbein found that the most potent negative force were individuals with low agreeableness and greater extraversion.

What’s a Manager To Do?

The concept of a persistent trait affective presence needs more research if it is to create actionable management strategies. One interesting finding from the study is that the effects individuals have on others may not be easily predictable from their own personality traits. Eventually, perhaps there will be tests that measure trait affective presence and even coaching strategies to help those with a negative impact on others.

For the moment, managers should be aware that in a dynamic work environment, each person affects those around them in some way. One category of problem individual that should be relatively easy for managers to identify is the “negative extrovert” – this type of individual can have a powerful negative effect on the rest of the group. And, while it may not be a sure-fire neuromanagement strategy, it can’t hurt to hire happy people!
Image via Shutterstock

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— who has written 959 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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2 responses to "Emotional Contagion and Beyond" — Your Turn

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Darius cel Tulbure 2. November 2010 at 9:06 am

That guy has a sad expression on his face. It’s a negative expression, but it can provoke sympathy rather than negative emotions. I think the best “low agreeableness, high extroversion” type is embodied by the Annoying Orange http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN5PoW7_kdA :)

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Mike 29. March 2011 at 5:39 pm

What if it’s the boss who possesses “low agreeableness and greater extraversion”?

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