Sigal Barsade talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's Fast Moving Front in the field of Economics
Article: The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and
its influence on group behavior
Journal: ADMIN SCI QUART, 47 (4): 644-675, DEC 2002
Addresses: Yale Univ, New Haven, CT 06520 USA.
Yale Univ, New Haven, CT 06520 USA.
Why do you think your paper is highly
This article addressed the question: "Do moods transfer from person to
person in a group setting, and how does this contagion of mood then
influence individual and group level outcomes?" This paper is likely highly
cited because of the novelty of the research question, and because this
construct of group-level emotional contagion offers the ability to
construct a more complete model of group dynamics.
With regard to its novel questions, first, the article examines a unique
kind of information group members share among themselves—affective
information, by way of the process of emotional contagion.
Past group research had focused almost exclusively on the transfer of
cognitive structures, such as ideas and attitudes, from one person to
another through processes such as social information processing or social
cognition. While recognizing that group members share cognitions is
important to understanding the complexities of group dynamics, it does not
provide a complete understanding of group dynamics. Adding emotional
contagion helps to complete the picture.
"The context of the study was a
leaderless group decision-making exercise
where group members took the role of a bonus
allocation committee that needed to decide
how to allocate money across the candidates
they represented from a bonus
Second, the research question I examined was novel in its expansion of the
construct of emotional contagion itself to the group level. By drawing from
the psychology, group dynamics, and organizational behavior literatures, I
built a theoretical case for the viability and mechanics of emotional
contagion in a group setting. To the date of the article, the processes of
emotion contagion had been studied almost exclusively in a dyadic context,
and no studies had theorized or empirically examined the processes of group
emotional contagion and its subsequent influence on group processes in a
controlled group setting.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
This article had a variety of new discoveries. First, it tested and showed
that emotional contagion exists in a group, and, based on the affective
circumplex model—focusing on the dimensions of emotional valence
(positive/negative) and energy—tested the parameters of the
construct. I found that positive and negative emotions were equally
contagious. I also theorized and investigated whether the process of
emotional contagion in groups could indeed significantly influence
meaningful group outcomes.
Using both outside video coder raters as well as ratings made by group
members themselves, I found robust results that positive emotional
contagion led to less conflict, greater cooperation (measured also by the
distribution of financial resources by the group), and greater perceived
Methodologically, having an actor (a confederate) enact the four affective
conditions, allowed a unique level of control in an inherently
difficult-to-capture phenomenon. In addition, multiple measures were used
to track the emotional contagion.
The context of the study was a leaderless group decision-making exercise
where group members took the role of a bonus allocation committee that
needed to decide how to allocate money across the candidates they
represented from a bonus pool. Each group member was instructed to both
advocate for his or her particular candidate and do the best for the
organization at large.
The entire group dynamic was taped, with video tapes focusing on individual
participants, as well as on the group as a whole. These recordings enabled
video-coder ratings of contagion, which, when triangulated with the
participant's own self-reports, and the ratings of other group members
about the participants, offered a particularly strong test of the theory,
providing particularly compelling evidence that emotional contagion had
In addition, the similarity in ratings between the outside video-coder
ratings and individual participants' self-reports of contagion has the
benefit of demonstrating the veracity of self-ratings of emotional
contagion. This finding is very helpful in offering support for future
researchers to be able to validly measure emotional contagion via
self-reporting in organizational settings that may not readily lend
themselves to outside verification, such as observers or videotaping.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
The significance of this paper is that people have a tendency to
automatically "catch" other people's emotions, including in group settings.
The outcome of group positive emotional contagion is that it leads to less
group conflict, more group cooperation, and more cooperative
decision-making choices. The opposite is the case for group negative
Where do you see your research leading in the
My research is continuing in the field of the psychology of emotions,
particularly within an organizational behavior context. Specific to
emotional contagion, I am very interested in investigating "tipping
mechanisms"—i.e., what ratio of positivity to negativity does it take
to tip a group in one emotional direction or another?
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
This research has direct significance for social, political, and economic
behavior. There is a huge amount of literature within psychology showing
that emotions influence memory, perception, and cognition. As such, if
people "catch" each other's emotions, then this can influence their
decisions accordingly. This can be problematic, however, if people are not
aware that the mood they are in, or the subsequent actions, originated from
someone else's emotions—not their own. For this reason, making people
aware of the phenomena of emotional contagion is important. For example,
emotional contagion could have an influence on how economic processes
operate as the anxiety/worry—or exuberance—that originates with
fewer people "ripples" out via emotional contagion to a larger group of
people, influencing collective behavior.
Another example could be in politics or management where a leader's ability
to infect a group of people with a particular mood through emotional
contagion is a potent influence technique. Also, as people are "walking
mood inductors"—and receptors—emotional contagion can have a
day-to-day influence in many social situations.
Professor Sigal Barsade
Wharton School of Business
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA, USA