Coronavirus: How Emotional Contagion Exacts a Toll
Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade believes the widespread panic as a result of the coronavirus is a form of emotional contagion. Simply defined, emotional contagion is the transfer of moods and feelings from one person to another. It happens all the time on a micro-level and is usually harmless, like a baby smiling back at a smiling adult, or a yawn that ripples from one person in the room to another. But at the macro-level, emotional contagion can be dangerous because it can interfere with making sound, logical decisions.
“I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19,” she said. Even though the vast majority of people won’t contract the virus, a much higher percentage will experience emotional contagion, she said. That can lead to a surge in worry, anxiety and fear – unpleasant emotions for individuals that can compound in the broader context.
“One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions,” she said. “Emotional contagion affects everyone, which means that it can also affect leaders. It can affect policymakers. They have a little bit more protection because at least the policymakers and experts really have good knowledge of the facts. But if you’re not aware that emotional contagion is influencing you, you could make poorer decisions.”