Emotional Contagion: How Fear and Panic Spread

Modern technologies allow for the rapid spread of emotional contagion. In the face of an evolving global crisis, this may do more harm than good.

On New Year’s Eve of 2019, China’s World Health Organisation (WHO) office heard the first reports of a new virus causing pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan. Less than 3 months on, the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 has developed into a global crisis.

On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared the disease a pandemic. The same day, the case count reached more than 118,000 worldwide cases and close to 4,300 deaths. On March 12, 2020, the UK and US stock markets experienced their worst day since 1987, with the FTSE 100 dropping more than 10% and the S&P 500 falling 9.5%.

If the statistics are to be trusted, China’s containment effort is slowing the disease. But Europe has become its epicentre. Italy and Spain have declared states of emergency, shutting schools, universities and businesses – in effect, putting their populations into quarantine. Other countries have already followed. Many more will do so in the coming days and weeks.

Meanwhile, supermarkets are now rationing products to control panic buying. Popular long-life foods, like pasta, rice and tinned meats, are now gold dust. Hand sanitiser and medical masks are nowhere to be found. And before all of this, for reasons I’m yet to fully understand, the world has rushed to bulk purchase toilet roll, annihilating supermarket stocks. (Bizarrely, people appear to value managing what is exiting more than what is entering their bodies at this stage.)

Make no mistake, this is a public health crisis. Many more will die, particularly among our elderly populations.

But the early reaction is unprecedented.

We are not just witnessing a global case of biological contagion; we are witnessing a global case of emotional contagion. And the spread of fear, particularly at this delicate point, has the potential to be more dangerous than the disease itself.

What Is Emotional Contagion?

Let’s step back for a moment to explore this concept.

Emotional contagion is where one person or group’s emotional sentiments and behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people. This effect can be both explicit or implicit.

Explicit Emotional Contagion

Explicit emotional contagion is the result of deliberate efforts to transfer emotions and behaviours. In the workplace, for example, leadership can apply this concept to influence a workforce. Enthusiastic leadership can drive improved work ethic and better results.

We can adjust our presentation styles to leverage this effect, too. A 2000 study at Universität Würzburg in Germany found that participants “caught” the mood of an emotionally neutral presentation, simply based on whether it was delivered in a slightly happy or sad voice.

Implicit Emotional Contagion

Implicit emotional contagion, on the other hand, is the automatic and less conscious transfer of emotions and behaviours. This type of contagion is associated with non-verbal communication and perhaps more pertinently, media communication.

Social media can play a powerful role in spreading emotional sentiments. One famously unethical study carried out by Cornell University in partnership with Facebook in 2012 looked at how 689,000 users reacted by filtering positive or negative emotional content from their news feeds. The results suggested that content indirectly influenced emotion and mood. A more ethical subsequent study appeared to validate this emotional contagion effect in Twitter users.

The bottom line is that at an implicit level, emotional sentiments can have network effects. Modern technologies help us to implicitly transfer fear, joy, outrage, grief – and at an extraordinarily wide and rapid scale.

What Causes Emotional Contagion?

But it’s also worth understanding why we are so susceptible to this effect, particularly at the implicit level.

At the heart of the idea of emotional contagion is mimicry. When we see an emotion or behaviour, so-called “mirror neurons” fire up, activating parts of the brain implicated in mimicking emotions.

In a seminal study in 2000, researchers at Uppsala University exposed participants to happy, neutral, and angry faces for just 30 milliseconds. These were then immediately followed and masked by a neutral face.

And here’s the punchline. Participants were not exposed for long enough to the emotional faces to be conscious, but they reacted with increased electrical activity in the facial muscles needed to mimic these emotions. Unconsciously, then, participants were mimicking the emotions of others.

This unconscious emotional contagion, supported by our neurological predisposition for mimicry, sheds some light on the panic we’ve seen so far with COVID-19.

Fear and the Herd Mentality

When we see one group communicating negative emotions, like fear, emotional contagion can be disproportionate. Psychologists have shown that the effects of emotional contagion are stronger for negative emotions, like fear, grief or outrage, than for positive emotions, like enthusiasm or celebration.

And when emotion spreads, the spread of associated actions follows. Fear drives decisions to panic and stockpile canned food – and yes, toilet roll – and our natural urge is to follow suit. This is despite this action compounding the problems we already have in the supply chain.

As more join the train of panic, the network effects of fear can spiral further. Fear for our health, fear for our families and loved ones, fear for our economic prosperity, fear of the unknown. When conditions are optimal for the spread of these sentiments, they lead to herd actions that are disproportionate to the current reality. Justified by the actions and sentiments of others, but disproportionate.

Emotional Contagion and COVID-19

This psychological mechanism is not entirely unhelpful, of course. It is designed to protect us and our families. But its effect is multiplied many times by a lack of clarity and control.

Conflicting information stokes uncertainty, and this uncertainty provokes questions that stoke fear. Why does the information conflict? Why is the death rate so much higher in one country than another? What are they hiding? Why is one country taking a tougher approach than another?

We overcompensate for a lack of control. When faced with an evolving crisis over which we have no control, we overcompensate to protect ourselves and loved ones, and return a sense of control. We buy 50 cans of baked beans instead of 10. We buy a year’s supply of toilet roll because our networks have informed us of a shortage. Better to overprepare and have an excess supply of baked beans at the end of this crisis than to starve to death.

Actions compound actions. Even if we are not directly in the sphere of this emotional contagion, actions kick us into action. If we see the shelves are running short on pasta and rice, we recognise we need to buy some before it’s too late. If we see there is only one pack of toilet roll left in the supermarket, our instinct is to buy it, for fear it may not be stocked again for some time.

Fear clouds our objectivity. The rapid spread of emotional contagion also leads to unhelpful doomsday predictions. Figures are taken and extrapolated to the worst possible outcome. Great Depressions of the like never seen before, and millions, even hundreds of millions, dead. A huge raft of circulating information clouds objectivity. It ignores humanity’s collective ingenuity and dynamicity.

The Information Paradox. In situations like this, we must stay informed. But there is a fine balance between useful information, over-information and shoddy information. Our voracious desire to stay informed is paradoxically the thing that serves to spread unhelpful emotional contagion the most. Filtering information has never been more important.

Our Bright Future Is Contagious

I’m not an expert on pandemics nor the psychology of pandemics. But it’s clear this situation will continue to get worse before it gets better.

Many more will die. Health services may be stretched to their maximum. There will be more economic disruption. Jobs lost. Money lost. Financial markets may continue to crash. The world may prematurely face an inevitable global recession. Countries may confront sovereign debt crises like never before.

But despite all the possible damage, of this I am certain: When the world begins to return to normal – which will be quicker than the wide sentiments of fear currently suggest – opportunities will be abundant, and positivity, slowly and surely, will be contagious.

Until then, we must do our best to stay optimistic and objective in the face of an evolving biological and emotional contagion.

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