An Emotion Researcher Explains What Happens When You 'Catch A Vibe'

Sociologist Per Block describes the all-too-familiar phenomenon of contagious moods.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 26, 2022

A new study published in Emotion confirms a hunch we have all had: we really can catch someone else's mood (positive or negative) for no direct or apparent reason. The study refers to this phenomenon as mood contagion.

I recently spoke to sociologist Per Block of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science in the United Kingdom to understand what the implications of a mood contagion could be for you and me. Here is a summary of our conversation.

How would you describe the phenomenon of mood contagion to the average individual?

In our study, mood contagion is when a mood experienced by one person is subsequently experienced by another person after some sort of contact between the two, and would not be shared without this contact.

This is a cumbersome definition of a rather intuitive process, but it has two important implications:

  1. First, mood contagion implies a causal process, where I "catch" your mood (your mood causes my mood), as opposed to some other reason why we feel the same way (for example, we both experienced the same sad news — here, the news caused my mood.
  2. Second, it is agnostic to the mechanism by which the mood is transmitted, i.e. we don't know how the mood is transmitted. In fact the "how" is potentially an even more complicated question than detecting mood contagion in the first place.

What was the methodology followed by your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

After we collected the data with the very specific requirements outlined above, we could use a statistical model that was designed to model and estimate the importance of social contagion in participants' moods.

Our main and most important finding is that we could detect mood contagion and show that it is a substantial predictor of the mood of the participants in the research.

It is important to highlight that mood contagion usually works in both directions; if you are sad and I am happy, our interaction will, on average, lead to a convergence of moods towards a more neutral mood. So while I cheer you up, I might be a little less cheerful afterwards.

Our second finding is that we have no evidence for mood avoidance, meaning that there is no evidence that our adolescents experiencing negative moods have fewer social contacts.

Together with the effect of mood contagion, this suggests a process in which adolescents that experience negative mood can draw on support from their peers to overcome their negative moods.

'Draw strong personal boundaries' or 'protect your energy' are techniques quoted frequently in popular discourse to not let others' negative mood affect ours. Do you think your study provides evidence and substantiates this personal practice?

It depends on what you want to achieve. Ostracizing people that experience negative mood might protect your mood in the short run. However, you withhold social support that could potentially help them by 'sharing' some of your positive mood.

Furthermore, your social relations and longer-term mood prospects might suffer if you turn your back on those around you as soon as they experience negative moods.

However, this is based on a short-term study of mood, and we certainly do not have sufficient evidence to give longer-term recommendations on how to live your life.

Adolescent musicians were an interesting and oddly specific sample choice. Could you break down the thought process behind this choice?

Reliably detecting mood contagion outside an experiment and in the real world is very tricky. There are multiple processes that can lead to false conclusions about social contagion in standard empirical paradigms.

One confounding process is called homophily; in our context this describes the tendency of people that experience a similar mood to seek each other out for interaction (e.g., happy people want to interact with other happy people).

This leads to connected people experiencing similar moods, which can look like the outcome of mood contagion.

To distinguish contagion and homophily, we need to have fine-grained longitudinal data that tells us whether interaction or mood similarity came first.

Next, analyzing social interactions and their consequences outside of the larger social relations in which they happen often leads to biased conclusions. This means we should look at the evolution of mood and interactions of entire groups that interact with one another.

However, finding groups that have proper boundaries so that all interactions that are relevant for the group members happens within this group is hard, since most of our lives happen in different, non-overlapping social circles.

For example, what might look like mood contagion in a school might actually be caused by relationships or influences outside the classroom.

Third, the most difficult obstacle to overcome is the effect of commonly experienced external events by subsets of the network (mentioned in question 1). In these cases, the similarity of mood between connected individuals is caused by jointly experiencing something that makes connected individuals happy or sad, but not caused by contagion (e.g. sad news, enjoyable weather, stressful exam).

Thus, unless we are able to record all exogenous events that influence participants' mood, or minimize the differences between participants in the exogenous events they experience, it is hard to convincingly show mood contagion.

Taken together, this means that in order to analyze real-world mood contagion properly we need to find a closed group that has few interactions with non-members, in which members are exposed to highly similar exogenous events, and that is willing to provide daily data on mood and interaction over a prolonged amount of time.

The musical ensembles on tour were an ideal choice that fulfilled all of these conditions, and the adolescent musicians were kind enough to participate in our research.

What probable underlying explanations might there be for a mood contagion? And why do you think it is stronger in the case of negative moods?

Understanding the mechanisms underlying mood contagion is a further important question that should be addressed next, and it is difficult to answer.

Our study cannot shed light on this, we could only speculate. There are many excellent psychology studies that investigate how mood is transmitted, but our study did not look at this.

One point to keep in mind about the higher contagiousness of negative mood in our study is that the study design made it difficult for individuals in a negative mood to withdraw.

It is possible that in other settings, negative emotional states can lead to people withdrawing from social interaction for a while. But this was potentially less easy for participants to do so in our study due to the tour schedule which included many group activities.

So the heightened contagion of negative mood might be influenced by this in our case – we don't know whether this would translate to other settings.

Where do you hope to see future research on mood contagion go?

I think an interesting future avenue for research on mood contagion is understanding the dynamics of group moods, for example are there tipping points when collective moods emerge or become more extreme – but I anticipate that this needs completely new research designs.

At the same time, I hope that the increasing availability of social media data does not replace theory driven data collection efforts in the offline world, since I think studying social influence on facebook or twitter is not very interesting. The last few years have certainly brought home to us that face to face interactions are unique and in some ways irreplaceable.