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Social Contagion: Spiral Up or Spiral Down?

By on April 7, 2008 – 4:36 pm  6 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



Social contagion is a term for moods spreading from person to person. We are physically constructed to make this possible. Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence (2007) writes about mirror neurons that fire in response to observing behavior or emotions in others. “For instance, when volunteers lay in an fMRI watching a video showing someone smile or scowl, most brain areas that activated in the observers were the same as those active in the person displaying the emotion, though not as extreme.” (p. 42). We pick up emotions from others not just because we see and interpret them rationally, but also because we experience them directly in the firing of our mirror neurons.

Social contagion can be in either positive or negative directions. Gratitude and gloom can both spread rapidly through groups.

So what can we do to increase the probability that the moods that spread around and through us are positive rather than negative? I have some suggestions that involve paying attention to the connections we have with others throughout the day. By connections, I mean brief exchanges, not deep relationships. Jane Dutton in Energize your Workplace (2003, p. 2), “Any point of contact with another person can potentially be a high-quality connection. One conversation, one e-mail exchange, one moment of connecting in a meeting can infuse both participants with a greater sense of vitality, giving them a bounce in their steps and a greater capacity to act.“

  1. Let your good moods show. When I’m feeling happy, I notice that people I pass in the hallway smile back at me. Presumably that means their mirror neurons are giving them a quick taste of the good feelings that I am experiencing.
  2. Pay attention to the quality of your own connections with others, seeking to behave in ways that create high-quality connections. According to Jane Dutton, the strategies that lead to high-quality connections in a workplace involve little actions that build trust, show respectful engagement, and enable others to do their tasks effectively, such as teaching, advocating for them, and accommodating their preferences.These strategies line up with the model tested by Tsai, Chen, and Liu to explain the linkage between positive mood and task performance via the following mediators: helping others and being helped, self-efficacy, and task persistence. High-quality connections boost positive affect, increase the likelihood that people will help each other, and increase the energy that people have for persisting at tasks, all of which contribute to better task performance.Positive Affect Model - mediators

    The rest of the suggestions involve buttressing yourself against the contagion from gloomy or corrosive connections.

  3. Make a conscious effort not to join in unless there’s something constructive you can do. When a friend or loved one is miserable, I have learned to actively resist joining in the gloom. A few years ago, I started telling myself, “Just because he/she is unhappy, doesn’t mean I have to be unhappy as well.” I don’t deny the other person’s unhappiness. I just resist joining it. I used to become unhappy and then get angry at the other person because I didn’t want to be unhappy. You can imagine how much that helped. Now I try to stay detached from the emotions.
  4. Protect yourself from corrosive connections, those exchanges at work that make people feel diminished. This can be difficult, especially when these connections are with supervisors or higher status people. In many workplaces, people rise to high positions without necessarily having any talent or desire for creating high-quality connections. They may hoard information or judge others harshly or make small disparaging comments or withhold attention. Some people just do not pay any attention to the impact of their moods and behaviors on other people.I recommend reading the chapter on corrosive connections in Jane Dutton’s book because she has some effective strategies. To begin with, it helps to name the experience and detach yourself from responsibility for it. So-and-so just said something that humiliated you. Perhaps it’s not about you – but about the other person’s social ineptness. Even bigshots can be pretty socially inept.
  5. Avoid complaining. Atul Gawande lists this as one of the 5 actions for becoming a positive deviant. (See here for a discussion of positive deviance.) Getting together in groups to complain about something is a recipe for a downward spiral. Someone is bound to mention some other negative aspect that you hadn’t thought of yet.

This is not to say that we should protect ourselves from all mirrored pain. Goleman writes, “Scientific observations point to a response system that is hardwired in the human brain – no doubt involving mirror neurons – that acts when we see someone else suffering, making us instantly feel with them. The more we feel with them, the more we want to help them.” (p. 55). This ability to feel the pain of others is the source of compassionate behavior, part of what makes us fully human. But we do need to moderate our automatic responses when there is no constructive action we can take.

This ability to mirror other’s experiences in our own brains leaves us open to social contagion in either upward or downward spirals. With some attention, we can raise the probability that we experience upward rather than downward spirals. In the workplace, this is important because our moods contribute to our task performance.



Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gawande, A. (2008). Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. New York: Picador Books.

Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam Books.

Marsden, P. (1998). Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?. Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. Retrieved April 7, 2008 from

Tsai, W.-C., Chen, C.-C., & Liu, H.-L. (2007). Test of a model linking employee positive moods and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1570-1583.

Abstract:  Past empirical evidence has demonstrated that employees’ positive mood states predict task performance. This study extends previous research by proposing and testing a model that examines mediating processes underlying the relationship between employee positive moods and task performance. Two longitudinal studies used data collected from 306 (Study 1) and 263 (Study 2) insurance sales agents in Taiwan. The results showed that employee positive moods predicted task performance indirectly through both interpersonal (helping other coworkers and coworker helping and support) and motivational (self-efficacy and task persistence) processes.

Upward Spiral courtesy of Antonis Lamnatos


  • Senia says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    There was some discussion on the Friends-of-PP listserv about how the mirror neurons argument has been a little bit exaggerated – in that, it’s not whenever I see a smiling person, I immediately need to smile back. Would you agree with that after reading Goleman’s book? Or would you say that mirror neurons are that powerful, and are in action nearly all the time?


  • Senia,

    When I was thinking about this article, it kept occurring to me that we humans can study only small simplifications of the complex reality that we live in. After all, when I’m out in a social setting, there are many affects going on at once. I have my own initial affect, my mirror neurons pick up yours, and his, and hers, and…. So what’s the calculus that results in my affect in time + 1? And yours, and his, and hers?

    That said, I have frequently experienced walking down the hall and having people — people I didn’t know who weren’t initially smiling — smile back at me. Sometimes I wasn’t even aware that I was smiling … I was just experiencing great well-being. So I don’t have trouble believing that I was giving the great social whirl an upward twist.

    I’m reading Daniel Goleman’s book right now (I haven’t finished it) because one of the wisest people I know gave it to everyone in her circle for Christmas this last year. She’s in her late 80’s, a great-grandmother, a reader, a poet, and an observer. She was once one of my teachers, and I am still learning from her. In her Christmas letter, she wrote, “I read a lot and I have strong recommendations. Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and Restak’s The Naked Brain. But these pale beside my recommendation for Goleman’s Social Intelligence. New techniques in brain research establish that our brains are social in nature, not our private body part like a heart or a liver. Instead it is inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person… This is the most formative book I have read in the last few years.”

    To get back to the point you raise, I’m not really arguing one way or the other for the power of mirror neurons. I certainly don’t believe they are as deterministic as your example. But I find it quite easy to believe they are there. A lot of what determines our moods goes on under the radar screen of our conscious thought, and it makes sense to me that we pick up moods from other people and that we influence their moods. So perhaps it isn’t as simple as one spiral that is either going up or going down. But I think we can, with attention, intentionally influence the amount that it goes up.

    Stimulating question.


  • lewis says:

    there is a really interesting Daniel Goleman dialogue series entitled “Wired to Connect” where he discusses the applications of Social Intelligence with leading thinkers from a number of fields. The conversations are often profoundly intelligent, there are free samples that can be listened to at

  • Jeff Dustin says:

    All of you give me an upward spiral. I think I’d better re-think that sentence, if you know what I mean.

  • […] Psychology we talk about Contagion Theory and protecting yourself from corrosive people (see Kathryn Britton’s article Social Contagion: Spiral Up or Spiral Down?). Hillary has her own version of this theory: “Avoid doomers and gloomers. They are deadly. I had […]

  • Senia says:

    Thanks for those thoughts, Kathryn. That’s an especially strong recommendation for Goleman’s book! I like it – that recommendation definitely gets my interest to start reading this book.

    Also, to your point, I put out this argument against mirror neurons because I actually am really interested in them, and in how strongly they might be working. I’m not sure which argument is more accurate – that they’re extremely powerful or that they have a mild use. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were more powerful than we think. Thanks.

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