The Emotion Of A Collective Crowd – Emotions Really Are Contagious
Christopher Philip

A group of researchers have found empirical evidence that people are quite attuned to emotional expressions in their immediate environment and often mimic expressions that they witness.

The results may help explain why large crowds all seem to carry a default scowl when nothing exciting is going on, but can quickly escalate to a riot when provoked.

In the study, a person, C, was watched as they examined person B, whom, in turn was watching person A. Crucially, person B did not know that they were being watched.

Results showed that emotions of joy and fear as displayed through the face and body of person A, where spontaneously transmitted to person C, through person B. This was true regardless of whether the emotional information of person B’s face was explicitly recognized.

These findings,” say the researchers, “demonstrate that one is tuned to react to others’ emotional signals and to unintentionally produce subtle but sufficient emotional cues to induce emotional states in others.”

“This phenomenon could be the mark of a spontaneous cooperative behavior whose function is to communicate survival-value information to conspecifics.”

On a larger scale, the research helps explain the spread of emotions beyond dyads (pairs of people). It also sheds light on crowd behaviours.

The study outlines the mechanism by which individuals can come to adopt similar affective states and therefore patterns of behaviour (via the brain-body connection) without having any prior “centralized coordination.” Often, facial expressions are intimately connected to emotion and emotion to bodily behaviour.

That is to say that because emotions are contagious and easily transmissible between strangers, it’s possible to produce a collective “emotional being.” As such, emotions can travel quickly and uncontrollably from person to person.

Obviously this can produce positive results such as those found in sporting events, parades, homecomings or any other gathering, but likewise, there exists a downside which can turn any similar situations sour at the whims of a few.

‘A bad apple can spoil the bunch’ might be apt in explaining who quickly crowd situations can devolve.

While previous research has focus on dyads, it’s interesting to note that facial expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements can move not only between two people, but also between people potentially ad infinitum thus producing emotional convergence.

So the next time you’re in a crowded area be aware that there are collective forces working to influence your overall affect, and by all accounts, it seems as if you’re subject to a natural process designed to help you fit in.


Dezecache, Guillaume; Laurence Conty; Michele Chadwick; Leonor Philip; Robert Soussignan; Dan Sperber and Julie Grezes. Evidence for Unintentional Emotional Contagion Beyond Dyads. PLoS ONE. 2013. 8(6): e67371. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067371