ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2016, Vol. 48 ›› Issue (11): 1423-1433.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2016.01423

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The mechanism of emotional contagion

ZHANG Qiyong1,2; LU Jiamei1; YANG Zhiying3; CHEN Chenghui4   

  1. (1 College of Education, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai 200234, China) (2 School of Education Science, Yangzhou University, Yangzhou 225002, China) (3 Department of Psychology, Yunnan Normal University, Kunming 650092, China) (4 College of Foreign Languages, Nanjing University of Finance and Economics, Nanjing 210046, China)
  • Received:2015-12-28 Published:2016-11-25 Online:2016-11-25
  • Contact: LU Jiamei, E-mail:; ZHANG Qiyong, E-mail:


According to the theory of primitive emotional contagion, emotional contagion is a psychological process of physiology eliciting emotion, which consists of the following courses: emotional awareness –> unconscious mimicry –> physiological feedback –> emotional experience. As early as 1884, William James and Carl Lange put forward a same periphery-feedback theory of emotion, which depicted a close relationship between physiological change and emotional change. Unfortunately, it described neither the mechanism from stimuli events to peripheral physiological change, nor the internal link between physiological feedback and emotional arousal. The above two issues could be resolved by research on the mechanism of emotional contagion. To prove the mechanism, we opened up recruitment to 62 college students as available participants in the following experiments. (1) In the eye movement experiment, International Affective Picture System was employed as sensorial emotional information to explore perceiver’s level of emotional awareness. All participants were distinguished into high and low score group by E-prime experiment of emotional awareness. Then Hi-speed eye tracker was used to study fixation time in area of interest (AOI) in two groups. The results showed that there were significant differences in relative fixation time (%) between high and low score group. (2) In the biological feedback experiment, we played teaching videos, as sensorial emotional information, to students through a real-time simulation during the experiment, which aimed to explore participants’ level of unconscious mimicry and physiologic feedback. The two physiological indices, facial electromyographic (EMG) and frontal EMG, were used to reflect the level of unconscious mimicry. The other two indices, Blood Volume Pulse (BVP) and Resistance from Skin Conductance (SCR), were employed to measure the extent of physiological feedback or emotional arousal. The Emotional Contagion Scale, a subjective experience scale, was put into use to infer the extent of participants’ emotional experience. The above indices could be confirmed with each other, not contradictory, in the final consequences. Significant differences were found in the above indices between high and low score group (p < 0.05 or p < 0.01). (3) The relative fixation time (%) in AOI was used as participants’ awareness index, the rate of change in facial EMG (ΔE) as unconscious-mimicry index, the rate of change in BVP amplitude as physiological-feedback index, the score on The Emotional Contagion Scale as estimate of participants’ emotional experience. Finally, path analysis was employed to confirm the mechanism of emotional contagion. Emotional contagion begins with a perceiver mimicking the other’s expression, which elicits the mimic’s physiological reaction in the specific circumstances. If the perceiver’s peripheral physiological change was cut off from the specific circumstances, his/her emotional experience would not come up. In a word, only when an individual is exposed under certain circumstances will physiological reaction arouse emotional experience.

Key words: emotional contagion, emotional awareness, unconscious mimicry, physiological feedback, emotional experience