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The power of emotional contagion

Jetcoaster The day after the From Business to Buttons conference in Malmö Sweden, I spent the day in Copenhagen with Bill DeRouchey and Scott Berkun and his wife Jill. We spent a couple of hours in the famous Tivoli Gardens across the street from the train station. It's said the Walt Disney got his inspiration for Disneyland while visiting the park; Tivoli opened in 1843. While in the park I received a strong reminder of something we all know but too often forget: that emotions are contagious and our emotional displays can and do influence those around us, often in ways we're not even aware of. We spent several minutes in an area of the park under and next to a couple of white-knuckle rides complete with screams and shrills mostly of joy and excitement, but mixed with a touch of terror perhaps (see/hear an example). Everyone on the ground was really enjoying just watching the fun the other people were having on the attractions. I was too. It was a surprisingly enjoyable atmosphere; I could have spent much more time just sitting and watching the smiles, laughter, and displays of exhilaration by complete strangers. The remarkable thing was even though I was not actually experiencing the excitement that these strangers were having directly on the scary rides, I — and everyone one in the crowd — was feeling completely amused and happy by the displays of excitement and happiness all around. The giddy emotion was utterly infectious.

Emotional contagion & mirror neurons
Watching something and doing something are not the same, of course, but as far as our brain is concerned they're pretty darn close. We learn from watching others, we even learn bad habits from watching others. Just as importantly, our brains are really good at feeling what others are feeling. In a sense, then, there is a place in the brain that seems to be responsible for living in other people's brains, that is, to feel what they are feeling. I'm certain you have read about mirror neurons before, but just in case this 14-min NOVA video on the subject is a good, quick overview.

Bored If we mirror the emotions of those whom we are around, it would make sense not to associate too often or too closely with the "chronically negative" for example. This is commonsense. And this underscores the importance too that our emotions play when we are in front of a group (this is especially important for teachers who spend all day in front of groups). The content of your message is crucial, of course, but others in the audience (or the class, etc.) are picking up on all sorts of other signals too related to your emotional state. The best content in the world — with the best visuals in the world — can still be sabotaged by our emotions, that is, in how we influence others to feel. I have seen some technical presentations fail this year not because the content was irrelevant or disorganized, but because the presenter – due to inexperience or nerves – looked and sounded more like he was giving a particularly depressing eulogy rather than the results of an interesting piece of research. After 10-15 minutes of narration that is monotone and dispassionate, it becomes very difficult indeed to stay with any speaker, regardless of topic.

Our story and our evidence matter, but the genuine emotions that we project have a direct and strong influence — for good and for bad — on the message our audience ultimately receives and remembers. A few minutes spent around extremely happy and excited people in a famous amusement park in  Copenhagen reminded me once again about the power of emotional contagion.

Photo credit: Bill DeRouchey

For tips on presentation delivery checkout books by Jerry Weissman and Bert Decker. A great older post by Kathy Sierra that I actually remembered reading back in '06. Mirror neurons and Asperger's Syndrome — interesting 5-min video.


Tristan Harris

Garr, great post. I totally agree.

We started Apture to generate empathy via richer web communication, and I wrote a post using the same concepts of Mirror Neurons as applied to gaining empathy with an audience to produce social action.

Would love to hear what you think:

CEO, Apture (

Milan Davidovic

For more discussion of mirror neurons:


Glad to hear you guys had fun! Tivoli is a wonderful place, for the elements you mention, and because they're able to blend the sites and sounds of an amusement park with the calm and serenity of a botanical garden.

It was great to meet you at Business to Buttons - all the best in your future travels (meet you by the cheering section of the Hanshin Tigers?)

Director of UX, Manifest Digital

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