The contagion we like and need

About the author: Silvia Dello Russo is Associate Professor at TBS Business School, Toulouse, France. You can contact her at

As it often happens when I’m asked to write for a blog, this time too I started by examining my recent experiences in search for an inspiration. Not because my life is necessarily that rich of events, or richer than anybody else’s. The reason is more that I use the opportunity to reflect myself in a more structured way; and because I am convinced that even the smallest event bears the potential to turn a spotlight on concepts that we, as researchers, study every day and that are never just abstract or purely theoretical.
The inspiration came from the recent students’ evaluations I received. It is that time of the semester, at my School, when students are asked to evaluate and offer improvement suggestions for the courses they have just taken. The students’ evaluations are anonymous, so let me also take advantage of this medium to thank all of them; and in particular the one who offered me not only insights on how we can improve the course, but also some food for thought – which I’ve been mulling over in the past days.

Silvia Dello Russo

Among many comments, surely focused on the content of the course and what students’ have learned and appreciated, there was this: “Besides, I like my teacher’s smile very much. She is always happy in class and always smiles, which makes us feel happy too.”. Of course, I felt good about it – it is good to be complimented and receive positive feedback. Yet, this time there is much more to it. The circumstances that we are living now make such comment all the more special and enlightening.

I’ve started reflecting on the so-called “emotional contagion”, which is the process by which people in a collective come to share and transfer to one another certain affective and emotional states. In the organizational behavior field, emotional contagion has been extensively investigated – especially as it helps creating a good climate in a group and reverberates positively on individuals’ attitudes and behaviors (see an article from 2018 by Barsade and colleagues for a review); hence, implicitly or explicitly, researchers have focused on the positive emotional contagion.

After one year (and counting) in the terrible pandemic of COVID-19, it seems nearly an oxymoron to speak of “positive contagion”. And yet, this reminds us that social connectedness is powerful also – and by far more – in positive ways than what we’ve come to know as a mislabeled “social distancing”.
I believe the powerful effect of emotional contagion should become more salient and inform our practice as lecturers, instructors, professors, educators. We bear a responsibility for supporting students creating and constructing their careers in unprecedented difficult times. All of us in higher education institutions, as well as in schools, do so the best we can – by moving to online teaching, trying to reciprocally adjust the format and content of lectures, extensively utilizing the new available technology, etcetera.

We could do more, though, and collectively strive to support the emotional tone of our students. This is what I learned from my student’s comment who opened my eyes on a serendipitous discovery. We can, and should, pay attention to create an emotional contagion and leverage it purposefully. After all, research evidence also supports that positive emotions facilitate learning. The renowned work by Barbara Fredrickson (2001; 2013) points exactly to this with her “broaden and build” theory. Experiencing positive emotions broadens the conceived possibilities, enlarges the horizon and expands the array of opportunities that one can see as such. Moreover, experiencing positive emotions allows building up one’s resourceful self, in that positive emotions trigger one another and start a virtuous circle of positivity. We need that. Our students need that, in order to keep a positive outlook toward their future and future career, while living a positive present too.

Barsade, S. G., Coutifaris, C. G., & Pillemer, J. (2018). Emotional contagion in organizational life. Research in Organizational Behavior, 38, 137-151.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist, 56(3), 218.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53). Academic Press.

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