How emotional contagion exacts a toll

Wharton’s Sigal Barsade discusses how widespread panic is an emotional contagion amidst the coronavirus epidemic.

The fear of catching the novel coronavirus has sparked a shopping frenzy that one New York City newsradio station aptly described as “Purell panic.” Nationwide, stores from Target to Costco to Kroger have seen shelves stripped bare of hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, rubber gloves, toilet paper and anything else that shoppers think will help them prepare for possible quarantines against the virus, which has spread across 97 countries and killed at least 4,000 people. 

Face mask and bottle of hand sanitizer

To be sure, there is plenty to worry about with the COVID-19 virus, which at present has no vaccine and is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets. But experts contend that shouldn’t warrant an unprecedented run on supplies. The hoarding even prompted U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to angrily tweet a public warning last week: “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!”

Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade believes the widespread panic is a form of emotional contagion. Simply defined, emotional contagion is the transfer of moods and feelings from one person to another. It happens all the time on a microlevel and is usually harmless, like a baby smiling back at a smiling adult, or a yawn that ripples from one person in the room to another. But at the macrolevel, emotional contagion can be dangerous because it can interfere with making sound, logical decisions.

“I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold of it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19,” says Barsade. Even though the vast majority of people won’t contract the virus, a much higher percentage will experience emotional contagion, she said. That can lead to a surge in worry, anxiety and fear—unpleasant emotions for individuals that can compound in the broader context.

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.