Emotion & Emotional Contagion

What does emotion have to do with learning? Everything!

~ Schmidt, 2017


The influence of emotion on learning and memory is profound. “Emotion is the rudder that steers our thinking” and “directs our mind” as shared by affective neuroscientist and human development psychologist, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (Education Week, 2016). According to Immordino-Yang (2016), “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.”

Advancements in technology and research provide critical insight on how emotion impacts learning and memory. Neuroimaging, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), electroencephalography (EEG), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), is being used to examine cognitive-emotional interactions associated with different brain regions. Tyng et al. (2017) state that emotion has a strong influence on attention, as well as motivating action and behavior. Furthermore, emotion facilitates encoding and retrieval.


Within education, emotional states such as anxiety, frustration, and boredom can affect learning and memory. According to Tyng et al. (2017):


..emotional influences should be carefully considered in educational courses design to maximize learner engagement as well as improve learning and long-term retention of the material (Shen et al., 2009). Numerous studies have reported that human cognitive processes are affected by emotions, including attention (Vuilleumier, 2005), learning and memory (Phelps, 2004; Um et al., 2012), reasoning (Jung et al., 2014), and problem-solving (Isen et al., 1987). These factors are critical in educational domains because when students face such difficulties, it defeats the purpose of schooling and can potentially render it meaningless.


Students in higher education and PK-12 education are engaged much of the year with deadlines, examinations, homework, and high stakes assessments which can evoke a myriad of emotions that can impact learning and memory. Research studies indicate that positive emotions can facilitate learning and contribute to academic achievement (Tyng et al., 2017). While stress is often perceived as negative, Vogel and Schwabe (2016) share that “emotions or light to moderate forms of stress may increase memory formation, which may have positive effects on memories for study material.” However, Vogel and Schwabe (2016) also state that “moderate or high levels of stress before exams will most likely hinder memory retrieval and lead to an underestimation of the students’ knowledge, putatively resulting in bad grades.” Vogel and Schwabe (2016) further note that stress can also hinder the “integration of new information into existing knowledge structures which may prevent the updating of knowledge by new facts or a deep multidisciplinary understanding of concepts which is often required in education.” Therefore, educators must be able to design and teach courses that balance emotional states to facilitate learning and memory.


Classroom climate can also impact emotion. Therefore, understanding the concept of emotional contagion is important, particularly as classrooms have had to pivot across learning formats throughout the pandemic. Emotional contagion is defined by the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology as “the phenomenon that individuals tend to express and feel emotions that are similar to those of others.” Emotional contagion can occur between two individuals as well as in large groups. Research by Adam et al. (2014) shows that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” Hence, the importance of educators understanding how emotion may impact learning and memory as it relates to classroom climate is critical.


Emotional contagion is described to occur within milliseconds. According to Colino (2016), “Research has found that upbeat emotions such as enthusiasm and joy, as well as negative ones, including sadness, fear and anger, are easily passed from person to person, often without either party's realizing it.” Emotion is also expressed through tone of voice and word choice in which individuals may “match the emotional valence of their word choices” particularly with words that may have negative connotation such as “hate, anger, sadness” (Colino, 2016). Motor mimicry, as described by Prochazkova and Kret (2017) includes mimicry of facial expressions, body postures, vocal characteristics, yawning, speech gestures, and laughter. Figure 1 provides a by schematic representation of emotion processing and emotional contagion (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017).


Figure 1

Emotion Processing and Emotional Contagion


Figure 1 shows "how emotions that are expressed during a social interaction by Person A, through emotional contagion, influence the emotions and expressions of Person B. Person A and B not only mimic each other's facial expression, they also link on the physiological level and without being aware of it, synchronize on the level of arousal” (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017).


Research reveals that stress is contagious (Wilding, 2021). Therefore, as students and educators look at re-entry to classrooms worldwide, it is critical to consider emotions associated with re-acclimation and re-entry anxiety. Wilding (2021) shares that protecting against re-entry emotional contagion is something to be mindful of since the emotions of others in your environment can impact your well-being. Stress has been found to be contagious within educational classroom. A report published in Social Science & Medicine found that when “teachers are stress, so are their students”; in fact, “researchers found that students had higher levels of cortisol if their teachers reported higher burnout levels” (Sifferlin, 2016).

The role of faculty, teachers, and instructional designers goes beyond simply developing content that aligns with stated outcomes. Understanding the human learning process and the impact emotion has on learning and memory must be central to scaffolding content to build upon prior learning, being cognizant of cognitive load when presenting content, and providing students with strategies to support resilience and self-regulation to proactively address anxiety and stress. More than ever, educators must learn how to pivot across learning formats to actively engage students in classroom climates and to support transfer of learning across real-world context in preparation for a dynamic and shifting employment landscape.


As you are designing your courses, activities, and assessment, remember to consider how emotion may impact learning and memory. The question to ask is: What’s in your courses? Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with designing courses that support engagement, learning, memory, and transfer. Dr. Kristen Betts