Developing an Objective Tool for Assessing Emotional Contagion in Helping Professionals and Students


Helping professionals, such as therapists, counselors, and social workers, often encounter emotionally vulnerable clients, exposing them to the risk of emotional contagion, stress, and burnout.

Additionally, young professionals at the onset of their careers are particularly susceptible due to their relative lack of experience and idealistic expectations of the profession. Understanding and regulating emotions are crucial skills for practitioners to maintain therapeutic relationships while avoiding emotional overwhelm.

Similarly, students pursuing careers in helping professions face emotional challenges and need to be aware of their vulnerabilities for their psychological well-being and future success.

The Emotional Contagion Scale (ECS) developed by Doherty in 1997 is a self-reporting tool designed to measure an individual’s vulnerability to others’ emotions. Although the ECS has been validated in various populations, it has inherent limitations associated with self-report questionnaires, such as potential bias and reliance on introspection and self-awareness. To address these issues, researchers recognize the necessity of developing a more standardized and objective instrument for measuring psychosocial constructs like emotional contagion.

Objective of the Study

This study aims to develop an objective and replicable tool for assessing emotional contagion in helping professionals and students. The newly designed instrument will be evaluated for its construct and predictive validity, offering a more accurate and reliable way to measure vulnerability to others’ emotions.

Literature Review

Emotional Burden in Helping Professionals: Helping professionals face the emotional burden of working with vulnerable clients, which can lead to emotional contagion, stress, and burnout. Studies by Petitta et al. (2017) and Siebert et al. (2007) highlight the risks of emotional contagion among professionals in caring roles.

Vulnerability of Young Professionals: Early-career professionals are especially vulnerable due to their limited experience and potentially unrealistic expectations of their profession. Skovholt and Ronnestad (2003) emphasize the importance of understanding and regulating one’s emotions to effectively work with vulnerable clients.

The Limitations of Self-Report Questionnaires: While the Emotional Contagion Scale (ECS) has been utilized in various populations and contexts, its reliance on self-reporting introduces potential biases. Sato and Kawahara (2011) discuss the limitations of self-report questionnaires, and Campbell and Ehlert (2012) emphasize the need for more standardized and objective instruments to measure psychosocial constructs like stress.

Emotional Awareness and Vulnerability: Emotional awareness varies among individuals, which can affect the accuracy of self-reporting on the ECS. Ciarrochi et al. (2003) note the variability of emotional awareness in the general population, emphasizing the importance of considering this factor when assessing vulnerability to emotional contagion.


  • Development of the Objective Instrument: The researchers will devise an objective tool for measuring emotional contagion, ensuring it is standardized, reliable, and free from subjective bias. This instrument will be based on empirical data and will aim to minimize the impact of individual characteristics and self-reporting biases.
  • Sample Selection: A diverse sample of helping professionals and students will be recruited for the study. Participants’ demographic information, experience level, and background will be collected to ensure representation across various subgroups.
  • Data Collection: Participants will be asked to complete the newly developed objective tool for assessing emotional contagion. The researchers will also collect data on emotional experiences and coping mechanisms to validate the instrument’s construct and predictive validity.
  • Data Analysis: The researchers will employ statistical techniques to assess the reliability and validity of the newly developed instrument. Correlations between emotional contagion scores and other relevant variables will be analyzed to establish predictive validity.

Mechanisms of Emotional Contagion

The automatic imitation of nonverbal cues plays a crucial role in emotional contagion. When two or more individuals interact, they may unconsciously start behaving identically, mirroring each other’s facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones. For instance, facial mimicry involves the involuntary copying of another person’s facial muscle contractions, which can be observed from infancy to adulthood.

However, it is important to note that facial mimicry does not necessarily indicate a shared emotional experience. While the affective component of emotion may be activated during the imitation, the psychological component associated with a genuine emotional experience might not be present.

Research suggests that copying nonverbal emotional cues can aid in improving the recognition of emotional states through the facial feedback process. Facial feedback involves eliciting an emotional experience consistent with the expressed emotion by increasing facial expressions related to that emotion.

Conversely, repressing facial expressions can decrease emotional intensity. However, the extent to which facial feedback influences emotional recognition is subject to debate, with studies showing mixed results. Facial feedback might impact emotional recognition but perhaps only in specific contexts and for certain emotions, such as joy and anger.

Furthermore, copying nonverbal emotional cues can influence an observer’s own emotional experience. Affective empathy, which refers to feeling the same emotions as others after perceiving their emotional facial expressions, is associated with the amount of facial muscle activity. Higher levels of affective empathy make individuals more sensitive to others’ emotional expressions, leading to the display of similar emotional facial expressions. Thus, facial mimicry can foster a greater understanding of others’ emotions.

Consequences of Emotional Contagion

The vulnerability to others’ emotions resulting from emotional contagion can have adverse consequences. For instance, professionals who frequently interact with distressed or emotionally troubled individuals, such as social workers and healthcare providers, may experience higher rates of emotional distress.

Social workers, who face their clients’ symptoms of depression or distress daily, have been found to have depression rates three times higher than the general population, and emotional contagion may contribute to this phenomenon. When professionals are unaware of their susceptibility to emotional contagion and struggle to distance themselves from their clients’ emotional states, they are at risk of experiencing the same negative emotions they perceive. This heightened emotional involvement can be emotionally draining and lead to burnout or reduced effectiveness in their roles.

Empathy: The Role of Emotional Contagion

Empathy is a central relational pattern for healthcare providers, and it is strongly encouraged among social work students. Empathy involves perceiving and being sensitive to others’ emotional states, coupled with a motivation to care for their well-being. Several theoretical models link empathy to emotional contagion, such as the perception-action model and the neurocognitive model of emotional contagion. However, empathy is distinct from emotional contagion as it incorporates cognitive components, including the ability to distinguish one’s emotions from others and regulate emotional responses effectively.

Emotional Regulation: Coping with Emotional Contagion

Emotional regulation is a critical process by which individuals modulate their emotions to respond appropriately to the demands of the environment. It involves four key skills: awareness and understanding of emotions, acceptance of emotions, the ability to engage in goal-directed behavior despite experiencing negative emotions, and access to effective emotion regulation strategies.

For helping professionals, emotional regulation is crucial in managing the impact of emotional contagion. Being aware of one’s vulnerability to others’ emotions and having well-developed emotional regulation skills can reduce the risk of experiencing adverse consequences.

Emotional awareness is a crucial aspect to consider when exploring emotional contagion and its potential consequences. Emotional contagion refers to the automatic mimicry and synchronization of nonverbal emotional expressions with others, while emotional awareness involves being attentive to and reflecting on one’s own emotional experiences.

Understanding the relationship between emotional awareness and emotional contagion is vital in comprehending how individuals react to others’ emotions and its impact on their well-being. In this article, we delve into the connection between emotional awareness and emotional contagion, as well as propose an objective measure to assess emotional contagion independently from self-report measures.

The Role of Emotional Awareness

Emotional awareness entails paying attention to and reflecting on bodily experiences, including those generated through imitation. By being emotionally aware, individuals can better infer the meaning of their interactions and identify the specific needs arising from these interactions.

This heightened awareness of physical sensations, known as interoception, plays a significant role in emotional awareness. Research suggests that individuals with high interoception are better at downregulating negative emotions and handling social uncertainty, which is particularly relevant for social work students who often encounter challenging emotional situations.

Moreover, interoception is associated with empathy, particularly in terms of self-other distinction. Social workers with better self-other distinction are less likely to experience affect sharing in social situations, thereby reducing the risk of emotional contagion. Interestingly, interoception has a complex relationship with the Emotional Contagion Scale (ECS). While it seems to protect against emotional contagion for negative emotions, it does not have the same effect for positive emotions, and this relationship appears to be more pronounced in women.

Measuring Emotional Contagion

Traditionally, emotional contagion is measured through self-report questionnaires like the ECS. This scale assesses an individual’s susceptibility to align with others’ emotions by presenting situations in which a person might be exposed to others’ emotions and how they respond to them. However, self-report measures rely heavily on participants’ introspective abilities and emotional awareness. Individuals with low emotional awareness might not accurately report their emotional reactivity, introducing biases in the results.

To address these biases and objectively measure emotional contagion, researchers have turned to other methods such as heart rate synchronization and facial expressions. Heart rate synchronization during interactions has been found to be positively related to emotional contagion.

However, this method requires a consistent stimulus person, making it challenging to use in laboratory settings. Facial expressions, analyzed through automatic facial coding software like FACET, offer an alternative objective measure of emotional contagion.

Using FACET to assess facial activity while participants watch emotional stimuli, this study aims to propose an objective measure of emotional contagion that is independent of participants’ emotional awareness abilities. The objective measure is expected to have better predictive validity than the self-reported measure, as it captures a broader range of emotional contagion aspects.


Emotional awareness plays a crucial role in the context of emotional contagion. Being aware of one’s emotions and bodily sensations can protect individuals from negative emotional contagion. However, traditional self-report measures of emotional contagion may be influenced by individual emotional awareness abilities, leading to potential biases.

To address these limitations, researchers have turned to objective measures of emotional contagion, such as facial expression analysis through automatic facial coding software. This approach allows for a more comprehensive assessment of emotional contagion, independent of participants’ self-reporting abilities. By understanding the interplay between emotional awareness and emotional contagion and utilizing objective measures, researchers can gain a deeper insight into how emotional contagion impacts individuals’ well-being and emotional experiences. Ultimately, this knowledge can inform interventions to promote emotional well-being and emotional regulation, especially in high-stress professions like social work.

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