Contagion is affect transmission on a broader scale and is closely connected with studies of group and crowd psychology, wherein a group of persons transmit affect between each other. An individual within a group is likely to pick up on and vibrate to an affect that permeates the atmosphere. This reproduction of affect will then reinforce the original atmospheric condition, making it even stronger and more stimulating to the senses. Others, then, are more likely to pick up on the same affective state, creating a social sort of affective loop. The more affectively charged the atmosphere of the group, the more suggestible individual members become to certain ideas. Since particular affective states are more conducive to particular ideas, a group resonating to an intense affect is more likely to take on similar ideas. For example, if an aggressive affective state exists, persons within that atmosphere are apt to feel aggressive tendencies. This phenomenon explains the “group mind” that can emerge when a gathering of people leads particular members to lose their individual sovereignty and to think or feel as one. Teresa Brennan cites experiments that ground the contagious nature of affect in psycho-neuroendocrinology (Brennan 88). Depending on their content, images can trigger an increase or decrease in hormones (Brennan 71). Such hormonal changes are measurably intensified when people are in groups (Brennan 71).
Contagion is of particular interest to affect theory because of its political implications. Political operatives or propagandists have been known to take advantage of affective contagion to pernicious ends, producing images or rhythms that put people in certain affective states that then reproduce. Such a tactic might be used to activate states of aggression or fear in groups. This view of crowds suggests that groups are less autonomous or capable of reason than its individual members on their own. The danger of affect, then, is that its contagious qualities might enable “groupthink,” making persons susceptible to the kind of manipulation that they might individually be able to resist.
This loss of individuality is not necessarily always harmful, however. Gustave Le Bon, a French psychologist who studied group mentality in his influential 1895 book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, pointed out that an “individual would put his own interests first. A crowd need not” (qtd. in Brennan 54). Although Le Bon was anxious about crowd behavior, he does underscore how crowds can be self-sacrificing, an aspect that might be harnessed for good. The same benefit holds true in political systems where groups prioritize the system’s functionality over members’ own individual interests.
The theory of affective contagion can also be extended to explain the historicity of affective experiences, a phenomenon that Raymond Williams has called “structures of feeling.” For instance, today we have labels for particular affective states: chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and ADHD name the lack or excess of energy respectively. One’s level and type of energy is influenced by one’s surroundings. A person surrounded by abundantly depressive or nervously active affects may reflect those behaviors society at that time pathologizes as CFS or ADHD. Belief in this medical view of normal and abnormal energy levels may lead to identification with the diagnoses of CFS or ADHD. This affiliation is known as “hysterical identification,” when people see themselves as suffering from CFS or ADHD even if they do not necessarily “have” these disorders (Brennan 3). Such a view is not quite accurate for it obscures identification’s roots in the flesh (Brennan 3). The derogatory term also ignores the process of contagion. Just as an affect in the air can be taken up and reinforced by a group of people, so have CFS and ADHD been culturally. In both cases, the internalized affect is real. The labels of CFS and ADHD reflect the historical affects of a contemporary moment because they normalize a certain “balance” of energy and pathologize deviation from a particular affective norm. But the phenomena of identification, reinforcement, and contagion of these disorders mean that these disorders feel quite real. In a similar way, other historical periods may be characterized by certain affective moods that express those moments’ social norms.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Williams, Raymond. “Structures of Feeling.” Marxism and Literature. Oxford University
Press, 1978. 128-135.