Teenagers catch moods and negative moods are more contagious

Mental health and emotional wellbeing among young people could be better understood by findings in a recently-published paper from Oxford and Birmingham universities, which reveal that teenagers catch moods from friends and bad moods are more contagious than good ones.

The authors Dr Per Block, of Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, and Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes, of The University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, hope the ground-breaking study could lead to improved understanding of emotional wellbeing.

Dr Block says, ‘Our study shows conclusively that individuals are affected by how others around them are feeling. Mood is contagious, and though both positive and negative moods are ‘caught’, bad moods are more potent.

‘We hope it is a step towards understanding why people fall into prolonged low states, the social factors that determine emotional wellbeing in adolescents, and, in the long run, how it may be possible to provide emotional support leading to improved mental health.’

The wide-ranging findings show mood goes both ways. While a teen ‘catches’ a low mood from a friend, the friend feels uplifted in the process. There was no evidence adolescents either avoid or seek contact with peers in a negative or positive frame of mind - suggesting mood does not determine popularity in the short term and socialising with someone in a low mood is a risk most are prepared to take. 

The study found teenagers’ moods become more similar to people they spend time with, that a bad mood is more infectious than a good, and these individuals did not select others with whom to socialise simply to match the way they felt themselves. 

Two groups of adolescents, 79 in total, aged 15 to 19-years-old participated in the study. Each group was on a short residential classical music performance tour.

Each young musician recorded daily moods and social interactions. The situation allowed the study to overcome the challenges of environment, dispersed social networks and timeframes, which limited previous studies.

Dr Block says, ‘What makes our study special is that, by having people in a group with few external influences, experiencing the same environment and spending their time together, we could see who interacted with whom and how that made others feel.

‘We saw, first, the interaction, and then how mood became more similar. As mood changes frequently and is influenced by various environmental factors that differ between individuals, many studies find collecting comprehensive data difficult. But because our participants were living together, we overcame that challenge too.’

The results were identical from both groups and partly contradict previous understanding. Earlier research suggested good mood is more contagious than bad, and that bad mood is associated with social withdrawal. This study showed no evidence that teens feeling low withdrew. 

The research was conducted before social interaction was severely restricted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Burnett Heyes says, ‘This study raises so many outstanding questions, especially in COVID-19 times, such as what do we lose when interaction is not face-to-face, and what is preserved? And finally, if everyone is struggling, is it too emotionally risky to connect with others and potentially ‘catch’ their low mood?’