Human emotions are contagious. Calm begets calm. Happiness inspires happiness. And, one good laugh deserves another.
My wife loves to tell the story of a recent vacation. She was flying with our three children from Detroit to Orlando to meet me at a conference. Darby Sue, our youngest, was only four-year’s old and flying for the first time. With an eye on calming her fears, Amy had prepared Darby for the trip. She knew to swallow if her ears popped, to keep her seat belt buckled, and that, in the unlikely event of a water landing, the seat cushion doubled as a floatation device.
But Amy hadn’t told her much about take-off. Once cleared for departure the pilot pressed the throttle and the plane surged forward. Faster and faster down the runway it sped as jaded business travelers, numbed by a hundreds of flights, sifted silently through their newspaper or feigned sleep to avoid talking with seatmates. At last the nose came up and the plane lifted from the runway, dipping a wing, angling into the sky, and leaving Darby’s tummy on the tarmac. It was the mother of all tummy tickles and it caught her completely by surprise.
She swallowed her initial squeal but it soon escaped as a snicker and then grew to a giggle. Before long giggles were springing like popcorn from her mouth. The other passengers put down their papers and chuckled. “Sleeping” passengers began to smile. Darby, amused by her inability to stop, laughed harder. And so did everyone else.
The competing needs to laugh and breathe produced a snort, and the snort pushed Darby over the edge. She was caught in an uncontrollable fit of laughter that swiftly spread. It swept from the isle to the window, from first class to the galley, eventually involving the whole craft. In time it subsided, but not before a couple hundred-business travelers were reminded that flying can be fun and that laughter is contagious.
In 1962, in a little boarding school in the village of Kashasha Tanginyika (An African country now called Tanzania) a schoolgirl laughed. And then she laughed some more. As she did, her nearby friends began to laugh.
The laughter propagated from one person to another until the entire class was laughing. (This was perhaps the last time her teacher would ever ask, “Cindy, is there something you’d like to share with the whole class?) The students laughed through science. They laughed through social studies. They laughed until school dismissed for the day. Their parents picked them up from school, and they began laughing too. Contagious laughter spread from one person to the next, from grocer to barber, from husband to wife, sweeping like wild fire across the entire village. It spread to adjacent communities. It closed the school. It lasted for six months!
Contagious emotions are no laughing matter to marketers because they have a profound influence on the way messages spread from person to person. In my next post I’ll explore mass hysteria (emotional contagion on steroids) and the four conditions that encourage it---conditions marketers can create and encourage.