How Your Thoughts Catches Psychosocial Colds
“It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree to which we are influenced by those we influence.” – ERIC HOFFER, THE PASSIONATE STATE OF MIND
You Feeling Me?
You may well be at a social gathering with only some friends and everyone appears to be having a good time. The chit-chat is casual and upbeat, as that you can predict. The tune is loud, and it’s hard to hearken to any individual conversing higher than a pair toes away, on the other hand you begin paying attention to what you feel is yelling coming from the far side of the room. You tune in extra, and now you’re sure it’s yelling—two male voices shouting louder and louder over the observe. You commence taking walks that implies, along side quite a lot of folks, and rapidly every person else on the get together with the exception of for the two adult males yelling are circling throughout the scene.
Any particular person shuts off the observe—now full focus is on the ruckus. It is no longer prolonged previous than probably the most the most important guys throws a punch. The alternative man avoids it and tackles the principle man, who’s elbowing the once more of his opponent’s head whereas every of them fall backward onto an end desk that collapses upon impact. In any case they may be pulled apart and knowledgeable to depart—alternatively every person is aware about what’s going to happen after they exit, so the mass of people direction in the back of the two for the reason that struggle resumes out of doors. Now the crowd is yelling—some other people for probably the most guys and the rest for the alternative. Then a couple of these people begin shouting at every totally different, adopted by the use of a lot of additional, and quickly the in the past calm and first-class crowd is now a bomb on the point of detonating. All of this happened throughout the span of about six minutes. Party over.
That cheery story is an overt occasion of the psychosocial contagion phenomenon—the tendency to turn into “contaminated” by the use of the emotions, ideas, and behaviors of others. A contented thoughts catches emotional contagions quite merely and can be glad to move alongside the pc virus. This, as with each inclinations of a contented thoughts, is each and every very good and bad. Anger (or, throughout the party occasion, anger blended with hysteria) is exclusively one in all many contagions psychology prognosis has known. Listed beneath are only some further:
- Moral outrage
- Chance perception
- Binge eating
- Unethical habits
The most important study thus far on emotional contagions thinking about how happiness spreads by means of huge social networks. The study used twenty years of data from the big Framingham Coronary coronary heart Know about to resolve a number of vital features of contagious happiness.1 First, the study suggests that happiness spreads over three degrees of separation, such as friends of a friend’s friend. Researchers also found that people who are surrounded by happy people in the near term have a significantly greater likelihood of future happiness. And they found that happiness is a potent force for gluing people together, regardless of whether those people were similar to begin with. In short, happiness is highly contagious and its effects are lasting—unless or until geographic separation gets in the way (the one thing that cuts the infection short).
Additional behavioral-contagion findings from the same study include that we are 61 percent more likely to smoke if we have a direct relationship with a smoker. If your friend of a friend is a smoker, you are still 29 percent more likely to smoke. Even at a remote third degree of separation (friend of a friend’s friend), you are 11 percent more likely. (Recently, the third-degree-of-separation findings have been challenged by some statisticians, but even without those findings, the overall impact of the research is powerful.)
Your Sweat Makes Me Feel Risky
People are obsessed with managing their sweat because we think it’s embarrassing in social situations (the dreaded underarm pancakes!). But a study from 2010 suggests that there’s far more to our sweat than meets the eye; indeed, the sweat of others may be influencing us in ways we don’t realize. Researchers collected sweat samples from people who completed a high-rope obstacle course and placed the samples in odorless tea bags, which were then placed under the noses of people about to gamble. Other gamblers were outfitted with sweat samples from people who had just finished riding an exercise bike. Gamblers sniffing the high-ropers’ sweat took longer to make decisions, but eventually took significantly larger gambling risks compared to the bike-sweat-sniffing gamblers. Since there was no difference in how the sweat in either group smelled (everyone said the teabags smelled equally horrible), it appears that anxietylaced sweat influences riskier behavior than normal sweat. No one is quite sure why this is the case, but since the animal world is full of chemical-influence examples (think of ants and bees, for example), it’s not hard to believe that humans also send signals in ways that seemingly defy the senses.2
A different study conducted by the same researchers, this time tracking social-network contagions over a thirty-two-year period, determined that if your spouse becomes obese, the odds of you becoming obese increase by 37 percent. And if a close friend becomes obese, the odds jump to 57 percent that you’ll also pack on the pounds.3
Psychosocial contagions spread because we humans are socially interdependent. Not only do we overtly influence each other, but we also spread influence without knowing it through a form of emotional synchronization. One way to think about this dynamic is to imagine a flock of birds feeding on the ground until something startles a few of them and they take flight. Within seconds, the entire flock is taking off and flying in the same direction. The out-of-hand party scenario is one example of this. Another example is the way in which anxiety spreads through groups. In a group of any size, there will be some people more prone to anxiety than others. But research suggests that when the entire group is exposed to an anxiety-provoking stimulus, everyone eventually reaches the same level of anxiety no matter how emotionally controlled they were initially.
David Eilam, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, measured how groups of voles responded to threats produced by vole-hungry barn owls. Voles are a favorite rodent of researchers because they display very distinct social qualities, like humans, and because they display a range of anxiety responses (also like humans). When barn owls flew over the cages of individual voles, each of the animals’ nervousness increased by about the same amount, as measured by standard behavioral tests. As a group, the animals continued to be all over the anxiety map. But whenEilam took groups of voles with different individual anxiety levels and exposed them to barn owls, the anxiety spread throughout the group and all the voles became nervous wrecks.
Eilam believes that behavioral norms might be beneficial for social animals during a crisis. This convergence to similar behaviors may help explain why humans turn to religion and other rituals after a major catastrophe. These ceremonies, Eilam says, may keep the most anxious humans from going over the edge.4
Beware the Blame Monsters
Blame is an especially intriguing contagion, illustrated to near perfection in a Twilight Zone episode (circa 1959) titled “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” The setting is a calm suburban street at night that emotionally erupts after what appears to be a meteor flies overhead and the entire street experiences a total power failure. Then the neighbors receive shady news that humanlike aliens from the meteor have been spotted invading Maple Street. Soon strange things start happening, like the lights in one house turn on and off and then a random car on the street will start up with no one in it. It doesn’t take long for the neighbors to begin accusing each other of being the alien invader. Blame spreads through the community until finally someone is mistaken for an alien and killed. All the while, two aliens sit on a nearby hill controlling the power and marveling at how easy it is to manipulate human emotions.
Oversimplification aside (though masterfully told by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling), the story effectively hits the point that blame spreads fast and usually ignites a few other dark emotions along the way. Science agrees. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California and Stanford University suggests that blaming someone in public is the psychological equivalent of coughing swine flu into a crowd.5 Over the course of multiple experiments, researchers showed that witnessing someone play the blame game significantly increased the chances of others’ blaming someone else for their failures—even when those failures had nothing to do with what they witnessed. Blame contagion is essentially about self-image protection. The study authors believe that when someone watches another person level blame, the implicit takeaway is that self-image protection is a goal that she should also aspire to. In this study, blame became less contagious if people wrote down and affirmed their values before they witnessed someone attribute blame, which acted as a “blame antidote.” The more self-affirmed people became (the more of the antidote they took), the less they felt the need to protect their image.
So that’s blame. What about the flip side of the emotional coin?
Catching the Empathy Bug
More and more research suggests that happy brains have difficulty differentiating between observing an action and actually participating in it. Empathy—a contagion in its own right—seems to hinge in part on our ability to “take on” another’s emotions through vicarious experience. I always think of this when watching a comedian fall flat. I can feel the embarrassment as if I’m standing there on stage looking at a room full of blank stares. Something very similar occurs when we become infected with the emotions of others—as if our brains struggle with separating from what we see happening in those around us. Research has even found that our brains respond to the pain of those close to us as if we are in pain ourselves.
A study conducted by psychologists from Yale University and the University of California, Los Angeles, investigated this dynamic with an interesting angle: Researchers wanted to know if observing someone else exert self-control boosts or reduces one’s own self-control.6 Participants were asked to either take on the perspective of someone exerting self-control or merely read about someone exerting self-control. They were also asked to take on the perspective or read about someone not exerting self-control.
The results: Participants who took on the perspective of someone exerting self-control were unable to exercise as much self-control as those who merely read about someone exerting self-control. In other words, getting into the shoes of someone making the effort wore them out as if they were doing it themselves. On the flip side, participants who read about someone exerting self-control experienced a boost in their own self-control, compared to those who read about someone not exerting self-control. Reading resulted in a buttressing effect rather than a vicarious one.
The distinction between these results boils down to degree of psychological separation. Taking on perspective reduces psychological separation, and the more that gap closes, the greater the vicarious effect. Reading about something provides more of an opportunity to expand psychological separation (since the people you are reading about are not in front of you), which reduces the chances of vicarious effect.
The implications of these findings are quite practical. For instance, if a group of people is working on a project, and certain members are exerting an especially high degree of effort, this study suggests that other people in the group will experience a vicarious energy drain. An entire group’s energy could be affected by the exertion of just one or two members. Another example is situations involving police officers, hospital staff, and other emergency workers, whose ability to maintain self-control is essential to their jobs. It’s easy to see that if they experience vicarious depletion, anything from small breakdowns to catastrophic outcomes could result.
As an aside—this study also leads me to believe that “self-control” is at least half misnomer. Social influences affect it more than we know. On the other hand, regulating psychological distance—not something easily done—is a genuine application of self-control. If the pendulum swings too far in either direction, we either become wishy-washy emotional sponges or Dr. Spock.
What Yawning Chimps Reveal about Empathy
Contagious yawning, I think you will agree, is no myth, and primate research is lately indicating that it may actually tell us something about the nature of empathy. Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have been deconstructing the mechanism thought to underlie contagious yawning in both chimpanzees and humans.7 They discovered that chimpanzees yawn more after watching familiar chimps yawn than after watching strangers yawn. Yerkes researchers Matthew Campbell and Frans de Waal (one of the world’s leading primatologists) think that when yawning spreads between chimpanzees, it reflects an underlying empathy between those familiar with each other. They studied twenty-three adult chimpanzees that were housed in two separate groups. The chimps viewed several nine-second video clips of other chimpanzees, in both groups, either yawning or doing something else. They yawned 50 percent more frequently in response to seeing members of their group yawn compared to seeing others yawn.
Campbell and de Waal point out that yawns are contagious for the same reason that smiles, frowns, and other facial expressions are contagious: They are a measure of empathy, and—here’s the fun part—empathy is biased.Odd as that may sound, what this research uncovers about chimps is just as true for humans—we empathize much more with those familiar to us, and this familiarity bias is demonstrated in something as basic as yawning.
As we have already discussed, the happy brain is quite the biased organ. And we would expect that to be the case, since brains evolved to ensure survival—and strangers to the tribe are more likely to be dangerous than those we know (unfortunately, it often turns out that those we know are also dangerous, but that’s a different topic).
Case Study: Social-Norm Psychology Is a Potent Antiviolence Vaccine
Is it possible that killing can be treated as a psychologically transmitted disease? Results from an ambitious anticrime program based on this theory, called CeaseFire, suggest that it can be. The program employs a unique psychological angle in that it chiefly targets potential retaliators of violence rather than all potential perpetrators of violence. An epidemiological analogy might be a program that targets potential retransmitters of HIV instead of a much broader population. Outreach specialists (called violence disruptors) are trained to use social-norm pressure to target those most likely to retaliate for violence committed against them or others close to them—as if stopping the transmission of a disease before it reaches the next host. While that’s happening, other outreach specialists work on communicating the message in schools that retaliation isn’t “cool,” thus building a climate of social-norm pressure against retaliatory violence. The program also recruits reformed violent criminals to communicate the antiviolence message.
The results of the three-year study were impressive: Shootings and killings dropped between 41 and 73 percent in Baltimore and Chicago (of that, study authors claim that 17-35 percent is attributable to CeaseFire alone). Retaliated murders dropped 100 percent in five of eight communities. Overall violence was statistically reduced in every community. The program demonstrates that changing social norms is a powerful way to change behavior. The reason is that there appears to be a neural network in the brain associated with social-norm compliance. Strong messaging—including messages about punishment—activates this network to varying degrees, resulting in particular behavioral responses. It would seem that CeaseFire has been successful in communicating messages that tap into this neural network, eliciting genuine behavior change.8
You Can’t Mimic the Truth!
There is another significant drawback to catching the empathy bug, and we’ll close out this post with a bit about it. Empathy research of the last twenty or so years has reinforced the mantra that mimicry—the tendency to imitate the behaviors and expressions of other people—not only smoothes the wrinkles of social interaction but also facilitates better emotional understanding. The idea being that mimicry helps people feel what others are feeling and allows speakers to more accurately understand one another. And when it comes to truthful interaction, plenty of studies suggest this is the case. But what about during deceptive interaction? If mimicry helps me better understand you, will it also help me to know when you are lying?
A study conducted by psychologists at Leiden University in the Netherlands set out to answer exactly that question.9 Contributors were requested to interact with and mimic or no longer mimic folks who claimed to have made a donation to charity—a couple of of whom in fact had made a donation, others of whom had been lying. In full, the take a look at built-in three participant groups working beneath three stipulations: (1) suggested to mimic, (2) instructed to no longer mimic, (three) preserve watch over—no instructions given.
The implications: Nonmimickers had been significantly better at choosing the liars than mimickers—and this end result held genuine when evaluating the nonmimickers to mimickers and to the keep an eye on group of workers. Moreover price noting is that all three groups had been typically not superb at detecting lies (even though the nonmimickers were probably the most best possible), which buttresses some other neatly-examined idea that, whole, people are merely not very good lie detectors.
These results have a variety of implications. That used-car salesman who is trying to place you proper right into a “good deal”—be careful to now not mimic him. Ditto for nearly any salesperson you’re on hand in touch with; whereas they will or might not be lying to you, it’s easiest to position as quite a bit objective distance between you and them as that you could be, and mimicry reduces that distance. And that man who shoulders as a lot as you at a e book keep or espresso keep to allow you to be aware of just a few “good change chance”—well, don’t even speak about to that man.
None of what we’ve now talked about implies that we should no longer you will have to be empathetic. Relatively, in delicate of what everyone knows in regards to the effectivity of emotional contagions, it may be now not a foul thought to concentrate to potential drawbacks of getting too emotionally enmeshed too fast. It’s totally that you can imagine to empathize with others and protect against getting hoodwinked on the equivalent time.
1. James H. Fowler et al., “The Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network,”British Medical Journal 337 (December 2008).
2. K. Haegler et al., “No Fear, No Risk! Human Risk Behavior Is Affected by Chemosensory Anxiety Signals,” Neruopsychologica 48 (September 2010): 3901–3908.
3. James H. Fowler et al., “The Spread of Obesity through a Large Social Network over 32 Years,” New England Journal of Medicine 357 (July 2007): 370–79.
4. Carrie Arnold, “We’re in This Together,” Scientific American Mind, (May 2011).
5. Nathanael J. Fast et al., “Blame Contagion: The Automatic Transmission of Self-Serving Attributions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (January 2010): 97–106.
6. Joshua M. Ackerman et al., “You Wear Me Out: The Vicarious Depletion of Self-Control,” Psychological Science 20 (March 2009): 326–32.
7. Matthew Campbell et al., “Ingroup-Outgroup Bias in Contagious Yawning by Chimpanzees Supports Link to Empathy,” PLoS ONE 6 (2011),http://www.plosone.org/article/infopercent3Adoipercent2F10.1371percent2Fjournal.pone.0018283 (accessed June 14, 2011).
8. M. Stel et al., “You Want to Know the Truth? Then Don’t Mimic!” Psychological Science20 (April 2009): 693–99.
9. Study results provided at the CeaseFire Program website:http://www.ceasefirechicago.org/results.shtml.