Are You Affected by Social Contagion?

“What the heck is your topic about?”, asked friend of mine, upon learning  about it. “Social contagion? Where did you find this weird expression, anyway?”.

“Searching for the answer how to live a good and meaningful life”, was my answer.

“You believe that you can make an interesting article about social contagion?”

“Yes, I do, but the very first thing to do is to stop meeting you for a little while. You are so pessimistically contagious.”

Dear readers, if you would like to learn how to improve your everyday way of living, please read this article. If you believe you know everything about this subject, no problem. You have a choice.

Last year I wrote an article Media Related Stress. I’ll quote myself, with the first couple sentences from this article:

“For many years I have been thinking of the connection between stress and the headlines in the media. As a person who wants to be stress free, anxiety free and positive, I have written this article for people who feel the same way”.

I am still thinking about how to protect myself, and others, from the negative impact of the social environment. An article with a social contagion contest is a perfect way to show why we need not agree with a negative social contagion, but be influenced by a positive one. I’ve read a lot of pages on social contagion, and I can’t stop thinking of how our surroundings can manipulate us.

First, I need to give a definition of what social contagion is all about. By definition, a social contagion is: “a term for moods spreading from person to person, so called `copycat behavior’. Psychologists use this term to describe imitative behavior.” According to dictionaries, the term `contagion’ comes from the Latin `contagio’ which means `from touch or contact’. I understand my friend’s comment – social contagion does sound pretty unusual. Understandably, when we hear the word “contagious”, our first thought is “a transmission of disease by infected person or object”. Now we know that, in the same way, we are able to transmit emotional states, as well.

Actually, we all know about the term social contagion from everyday situations. We do not need to be an expert in this field to understand how emotion can spread through a group of people.  Think of hooligans’ behavior, especially after a big sports events, and you know how laughter can be `contagious’. Researchers know: crying, yawning, gratitude and happiness, as well as anger, are socially contagious, as are many other things.

What’s the reason that we, as human beings, imitate someone else’s behavior? Well, the very first reason is our evolutionary heritage. Just take this explanation as is.  I am not clarifying this `evolutionary hangover’ term in this article. Much more interesting is the second reason. The magic term is `mirror neurons’ (neuron stands for “a brain’s cell that conduct nerve impulses”).

Neuroscience is an amazing field and I can’t stop reading about this incredibly fascinating discovery in this field. One of the most important findings of neuroscience is just this magic term, `mirror neurons’. Mirror neurons are active when someone performs a `specific task’. Watch out now, please: The same mirror neurons are active when someone else performs the same `specific task’. Isn’t it amusing? Yes, it is! You can start laughing or crying, because someone else has performed the `specific act’, with no particular reason for you to do that. Have you ever cried at the movie theatre? You did? Why? It’s just a movie!

Now, when you know something about mirror neurons, you know why social contagion works in both ways. You can laugh because someone else is laughing or you can cry because someone else is crying. In learning about social contagion, you also learned something about the process of language learning, feelings of the emptiness, psychosomatic symptoms and a number of other human features. Psychosomatic symptoms? Yes, psychosomatic symptoms are one more example of social contagion effects. Now, it’s your turn to ask: “What the heck is this term about?”

Don’t be so impatient. This is very socially contagious, too.

I’ll give you an example of this term. I really can’t remember the source, I am sorry about that, but the story goes like this:

A group of researchers conducted a psychosomatic symptoms test at a huge stadium during the time of the official football game.

Over the public radio station at the stadium, they announced a fake announcement: “Please, come forward and see our medical team if you feel symptoms of food poisoning, due to poisoned meals from our stadium’s store”.  Guess what? Dozens of “sick people” came to see the medical team at stadium. The “funny” thing is this: They had real symptoms of food poisoning!  Why? Because of the definition itself (just joking). Psychosomatic symptoms are simply “a physical illness that is caused by mental factors. Body symptoms, resulting from neurosis caused by mental factors”. How complicated we are.

Reading this article, I hope you learned more than just about social contagion. You’ve learned how to “clean” you life from the contagious influence of negativity. You`ve learned why is so important to avoid pessimistic people and to be with positive ones.

In closing this article, I would like to add something. Do not take these explanations and examples in a very simple way. I mean, we need to understand that social contagion means we are `influenced’ by someone else’s behavior, but that doesn’t mean we need to imitate or to follow that other person’s `specific act’.

Keep this in mind. It’s not acceptable to claim that social contagion made you do something wrong.