Behaviors spread like the common cold


Sam Hanson

Contagious behaviors are an unavoidable part of the human experience, but even some control over negative emotions can lead others to have a better and more positive day.

Germs spread quickly, hopping from person to person. School is the perfect breeding ground for such contagions. But there is also a different type of contagion spreading and a vaccine for this is elusive because it involves human behaviors.

Behaviors can be easier to catch than the common cold. Contagious behavior is when an action, belief, or emotion is transferred unconsciously from one individual to another. The phenomenon of contagious behaviors has been thoroughly researched, with studies produced on this subject since the 1900s. Contagious behaviors impact life at school, where subtle and complex emotions — including happiness and depression — are transferred. Mimicking others’ actions is a way of social bonding and empathy that is hardwired into our brains. Contagious behaviors usually have significant consequences, but often students remain unaware of how others’ emotions and actions influence personal behaviors. Even though contagious behaviors are unconscious, students should be aware of the potential for positive or negative influence.

Behaviors can be easier to catch than the common cold”

Think about Senior Speeches. When is last time you have laughed at a line because you heard laughter or stood because a person in front of you stood up? The clapping hops from person to person, like a virus, growing louder as more people join in the petri dish of applause. In fact, research from the Journal of the Royal Society Interface shows the louder the clapping the more inclined one is to join in. When one person ceases clapping, others follow, causing a cascade effect until the applause has run its course. Clapping stops when people follow the crowd, said Richard Mann, a mathematics researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden. “The social pressure to clap just increased in proportion to the number of people who had already done so,” Mann wrote. Mann and his colleagues discovered that clapping spreads similarly to the patterns of diseases. It would follow that standing ovations would spread similarly. The next time a Senior Speech ends, and it is time to applaud, think whether the audience is clapping or standing because of the great speech or because of social pressure.

However, it would be senseless to find a moral dilemma in something so simple as clapping. It is more important for students to understand that their behaviors aren’t a self-contained phenomenon that ends up with the transition of the “virus.” Contagion influences students behaviors and method of thinking that can end up with significant consequences. Some examples of these consequential behaviors are risk-taking, rudeness, and social media.

Many of us have been asked by parents in a sarcastic tone: “If your friend jumped off a cliff, would you too?” Of course not, but what if your friend had a flying suit? In fact, friends actually make one more susceptible to taking part in risky behaviors than if one were alone. Potential rewards for risky behavior seem more enticing when with friends. Everyone probably can point to an experience involving friends and risky behavior. Mine takes place at midnight, when my friend says, “Hey, do you want to go sledding down that icy hill in the alley?” Although I am very tired, I suddenly forget this fact and jump to the opportunity. The reward was obvious – sledding down an icy hill would be enormously fun. The experience turned out fine for me, but a friend broke his thumb in the process. This injury made me think twice about whether sledding was worth the risk. Students should understand how the darker sides of contagion behavior are influencing their decision with friends. In order to do this, one needs to have a strong sense of self to not be carried away. To develop this sense, students should reflect on their mistakes and the mistakes of others. In other words, students need to develop a strong immune system. Since many contagious behaviors spread through students’ social network, students should take advantage of this virus-effect by spreading kindness and positive emotion.

Contagious behaviors are an unavoidable part of the human experience, but even some control over negative emotions can lead others to have a better and more positive day. Though contagious behaviors spread like the common cold, there is currently no vaccination for it. However, the next time you stand for a Senior Speech, do not use contagious behavior as an excuse to stand. Though students may be nudged to act certain ways, no one is being forced to stand after a Senior Speech or sled down an alley at midnight. The decision is ultimately in the hands of the student.