Social contagions


Parents (I don’t think I’m giving away any parental secrets here) worry about peer pressure–not least because parents remember how much their behavior was influenced by peers when they were young.

The fact is, we’re all influenced by the people around us…and we often think of that influence as a bad thing.

As the Bible puts it, “Evil companions corrupt good morals.” And other kinds of companions can have other effects.

For instance, an analysis of 12,067 people that appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 revealed that you are more likely to be obese if your best friend is obese. (Overstuffed siblings or spouses also makes a difference, but the greatest negative effect comes from fat friends.)

To a certain extent, it seems, obesity is a kind of societal disease, rather like the mysterious fainting disorders Victorian women seemed to be heir to, or the bizarre disorder koro, which in South China convinces men that their genitals are shrinking inward and they will die once they disappear.

Which they don’t, of course, but the affliction is real even if the symptoms are imagined.

High anxiety, depression, anorexia and bulimia are also contagious, and if you believe all these things are being foisted upon us by a secret government agency, perhaps you have fallen prey to another contagious state of mind, paranoia.

But not all social contagions are bad.

Back around Christmas of 2008 I wrote a column on the discovery that happiness is contagious, spreading rather like influenza. It seemed a particularly fitting column for the holiday season…and the newest research along those lines seems particularly fitting for a post-holiday column, because now comes word that self-control is also contagious.

At the University of Georgia, psychology professor Michelle vanDellen and colleagues were able to measure the effect in the laboratory, through a variety of studies over two years.

In one, they randomly assigned 36 volunteers to think about a friend with either good or bad self-control. They found that those thinking about a friend with good self-control squeezed a handgrip (a standard method of measuring self-control, since you have to force yourself to keep squeezing it as your hand gets more and more tired) longer than those who were asked to think about a friend who had poor self-control.

In a second test, 71 volunteers were again randomly assigned to either watch other people exert self-control by choosing to eat a carrot rather than a cookie when presented with both options, or fail to exert self-control by eating a cookie rather than a carrot. The mere act of watching those acts of good and bad self-control altered the volunteers’ performances on a later test of self-control.

In a third experiment, 42 volunteers were randomly assigned to list friends with both good and bad self-control. Then, as they were working their way through a computerized test designed to measure self-restraint, the computer would flash, for just 10 milliseconds–too fast to be read, but enough to bring the names to mind–the names of those friends. Volunteers who were flashed the name of a self-disciplined friend did better on the test than those who were flashed the name of a non-self-disciplined friend.

VanDellen believes that the influence is great enough that hanging around with friends who exhibit self-control could help us keep from eating an extra high-calorie snack at a party, or drive us to go to the gym for a workout at the end of a hard day at work. It’s only a nudge, but sometimes a nudge is all that’s needed.

And just why are we so susceptible to peer pressure?

Because we’re primates, and, as science writer Meredith F. Small puts it, “A primate’s day is all about everyone else.”

Chimpanzees and other primates spend all their time touching each other, keeping track of each other, and building interpersonal relationships…and in a very real sense, so do we. We are constantly influenced by those around us…and influence them, in turn.

Rather alarming, if you ask me. I think I’ll just sit in my office from now on and not talk to anyone.

I wouldn’t want to catch anything.

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