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Friday, December 28, 2012

A Few Can Influence Many

Some human behaviors or feeling states can be contagious

I observed this myself, way back when, I was awaiting my interview for my first internship at the counseling center run by my graduate program (a useful tip: If you need psychotherapy and have little ability to pay, graduate school programs often run these counseling centers where students gain experience working with clients, under supervision of licensed therapists; the fees are usually based on a very low sliding fee scale)As I waited I began noticing that the student next to me was quite agitated I was notBut as I began sensing her anxiety, I could tell that it might affect me.  I moved to another seat and as several of us continued to wait for our interview appointment, I saw each of the other students, one by one, become anxious too.  Since then I have noticed this phenomenon  on other occasions:  I have noticed, for example, becoming stirred up if I am in the company of an anxious person---I am not immune.  But I am aware.
This experience I had was also mentioned in an earlier post:

Some research that was done awhile ago, which I recently came across in my files tells us that happiness, loneliness, and obesity are also contagious.  Research by Nicholas Christakis at Harvard and James Fowler at U C San Diego.
This effect has since been reported by others again,more recently so, this research has held up.  How can obesity be contagious?  When you spend time around people who tend to overeat or choose unhealthy foods as a habit, you will be influenced to do the same.  I also noticed this myself, in the opposite way.  Because I usually attend several Yoga classes a week, I make little friendships with others who take the classes.  When we chat before or after class, subjects relating to good health often come up because people who do yoga tend to be health conscious.  There's talk about diet, exercise, stress reduction, supplements, and so on.  I do find myself thinking about what others have said, later, and also, trying some of their ideas.  There's also a subtle inspiring effect to re-commit myself to healthy practices.
(A related post:

 The good news is that "Doing good deeds, or just being kind, is contagious --- and the behavior of a few can influence many...When people benefit from kindness, they 'pay it forward', which creates greater cooperation that influences others in a social network...Generosity was...tripled by others, who were directly or indirectly influenced to give more." Sharon Jayson 
 I have also been aware at times of how when one is interacting with a happy person, sometimes the happiness just flows out and washes over the other person and tends to lift their spirits.
  There are few things to think about here:
  • Of course, you want to keep your boundaries intact if you are in the company of an anxious or lonely person.  
  •  You can teach yourself to be alert to how you feel in the company of various people.  
  • In addition, you might consider asking yourself just how are you, yourself, influencing others.  
Remember the butterfly effect-it is a theory akin to the research findings and my own observations reported above.

 Have you ever noticed your own state of mind being affected/altered by proximity to someone in a different state of mind?  Please comment.


  1. The emotional contagion theory agrees with your post. Human beings tend to unconsciously mirror each other. In my opinion, some people are more apt to being affected by other people depending upon how emotionally sensitive they are. Sometimes being aware of others' emotions is a positive thing, but other times it can be distressing/draining.

  2. Paula, this is fascinating phenomenon! Thank you for posting it. I would like to recommend a most interesting classic book on "contagious" behavior from the financial arena. Charles MacKay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds" was first published in 1841, but its principles hold true today. The author chronicles how people were influenced to take outlandish financial risks because others did. He gives examples of "Tulip Mania" in Holland 1624, when the price per ounce of tulip bulbs rose above that of gold, the "Mississippi Bubble" (France) and the "South Sea Bubble (England) when many fortunes were lost on wild financial speculation schemes. For a modern take, see "Investor Therapy," by clinical psychologist and Wall Street trader Richard Geist. Again, thanks for this post!

  3. Thanks to Bama Psych and Robert for these supporting references! I discovered a new one today---the result of writing the post: Increased awareness; I noticed myself straightening up my posture when doing some business today with a guy who had very good posture. :)

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