by Jessica Austin of Positive Acorn
The scene: there are three college students sitting in a small room. Each is filling out a questionnaire for the research study for which they have volunteered. One of them casually glances up to notice what appears to be smoke in the seam of the doorway. He then looks to the other students sitting in the room with him. They too look up and see the smoke, now billowing into the room, filling it with a grey cloud. They all look at each other for clues about how they should react. Instead of getting help, they sit in the chaulky cloud and continue to fill out the questionnaire. From the time we were very young, we have been taught that smoke means danger. Why then would three very capable people choose to sit in a smoked filled room, potentially risking their lives, instead of seeking help? The short answer is this: “we do as others do.”
Take a moment to go back in time with me. To a time when your father challenged your way of thinking by asking the age old question “if your friends jump off a cliff, are you going to?” We’d all like to believe that we can think for ourselves– that others don’t have a huge influence on how we make decisions. The fact is, when we are in groups, we often look to others to provide cues for how we should behave.
Research shows that this happens in more situations than just emergencies. Group behavior contagion happens in all sorts of relationships and in all sorts of ways. Those who have friends that drinkalcohol excessively are more likely to drink to excess themselves. This phenomenon also happens with fashion and even with obesity! Harvard researchers followed 12,067 people over the course of thirty-two years and found social contagion in many instances. In the event that someone becomes obese, their friends are three times more likely to become obese than the average person. But this contagious effect in groups isn’t always negative. There is a plus side to behavior contagion. Along with with downfalls, research also shows that people who are friends with happy people are more likely to be happy themselves. Not only that, but that the friends of friends of happy people are also happy. It’s like a domino effect with an upswing!
So what do we do with this information? Well, for one thing, it’s best to surround yourself with people who are engaged in positive activities. Befriend the people you look up to, and limit the amount of time you spend with people engaged in behaviors that you want to avoid. As a second takeaway, when you see something alarming don’t look to others in order to act. If you see smoke coming in from the seam in the doorway…find help! Luckily the college students in the scenario above were part of a controlled research experiment and not in any real danger.