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  • Katie Jefcoat

The Science of Behavioral Contagions on Happiness

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

You know the saying, "monkey see, monkey do." This common phrase describes when someone mimics another, intentionally or not, which is scientifically known as behavioral contagion. Today, I am going to explore what behavior contagion is, how it spreads, and what we can do to improve our happiness.

What is Behavioral Contagion?

According to the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, “Behavioral contagion is the tendency for people to repeat behavior after others have performed it.”

Behavioral contagion is essentially mimicry but on an unconscious level. The definition listed examples of behavioral contagion as speech variables such as syntax, accents, speech rate, pauses, tone of voice, and behavioral variables such as gestures, mannerisms, and postures.

Check out this clip from Forrest Gump to see Behavioral Contagion in action!

How does Behavioral Contagion Spread?

Studies have shown that behavioral contagions don't primarily spread through the expression of words; it is more so based on physiological cues. For example, it may be a subtle facial expression, a shift in body language, a flexing of a muscle, or even something as simple as laughter. We all know how contagious a good laugh is!

You may recognize it as also yawning when someone else yawns! We all know how contagious those darn things are! Other obvious physical reactions include tearing up when watching someone cry or puking not because you are sick but because you saw someone else puke. These more sensitive individuals are often called "sympathy criers" or "sympathy pukers" when they react not to their own emotions or physiology but to another’s.

After conducting a behavioral contagion study, Sigal Barsade, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "We aren't emotional islands…People are sort of walking mood conductors and we need to be aware of that."

Behavioral contagions can also become a triggered response that we learn over time. Take road rage, for example; those who watch their parents yell out the window while driving learn that aggression is an appropriate response to a specific event. Therefore, they are more likely to have a triggered response of anger when they become of age to drive.

What About Emotional Contagions?

Similar to behavioral contagions, emotional contagions are a reflection of others' emotions. Take, for example, a high school football game. I can just about guarantee that not everyone in the stand wants to be there, but they get swept up in the excitement and joy to end up having a good time.

Emotional contagions can be both positive and negative. Feelings of enthusiasm, joy, and happiness can spread just as much as sadness, fear, and anger.

How Deeply Behavioral & Emotional Contagions Spread Depends on the Trigger Person

As unique people, we communicate how we feel at different levels, both verbally and physiologically. Some people can better transmit their emotions, even if they don't mean to.

An example given in Psychological Science is about that one person at work whose mood can change the whole atmosphere in the office. If they are upset, everyone feels on edge and extra sensitive that day, but if they are happy, everyone has an extra pep in their step. Unfortunately, even when we are aware of this phenomenon and recognize when it is happening, we can still be affected by it!

How Can We Use Behavioral & Emotional Contagions to Improve Happiness

According to a study performed by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, they “found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation." The happiest people tend to be at the center of their social networks, with each happy person bringing greater happiness to the group.

So, how can you use this to improve your social circle's happiness?

First, I encourage you to look inward. Consider how your emotions are affecting others and how you are being affected by the emotions of those around you. By being aware of your emotional processing and how you affect others, you will recognize when poor emotions are likely to spread and can nip them in the bud.

Second, consider what actions you can take to spread positive or happy emotions. Something as simple as smiling at a stranger, sending a kindness card, or cheering for someone can instantly change the atmosphere in the room.

As I always say, kindness is contagious. Spread a little more happy contagions today with some simple act of kindness!

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