ⓘ Behavioral contagion


ⓘ Behavioral contagion

Behavioral contagion is a type of social influence. It refers to the propensity for certain behavior exhibited by one person to be copied by others who are either in the vicinity of the original actor, or who have been exposed to the behavior of the original actor. It was originally used by Gustave Le Bon in his 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind to explain undesirable aspects of behavior of people in crowds. A variety of behavioral contagion mechanisms were incorporated in models of collective human behavior.

The occurrence of behavioral contagion has been attributed to a variety of different factors, but the predominant theory is that of the reduction of restraints, put forth by Fritz Redl in 1949 and analyzed in depth by Ladd Wheeler in 1966. Even with the popularity of this theory, social psychologists acknowledge a number of factors that influence the likelihood of behavioral contagion occurring, such as deindividuation and the emergence of social norms Turner, 1964. J.L. Freedman, J. Birsky and A. Cavoukian 1980 have also focused on the effects of physical factors on contagion, in particular, density and number.

J. O. Ogunlade 1979, p. 205 describes behavioral contagion as a "spontaneous, unsolicited and uncritical imitation of anothers behavior" that occurs when certain variables are met: a) the observer and the model share a similar situation or mood this is one way behavioral contagion can be readily applied to mob psychology; b) the models behavior encourages the observer to review his condition and to change it; c) the models behavior would assist the observer to resolve a conflict by reducing restraints, if copied; and d) the model is assumed to be a positive reference individual.


1.1. Factors influencing contagion Reduction of restraints

Behavioral contagion is a result of the reduction of fear or restraints – aspects of a group or situation which prevent certain behaviors from being performed. Restraints are typically group-derived, meaning that the "observer", the individual wishing to perform a certain behavior, is constrained by the fear of rejection by the group, who would view this behavior as a" lack of impulse control”.

An individual the "observer" wants to perform some behavior, but that behavior would violate the unspoken and accepted rules of the group or situation they are in; these rules are the restraints preventing the observer from performing that action. Once the restraints are broken or reduced the observer is then "free" to perform the behavior; this is achieved by the "intervention" of the model. The model is another individual, in the same group or situation as the observer, who performs the behavior which the observer wished to perform. Stephenson and Fielding 1971 describe this effect as initiator, by his action, establishes an inequitable advantage over the other members of the gathering which they may proceed to nullify by following his example."


1.2. Factors influencing contagion Density and number

Density refers to the amount of space available to a person – high density meaning there is less space per person – and number refers to the size of the group. Freedman 1975 put forth the intensification theory, which posits that high density makes the other people in a group more salient features of the environment, this magnifying the individuals reaction to them. Research has shown that high density does in fact increase the likelihood of contagion. Number also has an effect on contagion, but to a lesser degree than density.


1.3. Factors influencing contagion Identity of the model

Stephenson and Fielding 1971 state that the identity of the model is a factor that influences contagion p. 81. Depending on the behavior, sex of the model may be a factor in the contagion of that behavior being performed by other individuals – particularly in instances of adult models performing aggressive behavior in the presence of children-observers {Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models}. In this particular series of experiments – Albert Banduras Bobo doll experiments from 1961 and 1963 – where the behavior of children was studied after the children watched an adult model punching a bobo doll and the model received a reward, a punishment, or there were no consequences, the analyses revealed that the male model influenced the participants behavior to a greater extent than did the female model; this was true for both the aggressive and the nonaggressive male models p. 581.


1.4. Factors influencing contagion Personality of the observer

Ogunlade 1979 found that extroverts, who are described as impulsive and sociable individuals, are more likely to be susceptible to contagion than introverted individuals, who are described as reserved and emotionally controlled.


1.5. Factors influencing contagion Social norms

Gino, Ayal and Ariely 2009 state that an important factor influencing contagion is the degree to which the observer identifies with the others of the group p. 394. When identification with the rest of the group is strong, the behaviors of the others will have a larger influence.


2.1. Similarities and differences with other types of social influence Conformity / social pressures

Conformity is a type of social influence that is very similar to contagion. It is almost identical to another type of social influence, "pressures toward uniformity" social pressures Festinger, 1954, which differ only in the research techniques they are associated with Wheeler, 1966, p. 182.

Both conformity and contagion involve some sort of conflict, but differ in the roles other individuals play in that conflict. In conformity, the other individuals of the group try to pressure the observer into performing a behavior; the model then performs some other behavior in the vicinity of the observer. This results in the observer creating restraints against the pressured behavior and a conflict between the pressured behavior and the behavior performed by the model. In the end, the observer either performs the models behavior his-/herself, rejects the model, or pressures the model to perform the original pressured behavior Wheeler, Table 1. In contagion, the models behavior results in the removing of restraints and the resolving of the conflict, while in conformity, the models behavior results in the creation of restraints and of the conflict.


2.2. Similarities and differences with other types of social influence Social facilitation

Social facilitation, another type of social influence, is distinguished from contagion, as well as from conformity and social pressures, by the lack of any marked conflict. It is said to occur when the performance of an instinctive pattern of behavior by an individual acts as a releaser for the same behavior in others, and so initiates the same line of action in the whole group Thorpe, 1956, p. 120. Bandura and Walters 1963, p. 79, give the example of an adult, who has lost the unique aspects of the dialect of the region where they were raised, returns for a visit and "regains" those previously lost patterns of speech. Starch 1911 referred to this phenomenon as an "unintentional or unconscious imitation".


2.3. Similarities and differences with other types of social influence Imitation

Imitation is different from contagion in that it is learned via reward and punishment and is generalized across situations. Imitation can also be a generic term for contagion, conformity, social pressures, and social facilitation.

  • BP = pressured behavior
  • CS = conditioned stimulus
  • CR = conditioned response
  • BN = initial behavior

2.4. Similarities and differences with other types of social influence Competition contagion on non-competitors

While behavioral contagion is largely about how people might be affected by observations of the expressions or behavior of others, research has also found contagion in the context of a competition where mere awareness of an ongoing competition can have an influence on noncompetitors task performance, without any information about the actual behavior of the competitors.


3.1. Research Effects of group pressure

Behavioral contagion, largely discussed in the behaviors of crowds, and closely related to emotional contagion, plays a large role in gatherings of two or more people. In the original Milgram experiment on obedience, for example, where participants, who were in a room with only the experimenter, were ordered to administer increasingly more severe electrical shocks as punishment to a person in another room from here on referred to as the "victim", the conflict or social restraint experienced by the participants was the obligation to not disobey the experimenter – even when shocking the victim to the highest shock level given, a behavior which the participants saw as opposing their personal and social ideals Milgram, 1965, p. 129.

Milgram also conducted two other experiments, replications of his original obedience experiment, with the intent being to analyze the effect of group behavior on participants: instead of the subject being alone with the experimenter, two confederates were utilized. In the first of the two experiments, "Groups for Disobedience", the confederates defied the experimenter and refused to punish the victim p. 130. This produced a significant effect on the obedience of the participants: in the original experiment, 26 of the 40 participants administered the maximum shock; in the disobedient groups experiment, only 4 of 40 participants administered the highest level of voltage Table 1. Despite this high correlation between shock level administered and the obedience of the group in the disobedient groups experiment, there was no significant correlation for the second of the replicated experiments: "Obedient Groups", where the confederates did not disobey the experimenter and, when the participant voiced angst regarding the experiment and wished to stop administering volts to the victim, the confederates voiced their disapproval p. 133. Milgram concludes the study by remarking that "the insertion of group pressure in a direction opposite that of the experimenters commands produces a powerful shift toward the group. Changing the group movement does not yield a comparable shift in the performance. The group success in one case and failure in another can be traced directly to the configuration of motive and social forces operative in the starting situation." That is, if the groups attitudes are similar to or compatible with the participants/observers, there is a greater likelihood that the participant/observer will join with the group p. 134.

  • category. Le Bon held that crowds existed in three stages: submergence, contagion and suggestion. During submergence, the individuals in the crowd lose
  • Princeton University Press. Centola is the author of How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions The book presents over a decade of original research
  • interaction models to provide a generalized model of social contagion which classifies the behavior of the system into three universal classes. It has also
  • through emotional contagion in which members are infected by others emotions, as well as through other processes. Emotional contagion has been observed
  • occurrence, frequency, and latency of yawn contagion As with other measures of empathy, the rate of contagion was found to be greatest in response to kin
  • social norms behavioral component, norms have two dimensions: how much a behavior is exhibited, and how much the group approves of that behavior These dimensions
  • selection pressures stimulate hazard - precaution systems such as predation, contagion and disgust in human minds. McCorkle argued that these ritualized compulsions

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