Researchers have discovered that people are remarkably responsive to what other members of their social group are doing. “Social Contagion” is the term social psychologists use to describe the tendency of a behavior, attitude or belief to spread among people who are close to each other.
As much as we may not want to believe it, what we think everybody else thinks or does matters to us. Family harmony often depends on a certain level of conformity. We make friends based more on similarity than differences. Advertisers count on our tendency to be influenced by our perception of what is popular with that mythic “everyone else.”
Some social contagion is decidedly self-destructive. In 2008, 17 high school girls in one small town made a pregnancy pact, all of them trying to get pregnant before graduation. A retrospective study that same year found that adolescent girls are more likely to engage in non-suicidal self harm if their best friends are doing it. Another study found that teens with four or more friends who were abusing drugs and alcohol were also likely to abuse substances. The suicide of one or more people in a group often leads to other people attempting or committing suicide, especially if they were already struggling with depression.
Not all conformity is negative. People are more likely to register to be organ donors if members of their family do the same. Recovery groups are built on the idea that replacing a social group of users with a support group of people with the same recovery goals is a powerful support for positive change. Conservation efforts, composting, and belonging to a farm share are also likely to spread among members of a friend group. You know that card on your hotel pillow asking if you’d like to help the environment by reusing your towels? You are more likely to say “yes” if people you know do it.
And sometimes it isn’t clear whether the drive to be like our friends is positive or negative. Young adults often decide to marry in step with their friends. Couples are more likely to have a child if a brother or sister has recently done so. One very large study showed that couples are 75% more likely to divorce if they had friends or siblings who did. Yes, some of those decisions are positive choices. But some seem to be in response to people over identifying with their friends.
It’s easy to make life decisions when what the group expects of us lines up with what we think is right and moral. Marching in step with others results in comfortable relationships and shared experiences.
However, it’s very anxiety provoking when our own values are in conflict with those of our family, friends, and/or community. It’s uncomfortable to be thought of as weird or to be dropped by people we thought were our friends because of choices we make. It hurts to be rejected when we stand up for something we believe in. In situations where our ideas or decisions are not shared by our group, we are confronted with how much we are willing to sacrifice our individuality or principles as the price of group membership and approval.
The antidote to mindless “contagion” is being thoughtful about how we are being influenced by social norms and being equally thoughtful about who we surround ourselves with. Negative “contagion” can then give way to positive choice.
6 Ways to Resist Negative Contagion
- Resolve not to be seduced into doing something because everybody (or even a few people you are close to) is doing it. Don’t let yourself get swept up in the group’s energy for doing (or not doing) something without taking the time to think about it. Promise to yourself that you will do your best to always consider whether what is right for your friends is really right for you.
- Slow down when deciding to make a life change. Young adults sometimes go to college or get married or have babies because it seems like all their friends are “ahead” of them. The same is true for changing or advancing in jobs, moving, or retiring. Life isn’t a sweepstakes. Make life changes when it is right for you.
- Do your research: Don’t take other people’s word for it about what is good for you at this stage of your life. Yes, it’s easier to just do what everyone else does but you aren’t everyone else. Explore your options and make a conscious choice.
- Separate from toxic people who demand compliance in order for you to be a member of the group. This can be frightening, even when it is for the best. While looking for a healthier friend group, there may be a period of time where you feel very much alone. Support groups, therapy, and recovery groups can provide needed social support while you make the effort to find more supportive people for your life.
- Widen your support system: Social contagion isn’t all bad. When we have positive models for different ways of being, we open up new possibilities for ourselves. All of your friends don’t need to be friends with each other. Different groups may respond to your different interests and needs. Give yourself permission to seek out new people you admire.
- Reject invitations from difficult people to fight about your principles: Sometimes it is important to stay in relationship with difficult people. When dealing with family members, friends or coworkers who seem to want to fight about, well, everything, you don’t have to respond in kind. If you are making healthy choices for yourself, there is no need to convince others that it is so. Politely decline the invitation to argue, change the subject, find things you can agree about without giving too much of yourself away.