“If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” That was my mother’s favorite reply when teenage me would say things like “All the other kids are wearing…” or “Nobody else has a curfew” or “My best friend’s mother lets her…”. My mother was unimpressed. She was right. I probably would have jumped off that bridge — at least some of the time. Chances are, I would look at what my friends were doing and follow along.
We may like to see ourselves as individuals, free to follow our own minds and hearts and determinedly able to follow a “different drummer” when our friends are doing something we don’t particularly agree with. But studies show that is more illusion than fact. What everyone else is doing is more seductive than we’d like to think.
Social psychologists call the spread of information, attitudes and behaviors among friends, relatives and communities “social contagion.” There are numerous studies that confirm that people tend to do pretty much what people close to them do.
Little kids often want to dress or behave “just like” their new best friend. In their search for identity, teens start to define themselves by being “different” from their parents. Ironically, they assert their difference by trying to dress, talk, and act like their particular group of friends. They join clubs, develop interests, or even experiment with risky behaviors in line with what the group is doing.
Social contagion doesn’t stop in adulthood. Studies by social psychologists and behavioral economists show that we are more likely to “follow our crowd”. It’s not at all unusual for peers to marry and start families around the same time. Friends often pursue the same level of education or share the same political beliefs. One huge study even showed that we are 75% more likely to divorce if a friend does.
Sometimes the tendency to take the lead of others is helpful and pro-social. One study found that energy customers were more likely to conserve if they were shown that their neighbors’ use of electricity was less than theirs. Sometimes, people get caught up in antisocial behaviors, chanting racist slogans at a rally, for example, even when it violates their personal values. And sometimes we walk in step with arbitrary and even pointless behavior — like when we decide what brands we buy. We’re more likely to purchase what we think is more popular. If everyone else is buying it, it must be the best, right?
The statement “You are unique as everyone else” is on t-shirts, mugs, and bumper stickers. Although meant to be funny, there is truth to it well beyond adolescence.
Why Social Contagion Occurs
- We are social creatures. We want to fit in, to be accepted, to be seen as one of us, not one of them. Quite unconsciously, we adopt internal ideas and attitudes and external habits and dress that are in line with the people we want to associate with. Shared experience increases intimacy and support among a social group.
- We’re in this together feels much better than going it alone. When everyone else is getting married, joining a gym, buying a new car, having a baby, or getting divorced, we often feel compelled to consider whether we should be doing the same.
- Whatever is familiar has a powerful influence on us. We tend to choose friends who are much like others who are close to us, even when it is uncomfortable in some way. Almost everyone knows someone who seems to find the same kind of partner again and again even if on the surface the new love looks different. Chances are any new person in our life is close to similar people. The result? The new people we meet are more of the same.
- Our closest associates also model options for our life. An extreme example is that friends of people who suicide are more likely to suicide. It’s not because suicide is “contagious” like a disease. No. It’s thought to be because a friend’s suicide makes the option for doing so more real to friends who may be also struggling with depression or overwhelming setbacks.
- On a more positive note, studies show that optimism is also likely to spread in a group. If we hang around with people who are optimistic and who have a problem-solving approach to life, it increases our own resilience. Instead of jumping into despair with us when we are having a hard time, such people listen compassionately, but then provide us with practical help and advice and support for moving forward. We then know how to pass it on.
- Empathy may be another factor. When we listen empathetically to a friend’s positivity or negativity, it causes us to think about what is positive or negative about our own situation. Hearing about the romantic high a friend is experiencing may cause us to want to find the same thing. Listening to a friend complain about her spouse may highlight our concerns about our own marriage. It’s why both marriages and divorces seem to happen in friend clusters. Happiness as well as misery loves company.
Social contagion is not an irresistible force. We are not all robots, marching in step with the people closest to us. The push to maintain individuality is also strong. How we resolve the tension between the two poles, being alike and being different, being true to ourselves vs. doing what wins group approval, this is what in fact makes us unique. The question we all address as we mature is how to retain membership in a social group we like and admire while fostering our independence.