We’ve all either heard, or maybe used, the expression “Your attitude is contagious. Is your’s worth catching?” It’s a bit corny, even a bit annoying sometimes when you’re having a bad day and you’re quite “happy” to be having a bad day and impacting those around you!
Most of us know both intuitively and from experience that attitudes can be contagious. If someone else is smiling, you’re likely to smile, if someone around you is in a bad mood, you’ve got to work a lot harder to stay positive. But did you know there’s quite a bit of research around the topic? And it’s not just attitudes, but actions that are contagious.
A study by Christakis and Fowler as part of the Framingham Heart Study found that obesity was contagious. They found that a person’s chance of becoming obese increased by 40% if a friend of that person became obese. Interestingly, if their spouse became obese, they had only a 37% increased chance of becoming obese.
Other behaviours which have been found by research to be contagious include alcohol consumption, smoking, sleep loss, drug use, depression and rule breaking. (Hence we don’t want our kids to get in with a “bad” crowd”. Even the goal of having casual sex has been found by research to be contagious!
So, it’s probably not too much of a surprise that our behaviour is influenced by those around us, but it’s the degree to which behaviours are contagious which is so astounding.
Whilst we all like to think of ourselves as individuals with our own strong wills and own goals and desires, due to the speed with which man has evolved, we still have a brain made for a primitive world, where “catching” the behaviour of those around us would have been important for survival. Our primitive brain will likely want to give into temptation and instant gratification, whilst our higher level, “modern” brain tells us to resist short term gain for the achievement of longer term, bigger accomplishments.
When we see other people give in to temptations for instant gratification, our brain tells us it’s fine to do this. But if we see someone resisting temptation, it reinforces our goal and helps activate self control.
If you’re still with me at this point, you might be asking “What does this have to do with running? Good question.
Basically, good or bad social norms have an enormous capacity to influence our behaviour. So, if you see people turning up to training each week, on time, ready to run, you’re more likely to do the same. If your kids see you consistently making your health a priority, they are more likely to do that themselves, and turn into fit and healthy adults.
There are neurons in the brain which pretty much mimic things we see. They’re called mirror neurons, and it’s the existence of mirror neurons which make it very hard sometimes to exercise self control. To simplify it, if we see someone do something that causes them pain, like cutting their finger for example, the mirror neurons in our brain fire, and we are able to understand and empathise with them. So the neural pathway for pain actually fires.
There’s been research conducted in this area that shows these neurons fire even if we’re watching someone in a movie. For example when smokers watched a movie with someone smoking in it, activation occurred in the areas of the brain that were in charge of moving the hand.
If we see someone having a reward, due to activity in our brain, we want the reward too. if we see someone indulging in chocolate cake, our reward area is priming itself for activation! Longing sets in, and before you know it, regardless of your resolve, you’re shoveling chocolate cake in like there’s no tomorrow!
So the moral to the tale? There really are good scientifically backed reasons for surrounding yourself with people who’s goals and desires align with yours.
We love helping people with their motivation to run. Come along to a week of free running sessions, and experience how running motivation is contagious.
Goal Contagion: Perceiving Is for Pursuing Henk Aarts, Peter M. Gollwitzer, Ran R. Hassin