Other People Matter: Social Contagion Theory

John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux of Lumia Coaching on the science of social influence, and how we can use it to increase happiness.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

What’s Social Contagion?

Social contagion is a psychological phenomenon of social influence. In simple terms, it refers to our natural inclination to copy the behavior of folks we are exposed to. This is neatly summed up by the adage: You are the sum of the five people that you spend the most time with.

Social contagion functions involuntarily - it’s not something we’re consciously aware that we’re doing. - Noelle Cordeaux, Lumia Coaching CEO

Some benign examples of social contagion include: yawning, laughing, and smiling. Language and attitudes also pass between us. Think of slang words, inside jokes, and shared beliefs that are particular to certain families, peer groups, geographic regions, or communities.  

At its worst, social contagion can lead to an increase in behaviors that are not good for you, and make it harder to stop doing things you want to change. Negative self-talk is also amplified by social contagion. A couple familiar examples include:

  • If you hang out with smokers, it will be that much harder to quit
  • If your friends all talk poorly about their bodies, you’re likely to begin thinking negatively about your body too

Now here’s the good news: social contagion is meant to work FOR us!

How does social contagion contribute to lasting happiness? Research shows that our relationships with others matter most in cementing our satisfaction in life. In a very real sense, emotional attunement to the people around us is hard-wired in. Our cave–dwelling ancestors formed elaborate social structures to increase their odds of survival.

Some of the profound positive impacts on our behavior as a result of social transfer can include:

  • Immersing yourself in new cultures and ideas
  • Picking up a new hobby by joining a like-minded group, such as a running club or writers collective
  • Growing professionally by participating in entrepreneurship groups or co-working spaces

Leveraging Webs of Connection

It is also worth noting that in the same way that someone’s bad mood can rub off on you, positivity spreads too! Nicholas Christakis, professor of medical sociology at Yale University, researched the contagion of emotions within social networks. Some interesting findings from his work include:

  • Having a happy friend who lives within a mile of you ups the likelihood that you’ll be happier too
  • Happiness spreads between next–door neighbors, siblings that live nearby, and spouses

Positive social contagion functions like vibrations across a web. Good feelings introduced onto the network by one person can amplify and spread wider than you might imagine. The gold nugget here is that these good feelings continue to move from person to person unconsciously, even when there’s no longer a direct connection to the original spark of joy!

Make Social Contagion Work For You

Be aware of the beliefs, behaviors, and affect of the people around you. Are you in the company of people who you want to emulate? And remember: it's not just about "them"! It's possible for you to change dynamics within relationships and groups through your own behavior as well.

If you want to feel more connection, happiness and joy, consider what you can do to impact your network, rather than asking what your network can do for you.

Like attracts like:

  • If you want to start a new business, hang out with some entrepreneurs who are ON FIRE! Take a pass on mastermind group meetings populated with people who keep talking about launching, but never actually go for it.
  • If you’d like to get healthier, skip some of the cocktail hour gatherings and cultivate walking buddies within your circle of acquaintances instead.
  • If you’d like to get your writing published, attend craft workshops or join a writers group.

Through making positive changes in your own life, those effects ripple out across your environment. Keep it up and over time, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the very thing you’re hoping to create.

Want the Ultimate In Peer Support?

Check out Lumia Life Coach Training! People enroll in our program for a variety of reasons. Some come with the clear intention to build a career in coaching. But not all of us plan to “go pro”. Coach training enhances our own personal development - in essence, it’s education in becoming a “better human”. What we learn ultimately helps us to become better friends, parents, coworkers, and community members.

Grounded in science, Lumia's ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and like-minded students dedicated to becoming a force for good in the world. Come on in, the water’s warm!

Lumia Coaching: Vibrant community. Evidence-based life coach training. Lifetime support.

[Free Guide] 6 Steps to Start Coaching Today

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Lumia is accredited by the ICF as a Level 2 Pathway Program. Want to learn more about the ICF credential requirements? Click here for further details.