Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Social Contagion in The Middle East

Middle East upheaval demonstrates the new reach of social contagion

One effect on display in the current astonishing and thoroughly unpredicted upheaval in the Middle East is the power of social contagion. The people in Egypt and elsewhere around the region have clearly watched the folks in Tunisia. Psychology research has thoroughly documented people's tendency to respond to the behavior of people around them. You are more likely to do something if others around you are doing it too. You are more likely to do something after hearing that others are doing it than after hearing that it is good for you. You are more likely to do something if you think others are doing it. Conversely, you are likely not to do what others around you are not doing.

Recent work by Harvard sociologist Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis and political scientist James Fowler has shown quite dramatically how our social network--our friends and friends of friends--is linked to our behavior. Those with a close connection (friend, relative) who drinks heavily are 50% more likely to drink heavily themselves. Those with a ‘friend of a friend' drinking heavily are 36% more likely to do so. Similar contagion effects have been found for smoking, generosity, even obesity. We are intertwined with our social environment. While we often like to think about, and define, ourselves by our individual characteristics, our destinies are decided in more profound ways by our social ecology. The ocean enables the fish, not vice versa.

One mechanism of social contagion is modeling and imitation. Although imitation, aping, is often associates with, well, apes, we humans may be better imitators than our evolutionary branch mates. In a famous early experiment, the psychologist Winthrop Kellogg and his wife in 1931 brought a seven-month-old female chimpanzee named Gua into his home and proceeded to raise her as a sibling to 10-months-old their son, Donald. Nine months later they decided to stop the experiment after noticing that their son, instead of developing normal human language, began imitating the ape's gestures and barks.

Humans are better imitators than apes in part because our imitative impulse is entwined in a deeper impulse for social interaction. Apes, says Rebecca Saxe, a cognitive scientist at MIT, apparently lack the ability to innovate and the impulse to teach, as well as the unique ability to pay "triadic attention." "We can pay attention to a special triplet of things," says Saxe, "the triplet that's me and another person and a third thing--a task or an object that we're both thinking about, or talking about, or working on together. It's the basic element of all cooperation and maybe most communication."

We tend to imitate models that are successful, or, in psychology parlance, those who manage to obtain reinforcements from the environment. Children in Bandura's famous ‘Bobo doll' study were even more eager to imitate a model's aggression if they saw that the model was rewarded for it. And we tend to respond to models who resemble us, which is in part why your children dress and speak and dance like their peers, not like you. The riots in Iran did not elicit contagion, in part because they were not successful, and also in part because Iran is not an Arab state. The Tunisian riots did, for fellow Arabs, in part because they worked.

Social contagion used to occur in small spaces within geographically contiguous areas. Now, with social media, revolutions, like YouTube videos, can go global quickly. It may be ironic that the revolution in the largely anti-American Arab world is being facilitated by American technological innovations, which are readily embraced even as some the conditions and values that enabled these innovations (secularism, science, and diversity) are deeply suspected. But many of these tyrannical regimes have also been enabled by America, so maybe there's a measure of poetic justice here, too.

The media influences social contagion directly, as it broadcasts actual revolutions to potential revolutionaries. But the media also has indirect effects. Because of global communication and access to information, young people (and the Arab population is predominantly young) can find out for themselves what is going on around the world. They can see how others live; they can broaden the horizon of their imaginations, of possibility. Once you can imagine a different life, you are more likely to want it; once you understand the existence of options, you are more likely to pursue them.

There is worry in the west right now about whether Arab societies, many of which have no history of democracy, can transform themselves and create democratic institutions and a democratic tradition. The answer, of course, is yes. Democracy often emerges from social upheaval. The late great researcher Gilbert Gottlieb once said that biting had to occur for teeth to evolve. Similarly, the messy convulsions of a struggle for freedom may need to happen before effective freedom institutions and traditions can evolve. Second, Arab democracies, if they are to emerge, need not reinvent the wheel, sort of speak. The new technology and media, which have expanded the reach of social contagion, have also enabled global learning--everyone has access to all the knowledge. Information, capital, human resources are all more accesible, more mobile, more easily acquired than ever.  

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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