Western culture tends to focus on the individual and on individual rights. We assume that people have the right to do what they would like, at least as long as those actions don't interfere with others. But, what does it mean for one person's actions to affect the actions of another?
Research by Henk Aarts, Peter Gollwitzer, and Ran Hassin described in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that just watching or reading someone striving toward a goal can make you more likely to adopt that goal as well. In one study, for example, participants who read a story about someone who was trying to make money were more likely to look for opportunities to make money and to put effort into them than people who read a story that was not related to making money.
An interesting study with young children suggests that children as young as 18-months-old are also affected by the actions they see. Research with children of this age suggests that they do like to be helpful. For example, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello described studies in a 2006 paper in Science in which 18-month-olds will help adults to reach things that they have dropped.
These studies were extended by Harriet Over and Malinda Carpenter in a study published in the October, 2009 issue of Psychological Science. They showed 18-month-olds a series of pictures. For some infants, the pictures showed people standing close together looking at each other. Three other groups were run as well. Some infants saw pictures with only one person in them. Others saw pictures with two people, but they were not looking at each other. A third group saw pictures with figures that were not people.
After viewing the pictures, a different experimenter (who did not know what pictures the infants had seen) asked the child to play a game. The experimenter was carrying pick-up sticks to a table and accidentally dropped them. The experimenter looked at the infant and at the sticks. In the first 10 seconds after dropping the sticks, about 60% of the infants who saw pictures of people standing together helped the experimenter by picking up the sticks. Only 20% of the infants in each of the other conditions helped right away.
This finding suggests that infants who see others being social are encouraged to be social themselves.
It is important to realize that both in the studies with adults and with infants, that the people in the study are unaware that observing others has affected their own actions. In the studies with adults, participants are asked specifically about the relationship between reading stories about people and other aspects of the study, and they did not realize there was a connection. The infants in the study by Over and Carpenter are not asked, obviously, but it seems unlikely that they are aware that seeing a set of pictures would make them help an adult.
Taking all of this work together, it seems that the borders of our actions are broader than we might think. People are affected by what we do if they just see or hear about our actions. We serve as an example to others in what we do. And this example is one that influences the behavior of others, even though they are not aware of the effect that our actions have had on them.