Tamara McClintock Greenberg Psy.D.

21st Century Aging

Is Poor Self-Care Contagious?

Contagious behavior vs. personal responsiblity

Posted Oct 10, 2009

A recent New York Times Magazine article by Clive Thompson questions how we are influenced by our friends and family when it comes to taking care of our own health.

This fascinating essay, examining the research of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, suggests that unhealthy behavior is influenced by the phenomenon of social contagion, that "clusters of friends appear to ‘infect' each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking."

Really?

Thompson goes on to say that the leading researchers of social contagion theory believe that good health is a result of "of your sheer proximity to other healthy people."

Really?

My initial response was: Cool! --maybe if I find more friends who are size 4 then I can be too! I was about to place my Craigslist ad for new friends, but then I thought more about it...

The concept of social contagion suggests that people we are connected to (even distantly) have the power to influence our behavior. For example, Christakis and Fowler found that obesity increased about 10% for those who had friends of friends who also gained weight! The idea is that health behaviors, both good and bad, can be "caught," almost like a cold.

Although there is merit to the research findings on social contagion--mutual friends do have alarmingly similar behaviors--what I find unsettling about the implications of this theory is the potential ammunition to blame others for our own behaviors.

Externalization of responsibility is prevalent in contemporary society, and accompanies the rise in narcissism that we see in younger generations and in the culture at large. Though entitlement and the sense of feeling overly special are primary characteristics in narcissism, not taking responsibility for one's own behavior is part of the self-centered personality as well.

One of the most difficult and painful aspects of self-care (and being a grownup) is the realization that no one can do it for you. And the work required to keep ourselves healthy, especially as we age, is significant. Those who get stuck in the trap of poor self-care are often resentful of the effort it takes to stay healthy. The remedy for this dilemma is to realize that while others may be supportive (or not), we are, each and every one of us, ultimately alone with our decisions about our bodies.

So while it might be true that we tend to reflect those we are associated with, we should be careful about giving others too much power, as it diminishes our own. Social contagion theory could be an easy way for people to say, "It's not me that's causing my problems." This idea, though soothing, likely does little to empower people to change health behaviors.

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