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The COVID-19 Pandemic Is a Lesson in Social Contagion, Too

We must nurture the better angels of our nature during a global health crisis.

Source: Pictofigo, used with permission
Source: Pictofigo, used with permission

The COVID-19 global pandemic has certainly given us all a dramatic and harsh lesson on viral contagion. Perhaps the phrase “going viral” now has a much more jarring and worrisome connotation than before the pandemic became a recent reality. We have learned a great deal from public health officials about the spread of the virus and have quickly learned to wash our hands frequently, stay at home as much as possible, and keep 6 feet or more of distance between ourselves and others. However, in addition to viral contagion, social contagion is an equally important concept to keep in mind during these challenging times to help support and nurture the best of human nature. It refers to the tendency for people to mimic the behavior of others who are either nearby or whom they have been exposed to. It suggests that behaviors are catchy and we can use this insight and theory to our advantage during these turbulent and life-threatening times.

Social contagion is critical to keep in mind as we witness both the very good and the very bad behavior of people in response to the rapidly unfolding global pandemic crisis. For example, we have seen remarkable evidence of people tapping into the better angels of their nature with inspiring acts of kindness, generosity, compassion, and assistance to others. Neighbors helping the most vulnerable in their communities, generous donations of much needed medical supplies to those in need, and health care professionals treating the sick even without adequate protective gear for themselves are common examples. It is not only inspiring to witness these acts of kindness and compassion but, according to social contagion theory, it is also catchy too. It models how we all could act if so desired. The world is better if we let social contagion informs and inspires us to behave in ways that are helpful to everyone with respect, compassion, and generosity. We all benefit when the community engages in these helpful prosocial behaviors.

Of course, on the other hand, we have also seen acts of social contagion where behavior taps into the darker angels of our nature. For example, people hoard needed supplies such as food and toilet paper. Some people act in frustrated and angry ways with grocery store clerks and others. Or people ignore public health advice regarding staying at home and away from others, evidenced by the flood of spring break students frolicking in Florida endangering themselves as well as all those who they come into contact with them at a later date. These behaviors also act as a social contagion, too, where others follow the herd engaging in self-centered and risky behavior that increase threats and harm.

As this unprecedented global pandemic develops, likely getting much worse before it gets much better, it becomes especially important to be mindful of and attentive to social contagion theory and to use it to nurture the better angels of our nature rather than the worse and darker angels. It isn't easy to be kind, compassionate, and unselfish when one is scared and deeply fearful about their well-being and the well-being of their loved ones but if enough people take a deep breath, follow reasonable public health guidelines, and bring out their best selves, it will be easier for others to follow suit that ultimately benefits everyone.

So what do you think?

Copyright 2020 Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP.