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The Surprising Power of Apathy

New research reveals how others' indifference can affect us.

One of the long-term themes of this blog has been goal contagion, the idea that we often adopt the goals of the people around us. See someone helping others, and you suddenly want to be helpful. See someone being aggressive, and it makes you more likely to engage aggressively with others.

But what about apathy? If you see people being indifferent about a task, is that contagious as well?

This question was explored by by Pontus Leander, James Shah, and Stacey Sanders in a paper published in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

They suggested that when people are wavering in their commitment to a goal, exposure to apathy decreases their motivation to pursue the task.

In one study, participants performed 12 analogy problems from the GRE (graduate school admission test). Prior to solving the problems, participants did a task in which they responded to words presented in the center of the screen—and prior to seeing the words, pictures were flashed quickly on the screen, showing either students looking bored or students looking engaged. These pictures were flashed quickly enough that they could be perceived subliminally. (A control group saw no pictures.)

After solving the GRE problems, participants were asked for their undergraduate grade-point average, which is a broad measure of their commitment to academic work. Participants with a high GPA were relatively unaffected by the priming pictures. Those with lower GPAs, however, solved fewer analogy problems when they were primed by photos of apathetic students than when they were primed by energetic students (or received no priming at all).

This result suggests that exposure to apathy can decrease motivation for people who are already unsure of their commitment to a goal. Another study used primes for apathy and primes for anger—but only primes for apathy led people to perform more poorly on a later test. This finding suggests that apathy is not just creating negative emotion that influences performance.

Another study used a more sensitive measure of commitment to academic achievement. Again, participants were exposed to images of people being either apathetic or not. For half the participants, the images showed academic situations, and for the other half, nonacademic situations. All participants then solved anagrams, which they were told were a measure of verbal fluency—for example, they might see the letter ECTAR and would have to form the word CRATE.

An interesting pattern of results was obtained: The prime that was not in an academic context had very little influence on people’s behavior. And the pictures that did depict and academic context had an interesting influence on people’s behavior: Participants who were not strongly committed to academic achievement spent less time on the anagrams, and solved fewer, when they saw pictures priming apathy than when they saw pictures unrelated to apathy. But participants who were strongly committed to academic achievement actually spent more time on the anagrams, and solved more of them, when they saw pictures related to apathy than when they saw pictures unrelated to apathy.

This pattern suggests two conclusions: First, the influence of apathy is situation-specific. Second, the influence of seeing apathy depends on a person’s commitment to the goal. People who are not committed to a goal interpret apathy as a signal that they should also give up. People who are strongly committed actually get even more committed by seeing apathy.

The researchers ran several other studies to rule out other interpretations—for example, one study demonstrated that just thinking about a goal does not lead to these effects. The influence of apathy requires that people have either a low or high commitment to the goal.

What does all of this mean?

We interpret the actions of the people around us. When we see people acting indifferently to a task, we know that they are expressing a lack of interest in that task. That lack of interest is then related to our existing commitment to a goal. When we are wavering in our commitment to a goal, then seeing others who are apathetic nudges us in the direction of giving up. When we are highly committed to a goal, then seeing others who are apathetic actually increases our commitment.

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