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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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June 17th, 2010

Contagious Virtues… and Vices?


VV-contagious-virtues-flashWe generally understand how a virus or flu spreads: I’m sick and I shake hands with you. Then, you touch your nose and… oops, now you’re sick, too. Then you kiss your husband and… oops, now he’s sick, too. And so on. But in recent years, social scientists have begun to consider whether behaviors and character traits can spread in a similar way. Are vices and virtues socially contagious?

A while back, we learned that obesity is contagious: Researchers Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist, and James Fowler, a political science professor, found that we’re more likely to gain weight ourselves if our family and friends gain weight. Similarly, we’re more likely to succeed in losing weight if others are trying to do the same.

Then, the same team of researchers found that loneliness might be similarly socially contagious, as could happiness.

The latest from this pair is the finding that acts of kindness can spread rapidly through society, too, giving new power to the idea of “paying it forward” in generosity.

According to WiredScience:

In a game where selfishness made more sense than cooperation, acts of giving were “tripled over the course of the experiment by other subjects who are directly or indirectly influenced to contribute more,” wrote political scientist James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University.

But I’d argue that all of these fall under one big umbrella finding that went somewhat unnoticed back in January: Self-control is also socially contagious. According to University of Georgia psychologist Michelle vanDellen. Volunteers who watched someone else exercise self-control – by choosing a carrot instead of a cookie from a buffet of options – scored higher on a later test of self-restraint themselves. So did folks who just talked about having good self-control. Translation: Choose your friends wisely-and they exhibit self-control, it’ll be easier for you to do the same. And if you set a good example, others will follow your lead.

Self-controlled behavior builds on previous patterns of behavior, and those who have self-control are more likely to value it and seek to increase their abilities. Just like feeling out of control of your life can lead to anxiety and depression, so too can a belief in your ability to take charge of events create an optimistic outlook on the future.

That leads to happiness, kindness, a decrease in loneliness, perhaps even fewer depressive binge eating sessions.

All this research gives new meaning to the Golden Rule about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And to your parents’ admonitions about finding some “nice” friends to play with. It’s so annoying when God and your parents were right all along.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • Liz C

    I have a few problems with this article.

    First of all, the opening paragraph as a direct lead into the second posits obesity as a vice rather than a virtue, when in fact obesity is neither. A person being fat has no moral value, only a physical one.

    Secondly, the research text linked to by this post only vaguely describes what methodology went into assessing self control over volunteers. Moreover, the fact that one of the “experiments” was also tied into food consumption is highly suspect. People monitor and make value judgments about food choices, so if volunteers see a person picking a carrot it is not surprising that they themselves would pick a carrot as well, given this nation’s climate of “omg, death fat!”

    Self control implies that one is exerting a choice arrived at through critical thought and analysis, not an action taken simply because one is being monitored by one’s peers. That, I believe, is peer pressure.

  • moxie1956

    With your last paragraph, you finally won me over. Before that, I was asking “and how is this new information?” But, you closed it well! Kudoes!

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