It’s time for people to realize the power of “social contagion.” That’s a term invented by researchers to describe how influence spreads from one person to another. At the level of common sense, we all know that gossip and rumors have a life of their own, as do urban legends. Yesterday’s conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination give way to shadowy paranoia about President Obama’s birth certificate. But social contagion reaches deeper than common sense ever realized.
Moods, attitudes, and habits are involved. If you are around a depressed family member, for example, you are more likely than average to become depressed yourself. But that’s also true if you know someone who has a depressed friend, even though the person you know isn’t depressed. This is a very strange finding, but the sociological data supports it. You run a higher risk of being overweight or taking up smoking if a friend of a friend is overweight or smokes cigarettes. No one can account for third-hand and even fourth-hand influences. Social contagion is real but invisible.
It also cuts both ways. Positive influences have their own infectiousness, so if a friend of a friend has good lifestyle habits or an optimistic outlook, you are more likely to develop them, too. Which means that if you want to be part of an invisible social network, it’s good to choose the one with the most positive and far-reaching effects. You are having an influence even when you don’t sign up as an official participant.
All kinds of catch phrases have cropped up to describe the power of influence. “Tipping point” and “critical mass” are among the most popular. They both refer to a kind of chain reaction. At a certain point so many people believe something that its spread cannot be stopped. In the 2008 campaign “Yes We Can” reached critical mass and elected a new President. At this moment the rebellious Tea Party seems poised to reach critical mass or not. No one can tell.
Social contagion isn’t about reason. A large majority of Americans tell pollsters that they believe in UFOs, despite decades of disproof from every government group that has investigated the matter. Indeed, the very fact of government denial strengthens the belief in flying saucers. The Tea Party equivalent is the bailout. Rationally, it was a rare moment of decisive intervention for the government to save the banking industry. A serious depression was averted. Credit has slowly begun to flow. The stock market rebounded dramatically, bringing billions of dollars of new capital to the economy.
But none of that counts if you are motivated by anger and resentment. At present the hardest hit by the recession are young people, the unemployed, minorities, and immigrants. Yet the typical Tea Party member is an employed middle-class white male, the one segment of the population that is doing relatively well. The Tea Party is a pure example of social contagion. It has no reasonable goals or agenda. Its vision amounts to little more than vague revenge against any incumbent.
Behind the so-called passion of the Tea Party lies the same destructive shadow energies that Sarah Palin has evoked from the start. Beyond a cantankerous “don’t tread on me” attitude, there are no policies to hold the movement together. In an atmosphere of unreason, it’s easy for a Rand Paul in Kentucky to hold libertarian views that would undo civil rights, or for Newt Gingrich to smear Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan as someone who threw the military off campus during a war. In the absence of good faith, bad faith thrives.
In the end, you have to choose which social contagion you want to be part of. Simply by holding resentful, angry, irrational beliefs, you are that third-hand or fourth-hand influence. Your unreason spreads the epidemic of unreason as it creeps from household to household. For myself, I’m grateful that the counter contagion of “Yes We Can” was victorious. Everyone has a right to join any movement they want, as long as they have a clear vision of what the consequences could be.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle