Contagion heuristic

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The contagion heuristic is a psychological heuristic leading people to avoid contact with people or objects viewed as "contaminated" by previous contact with someone or something viewed as bad—or, less often, to seek contact with objects that have been in contact with people or things considered good. For example, we tend to view food that has touched the ground as contaminated by the ground, and therefore unfit to eat, or we view a person who has touched a diseased person as likely to carry the disease (regardless of the actual contagiousness of the disease).

The contagion heuristic includes "magical thinking", such as viewing a sweater worn by Adolf Hitler as bearing his negative essence and capable of transmitting it to another wearer. The perception of essence-transfer extends to rituals to purify items viewed as spiritually contaminated, such as having Mother Teresa wear Hitler's sweater to counteract his essence.[1]

Research Areas[edit]

Social Contagion[edit]

Social contagion is thought to be the broadest form of contagion, and can be organized into more specific areas of emotional contagion (the spread of mood and affect through populations by simple exposure) and behavioral contagion (the spread of behaviors through populations by simple exposure).[2]

Behavioral Contagion[edit]

Behavioral contagion can be classified into six areas: hysterical contagion (or psychogenic illness), deliberate self-harm contagions, contagions of aggression, rule violation contagions, consumer behavior contagions, and financial contagions. [2] A behavioral disorder is "contagious" if the risk to a given individual increases when someone in that person's vicinity, family, or social group develops the disorder. Research shows that one major influence on behavioral contagion is the size of a family in which the illness originates. As family size increases, the number of illnesses per person per year also increases. When someone in the family is affected, it is more likely that another family member will be affected, as well. However, not all family members are susceptible. According to gender and age, some behaviors are more contagious than others. For example, somatization is more common in teenage girls. Therefore, family size as well as number of susceptible family members matters in the rate of contagion.[3]

Emotional Contagion[edit]

Mimicry and feedback play a role in emotional contagion, although the area has received less attention in research. Emotional contagion occurs through mimicry and feedback in conversation, since it is automatic and unconscious for people to mirror their facial expression and voices to those with whom they are in conversation.[4]

Self-report scales have been developed to index a person’s tendency to be charismatic and emotionally expressive, and research shows that people who score relatively high on these scales may be particularly likely to infect others with emotion, although not all expressive or charismatic individuals are equally likely to do so.[4] Researchers have developed experimental paradigms for studying emotional contagion. One such paradigm is the Emotional Contagion (EC) Scale, which is a "15-item uni-dimensional measure of susceptibility to others’ emotions results from afferent feedback generated by mimicry."[5]

Research on emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior has shown that the effects are evident when a trained confederate enacts mood conditions, and the participants’ self-reported mood matches. In the study, the positive emotional contagion group members experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.[6]

Examples of Research[edit]

Suicide and Its History of Contagion[edit]

One of the first instances of contagion goes back 200 years ago, when Goethe wrote a novel called The Sorrows of the Young. In the novel, the protagonists commits suicide. The novel was widely popular and is said to have caused the suicides of some of its readers, in their hopes to imitate the death of the novel’s hero.[7]

In 1897, Durkheim determined that there was no link between mass suicide rates and imitation. Imitation could not account for suicide rates outside the close vicinity in which the initial suicide took place. In the close vicinity, however, imitation may play a role.[8] Not much research has been dedicated to suicide contagion, especially after Durkheim found inconclusive evidence of there even being such a thing as suicide contagion.[7]

In a study done to determine time-space clustering of teenage suicide, analyses show that perhaps outbreaks of suicide occur more frequently than expected simply by chance.[9]

Peer Contagion[edit]

Research suggests that association with deviant peers in the natural environment is a major factor in the development of deviant behavior in early adolescence, and that the effect of peer contagion undermines or reduces overall prevention effects provided by studies.[10][11][12][13]

Drug Use[edit]

In research focused on the prevalence of alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana use based on school and neighborhood characteristics, two reasons are given for school differences in substance use rates, one which lends itself to the contagion model of substance use. This is to say, students within schools develop similar substance use habits through social interactions. The exposure of students to substance-using peers makes for more substance use.[14][15]

Psychogenic Illness[edit]

Psychogenic Illness is defined as “the collective occurrence of physical symptoms and related beliefs among two or more persons in the absence of an identifiable pathogen."[16]

One incident occurred in 1974, as recorded in Colligan and Murphy’s book, in which there was an outbreak of illness in a manufacturing plant. When the facility was tested for toxins, there was found to be no significant levels of any. Therefore, there was a need for psychological evaluation of the workers at the plant. Within a week of the inspection, approximately 100 women in the plant showed symptoms of nausea, dizziness, fainting, and burning sensations in their eyes and throat. Stress or anxiety was possibly the cause for the symptoms.[16][17]

Public Speaking[edit]

Research has shown that the anxiety produced when delivering a speech is communicated, unconsciously, from a speaker to audience members in public speaking settings, and that this anxiety is contagious.[18]

Consumer Contagion[edit]

In a study that examines the effects of an “attractive social influence” in the context of touching and contamination of store products by examining how consumers react when they witness attractive people touching the same products they want to buy, researchers found that product evaluations are higher when consumers perceive a product as having been touched by an attractive other.[19]

A similar study shows how consumer evaluations of products may change as a reaction to seeing the product come in contact with products that elicit moderate levels of disgust. The study concluded that disgusting products are believed to transfer offensive properties through physical contact to other products they touch.[20]


One study tests whether or not the cleanliness of the room in which sexual intercourse takes place affects perceived risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The results showed that people rated the likelihood of getting an STI as more likely if they were to wake up, the morning after engaging in intercourse, in a dirty room.[21]

In relation to the law of contagion, one study shows that four characteristics of this law correspond to the attitudes of college students toward AIDS: a) actual physical contact with someone who has AIDS is a critical factor in determining transmission of properties of the disease, b) even brief contact with a person who has AIDS is a possible way in which to transmit properties of the disease, c) the effects of even brief contact are long lasting, and d) the effects of contact can occur in an opposite manner (backward contagion).[22]

Contagion in Therapy[edit]

Clinicians use a form of contagion in order to get a sense of what their clients are feeling. By monitoring their own emotional reactions during therapy, clinicians may be able to feel how their clients feel. One study tested this idea, and found that clinicians’ appraisals of clients’ emotion were primarily influenced by the clients’ self-reports, and, to a less extent, by the clients’ facial expressions. The clinicians’ emotions were equally affected by the clients’ facial expressions and their self-report data.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement by Daniel Kahneman, p. 212.
  2. ^ a b [1] "Memetics and Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?" by Paul Marsden, Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences University of Sussex
  3. ^ [2] Jones, M.B. (1995) Preferred pathways of behavioral contagion. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 29(3), 193-209.
  4. ^ a b [3] Hatfield, E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1994). Emotional contagion. Cambridge university press.
  5. ^ [4] Emotional Contagion Scale
  6. ^ [5] Barsade, S. G. (2002). The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(4), 644-675.
  7. ^ a b [6] Phillips, D. P. (1974). The influence of suggestion on suicide: Substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review, 340-354.
  8. ^ Durkheim, E. (1951). Suicide: a study in sociology [1897]. Translated by JA Spaulding and G. Simpson (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1951
  9. ^ [7] Gould, M. S., Wallenstein, S., & Kleinman, M. (1990). Time-space clustering of teenage suicide. American Journal of Epidemiology, 131(1), 71-78.
  10. ^ [8] Dishion, T. J., McCord, J., & Poulin, F. (1999). When interventions harm: Peer groups and problem behavior. American Psychologist, 54(9), 755.
  11. ^ [9] Dishion, T. J., McCord, J., & Poulin, F. (1999). When interventions harm: Peer groups and problem behavior. American Psychologist, 54(9), 755.
  12. ^ Cho, H., Halfors, D., & Sanchez, V. (2005). Evaluation of a high school peer group intervention for at risk youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 33, 363–374.
  13. ^ Mager, W., Milich, R., Harris, M. J., & Howard, A. (in press). Intervention groups for adolescents with conduct problems: Is aggregation harmful or helpful? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology
  14. ^ [10] Ennett, S. T., Flewelling, R. L., Lindrooth, R. C., & Norton, E. C. (1997). School and neighborhood characteristics associated with school rates of alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana use. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 55-71.
  15. ^ Rowe, D. C. & Rodgers, J. L. (1991). Adolescent Smoking and Drinking: Are They Epidemics? Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 52, 110-17.
  16. ^ a b [11] Colligan, M.J., and Murphy, L.R. (1982) A review of mass psychogenic illness in work settings
  17. ^ Shepard, R. D., & Kroes, W. H. (1975). Report of an Investigation at the James Plant. Internal document prepared for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Cincinnati, Ohio.
  18. ^ [12] Behnke, R. R., Sawyer, C. R., & King, P. E. (1994). Contagion theory and the communication of public speaking state anxiety. Communication Education, 43(3), 246-251.
  19. ^ [13] Argo, J. J., Dahl, D. W., & Morales, A. C. (2008). Positive consumer contagion: responses to attractive others in a retail context. Journal of Marketing Research, 45(6), 690-701.
  20. ^ [14] Morales, A. C., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2007). Product contagion: Changing consumer evaluations through physical contact with “disgusting” products. Journal of Marketing Research, 44(2), 272-283.
  21. ^ [15] Meertens, R., Branković, I., Ruiter, R. A., Lohstroh, E., & Schaalma, H. P. (2013). Dirty love: the effect of cleanliness of the environment on perceived susceptibility for sexually transmitted infections. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(S1), E56-E63.
  22. ^ [16] Rozin, P., Markwith, M., & Nemeroff, C. (1992). Magical Contagion Beliefs and Fear of AIDS. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(14), 1081-1092.
  23. ^ [17] Hsee, C. K., Hatfield, E., & Chemtob, C. (1992). Assessments of the emotional states of others: Conscious judgments versus emotional contagion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 11(2), 119-128.

Further reading[edit]

  • Nemeroff, C., & Rozin, P. (2000). "The makings of the magical mind: The nature of function of sympathetic magic." In K. S. Rosengren, C. N. Johnson, & P. L. Harris (Eds.), Imagining the impossible: Magical, scientific, and religious thinking in children (pp. 1-34). New York: Cambridge University Press.