Yawn, cough, sneeze, itch – all these things are contagious. The imitation game is part of the human condition. The information in our genetic code is designed to copy itself, as is every cell in our bodies. New-born babies copy their mother’s smile, children copy their parents, teenagers mimic their role-models, NLP aficionados model their heroes, and failed stage hypnotists mimic Derren Brown.
There are many behaviours, reactions and traits that rub off on us from other people, especially people we admire.
Earlier this year, scientists from the University of Wisconsin confirmed the old adage – if you smile, the world really does smile with you. There are of course – as with so many other behaviours – evolutionary reasons for this. A smile is disarming – it lets strangers know you are non-threatening, at least most of the time.
A big part of why we ‘catch’ traits from other people is down to empathy, which we believe is a key human survival instinct. By ‘trying on’ an emotion or behaviour, we better understand how that person might feel or act. Empathetic responses could explain why we unconsciously mimic others.
Last year, researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School found that volunteers who watched videos of people putting their hands in cold water also experienced a drop in their own body temperature – more evidence to back up the belief that we are a mind with a body, not a body with a mind.
Humans have been able to survive because we have learned how to cooperate in groups. Empathy is a key part in our ability to communicate with others, from being able to offer support, to making our intentions known and understanding other’s intentions toward us. Empathy makes it easier for us to interpret and predict one another’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Mimicry may even help us understand another person’s physiological state.
This mimicry is almost certainly the reason we feel like yawning when we see someone else yawn, and the more empathic we are, the more likely it is that we will do it.
There may be an even stronger response in women, mainly because they are generally more empathic than men – for instance, women are more likely to seek help from other women. Women have a nurturing instinct and tend to stick together as groups extending from family to friends. Yawning in response to one another is an expression of that empathy.
In 2011, dermatologists at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina found that individuals who were asked to watch a video of someone else scratching was enough to induce and intensify itching. When given a few drops of histamine (a substance that can induce itching) on a small patch of skin, they still scratched on random parts of their body, suggesting they weren’t responding to a genuine itch.
Professor of dermatology Andrew Wright at Bradford University believes that this may be because itching is a deeply held defence response. It probably dates back to stone-age man, who were covered in mites – if one saw another itching they would assume their skin was under attack too.
So being this tuned in with other people’s behaviour can have a real physical effect on our own bodies. Being around people who are stressed, for example, raises our own stress hormone levels.
A team of psychologists from the University of St Louis demonstrated that stress is contagious by asking a group of people to perform stressful tasks such as public speaking or mental arithmetic while being observed by a second group.
The researchers measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a stress-related enzyme in the speaker’s saliva as well as that in the observers. They found that the stress response in the witnesses was proportional to that of the speakers they watched – the more stressed the speaker, the more stressed the observer.
This is unsurprising. There are lots of examples where watching a movie – a thriller for example – will produce the same effect on the audience. That’s one reason we watch them!
Even more surprisingly, how much people around you weigh can also affect your own weight. In a study of 12,000 people, researchers from the University of California San Diego found that if one person became obese, the people closest to them were 57% more likely to also put on weight. This is more than just because they share the same sort of lifestyles and diets. Other research has suggested that merely seeing people who are overweight affects the amount we eat.
In 2011, researchers at the University of Colorado showed volunteers photos of overweight people, normal-weight people, and a neutral image like a tree. They were then asked to rate a plate of cookies by tasting at least one cookie. People shown the over-weight picture ate significantly more cookies. Maybe we should take note of this research and ban fast food restaurants from ‘up-sizing’ meals, or advertising their ‘happy burgers’ at a time when children are watching TV.
Rude behaviour appears to be contagious too, infecting people like a rapidly spreading virus, according to Swedish researchers. They questioned 6,000 people in offices, hotels and restaurants, where working with members of the public is part of their job. They found witnessing a supervisor being uncivil to another worker was often enough to cause the observer to also be rude to those around them.
However, it’s not so much to do with how someone else’s rudeness affects your personal mood, but rather that it gives you licence to act the same. It can be the start of bullying – if validation of such behaviour is perceived, it can quickly escalate to levels of increasing unpleasantness.
The longer it is allowed to continue, the more difficult it becomes to break the cycle. This is something we should all be aware of and it’s all the more reason to remember that we should all set an example.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.