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How Social Contagion Is Affecting Us

November 30, 2020

It is near the end of the semester and students from all over are looking forward to the day they do not have to worry about a new assignment popping up on their to-do list. Students and staff alike have felt the heaviness of a semester filled with ups and downs. Whether it was having no fall break or just struggling with a lack of focus in the transition, COVID-19 has impacted many areas of our lives.

I have noticed the impact people have on each other in their community during this pandemic, and looking back, I think of many times my parents told me to surround yourself with people you want to look like. Whether you want to admit it or not, a person will tend to look more like their friends. This effect is called social contagion. According to Psychology Today, “It refers to the tendency for people to mimic the behavior of others who are either nearby or whom they have been exposed to”.

I began to think about all the ways I have been affected and all the ways I may be affecting others. Have these encounters been positive or negative? A New York Times article states, “with happiness, the two argue that the contagion may be even more deeply subconscious: the spread of good or bad feelings, they say, might be driven partly by “mirror neurons” in the brain that automatically mimic what we see in the faces of those around us — which is why looking at photographs of smiling people can itself often lift your mood”. Thompson pointed out that happiness really is a contagious feeling and can be passed to other people by even a simple picture. This leads to the power an individual has over a person’s life and the impact one person can have on those around them. The problem is that many people have been lacking happiness for a large portion of the year.

Thompson’s article inspired me to dig deeper to see the ways in which I have impacted others. I noticed that I am always giving a smile out to others. In a world filled with people that wear masks, I had to overcome this new barrier and start greeting people with not only a smile but by using my eyes as well. This alone was not enough so I began saying “Hey!” and “have a good day” to people in passing. I realized it would leave a smile on people’s faces and they would respond positively. People would smile back, making my day a lot brighter, and I would feel happier. I did not understand that these interactions were not only impacting how other felt, but also how I felt.

A positive interaction with a person is a powerful thing that most people do not understand completely. When a person has a positive interaction, it leaves them feeling happy for the next thirty seconds. Then that next thirty seconds shifts the trajectory of their next five minutes. That five minutes then changes the person’s next ten minutes. This pattern continues on throughout that person’s day. This cycle proves that ultimately one smile can change a person’s day and possibly even their life. It is crazy to think that one act of kindness can change a person’s life, but this study clearly shows that your life has a huge impact others in a significant way.

This is just one example of a specific form of social contagion, broken down to help show the power an individual has in the lives surrounding them. Social contagion is very much a real thing and is impacting us and those around us. As we continue on in this year, and into 2021, think of some ways you can show an act of kindness to different people throughout your day. As Christians, we are called to be kind to one another. Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. Show kindness to everyone, so that we can use this social contagion to make a difference in every season of our lives.



Thompson, Clive. “ Are Your Friends Making You Fat?” The New York Times (2009).

ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.


Written by Riley Anderson

Riley is a junior majoring in Christian Leadership and Church Ministry with a minor in Biblical Studies.