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Jan. 12 2010 - 1:48 pm | 1,324 views | 2 recommendations | 1 comment

Please Cover Your Mouth — Blame is Contagious

Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931

Image by National Library NZ on The Commons via Flickr

study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology indicates that blaming someone in public is the psychosocial equivalent of coughing H1N1 into a crowd.

Over the course of multiple experiments, researchers showed that witnessing someone play the blame game significantly increased the chances of others blaming someone else for their failures—even when those failures had nothing to do with what they witnessed. 

Contagious blame is all about self-image protection. The study authors believe that when someone watches another person level blame, the implicit takeaway is that self-image protection is a goal that he/she should also adopt. 

Blame became less contagious if people wrote down and affirmed their values before they witnessed someone attribute blame, which acted as a blame antidote. The more self-affirmed people became (the more of the antidote they took), the less they felt the need to protect their image.

Blame is but one of many psychosocial contagions lurking around out there (not all of which are bad). Here are a few others:

Fear – long known as acutely contagious (illustrated brilliantly by H.G. Wells back in the day), fear could possibly be weaponized, as this Wired article discusses.

Disgust – nearly as contagious as fear, disgust may serve an important purpose: to keep us from coming in contact with organic contagions, as this study explores.

Happiness – a 2008 Harvard study showed that happiness, and sadness, are a couple of the most potent contagions in the air.

Obesity – the same researchers who did the happiness study also showed in a 2007 study (discussed here) that obesity spreads through social groups.

Moral outrage – as any political operative can tell you, nothing spreads like moral outrage (or moral panic, if you prefer). Light the fire and watch the acres burn.  “Reefer Madness” comes to mind, and this moral panic you may not have heard about.

Risk perception – as this study suggests, human social networks are especially good at transmitting fear or acceptance of risk to their members. Vaccine alarmism falls in this category.

Binge eating– a study on eating disorders, discussed here, showed that binge eating moves through a sorority like influenza on an airplane.

Loneliness — discussed in this Time piece, loneliness is extremely contagious, and has nothing to do with being alone.


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    About Me

    I’m a freelance writer, blogger and research wonk who writes about science, technology and the cultural ripples of both. Along my winding career route I've been a public outreach specialist, editor, research analyst, proposal writer and part-time journo. When I’m not writing for True/Slant, I’m blogging about neuroscience and a medley of ‘ologies’ at Neuronarrative.com, and writing freelance for Scientific American Mind.

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