Toward a Theory of Behavioral Contagion

Wheeler 1966



Behavioral Contagion: “an event in which a recipient’s behavior has changed to become ‘more like’ that of the actor or initiator.  This change has occurred in a social interaction in which the actor has not communicated intent to evoke such a change” (p. 179).


Four criteria for occurrence:

1.  Existence of an acute conflict area within the imitator

2.  Imitator has strong impulses for the behavior, but just enough control to keep from acting on the impulse

3.  Initiator with a similar type of urge in the same direction as the imitator.

4.  Open acting out by the initiator, without fear or quilt.


Conditions for Contagions


“If the set of test conditions T1 exists, then contagion has occurred if and only if Person X performs Behavior N (BN) where T1 is specified as follows:

(a) A set of operations has been performed on Person X which is known to produce instigation toward BN in members of the class to which X belongs;

(b) BN exists in the response repertoire of X, and there are no physical restraints or barriers to prevent the performance of BN;

(c) X is not performing BN ;

(d) X observes the performance of BN by Person Y.” (p. 180)


In other words…


“If Person X is instigated to BN, is not physically restrained from performing BN, and is not performing BN, the implication is that X possesses internal restraints against the performance of BN. Thus, there is an intrapersonal conflict between the instigation to perform BN and the internal restraints against performance of BN.  In other words, X is experiencing an approach-avoidance conflict. [Therefore this] implies that X's observation of the performance of BN by Person Y changes the relative strengths of the approach tendency and the avoidance tendency. The implication is supplied by the fact that X changes his behavior after observing the behavior of Person Y.” (p. 180)



Conceptual Distinction of Contagion

There are several other existing terms describing similar phenomena:

Conformity:  Behavioral contagion is distinct from Asch-type conformity because the conflict within the individual exists before the presence of other individuals and their presence contributes to the resolution of the conflict, whereas the conflict is created after the presence of others in an Asch-type situation..


Social Pressures:  Very similar to conformity, but is typically studied in face-to-face situations where opinions differ.  The change of one individual to match the opinion of another is evidence of social pressure leading to conformity.


Social Facilitation:  Behavioral contagion is distinct from social facilitation because the latter does not involve any apparent conflict between restraint and expression, as well as mere presence can evoke the behavior.  Social facilitation is also distinct from social pressure and conformity because conflict is not necessary for facilitation effects.


Imitation:  Is the most generic of terms considered.  Imitation is the copying of another’s behavior, with or without intending to do so.




Theoretical Statements


The empirical evidence shows that the likelihood that a participant succumbs to the contagion is dependent upon the difference between the approach and avoidance levels. 

·      If the avoidance level is not much greater than the approach level, then it does not take much reduction in fear in order to obtain a contagion effect. 

·      If the avoidance level is much greater than the approach level, then contagions are not likely to be effective. 

·      If the avoidance level is below the approach level, the contagions are also not effective because the individual will engage in the behavior regardless. 


Model Outcomes

Additional studies have also demonstrated that the outcomes for the instigator, or model, can also influence the likelihood of contagion.

·      Observers are less likely to follow a model who is punished because it raises their avoidance level.

·      Observers are more likely to follow a model who is rewarded (lack of punishment is also considered a reward) because it lowers their avoidance level.

·      This suggests that observers vicariously experience the model’s behavior and outcomes; the extent of the reward or punishment directly experienced by the model is what changes their avoidance levels.


Characteristics of the Model

There is some evidence to suggest that the status and/or appearance of a model effects the observers avoidance levels.  The hypothesized underlying logic is that observers infer from the models appearance whether or not they are generally rewarded (or not punished) for their behavior.  A model that they infer is generally rewarded will lower avoidance levels.


Characteristics of the Observer

Findings are not integrated at the time of writing, but suggest that there are some effects for the contagion itself, gender, and psychological states.  Some interesting points about the people that are most susceptible to contagion are not:

·      Anxious

·      Authoritarian

·      Low self-esteem


Locus of Restraints

Source of the restraints (e.g., group, superego, or authority figure) could have an effect the specific fear elicited and therefore the situation where the contagion occurs is likely to change. 


For example, if the restraint is derived from a group, then the salient fear would be rejection.  An effective model in this instance would be the prototypical group member.  However, if the prototypical group member has a much higher status than the observer, contagion will not likely occur because the observer thinks that the high status model is using idiosyncratic credits, which the low status observer does not have.  Also, the contagion depends on the group’s reward or punishment of the model.


Interpersonal Consequences

Deindividualization, or a feeling of anonymity, leads to reduction in personal restraints.  Observing a model perform a behavior and being rewarded (includes not being punished) will also lower restraints.  The reduction in personal restraints and rewards obtained from the contagion behavior will also lead to changes in other feelings of the observer has toward the model.  Specifically, they posit that after performing a contagion behavior, the observer will like the model more and perceive themselves to be more similar along multiple dimensions to the model, thus becoming less individualized from the model.



Behavioral contagion studies are not just limited to socially undesirable behavior, but can applied to any situation where the observer perceives the potential of a negative consequence for performing the behavior.