The Contagiousness of Behaviors: How Are You a Part of the Solution?

Some time ago, I began parking farther away from my office than I had to. I turned a 2-minute walk into a 5-minute walk.

I did this for a couple of reasons. One, it was a nice way to clear my head before and after work. Two, I’m a slacker who doesn’t stay active in my daily life enough, so this was a way to combat that. And three, my Fitbit liked me better when I walked farther (as my Activité does now) .

But then something weird happened.

Another coworker started doing the same walk. Then another. And another. And another.

Why did this happen and what was with the timing? Did we all get the same good idea at the same time? Sort of but not entirely.

Behavior is contagious. It can spread like a disease.

Look at Fitbits. A couple of years ago, you probably knew one or two people with them. A year ago, a few more. Now, you’ve probably know a good chunk of people who’ve at least tried them. And it’s not random.

There’s plenty of evidence showing that something health behaviors and outcomes can behave like a contagion.

One of the more prominent examples was a study that found obesity to be contagious. Having a friend who was obese increased your chances of being obese by about half.

But it gets worse.

Your chances of being obese didn’t stop if your friend was obese. They extended as far as a friend of a friend of a friend. You can be 3 degrees away from an obese person, and your chances go up, not as much as the first-degree friend, but the chances still go up.

Doom and gloom isn’t everything, though. There’s also evidence that these social networks can help improve health.

This will be a two-part post. In the first, we’re going to talk about some things that make behavior contagious. In the second, we’re going to see what you can do to help make that change.

Contagiousness: I think we might be sheeple

If we want to use contagiousness for good instead of evil (I sound like a low-rent Jedi), we have to understand why behavior can be contagious.

People are inherently social creatures. Beyond the simple need to reproduce, we still have the urge to be around each other. We get chemical highs from interacting with others. It makes us feel good. This is lays groundwork for where we’re going.

Our social structures and networks impact us. In the positive light, support systems increase the likelihood that people will be successful. This is why there are Weight Watchers meetings. This is why there are an endless amount of online fitness communities (Reddit, Runkeeper, etc.). Everyone has a crappy day eventually. We all fall off the wagon. We all eat two pizzas in one day. OK, maybe that one was just me. I’m kidding. I’ve eaten two pizzas for one meal. I can do much better than two in one day. But you get the point, we’re going to need someone to lean on when the train goes off the rails, and support systems have that ability because it’s a network of people around you saying you can do it. That matters. It also matters if your support system doesn’t support you getting into shape. It’s common for Significant Other A to resent Significant Other B if B is getting into shape and A isn’t. Plain grilled chicken isn’t so easy to order at a restaurant if your SO got fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and a biscuit.

Support matters, but so does peer pressure. We like to talk about peer pressure as a bad thing, but it can have positive outcomes (sort of). When your friends try to get you to do meth, you should probably choose new friends. But if your friends are all running in a 5K and treating you like a pariah for not joining in, it becomes a little more likely you’ll join in. Now that said, you really shouldn’t bully people into getting into shape. It’s not nice, but it happens. Think about how many people you know who get into shape to avoid negative comments, not necessarily because they actually want to improve. The point is that your friends can also increase stigma if you’re not making good decisions.

Peer pressure is the other side of the support system coin. When all your friends go out for a drink, you might feel you have to as well. When all your friends go to yoga, you might feel the same. You might want to pick the friends who do yoga (though I’ve had friends who do yoga then drinks. I’m not sure what to do there). The support system is the fluffy landing and the peer pressure is the part that drops like a rock, but they’re both people indicating they think you’re doing right or wrong. They’re the people in your life influencing your choices.

Bonding also occurs through shared behaviors. You’ve done this. You have work friends. Yoga friends. Running friends. School friends. There are people you only get quality time with if there’s an activity involved, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Running for the sake of running is fantastic, but that’s not enough for everyone. If this is when you catch up with your bestie, that’s an added bonus. And that added bonus makes it more likely that you’ll stick with exercise. Likewise, if you and your bestie always meet at the Pizza Palace, you’re going to be more likely to stick to the pizza diet (and the accompanying diabetes).

On a much simpler note, someone in your social network engaging in a behavior might make you say, “Hey! That’s a good idea.” It’s basic-level awareness. And awareness needs to precede pretty much any non-mandated change. I had a buddy in high school who tried the subway diet (long before Jared got arrested for being a pedophile). There wasn’t anything in-depth. It was just an “I could try that.” The change doesn’t always stick, but sometimes it does. Sometimes you don’t even realize it did (see me copying a TED Talk I forgot I’d seen that is eerily similar to the Super Awesome Year of Me). Likewise, people will see benign and sometimes harmful behaviors and copy them. I’m looking at you lemon with your water every morning (benignish) and Atkins diet (not benign).

And of course, there’s the simple practicality of it all. Running can be a safety issue if you’re going out alone, especially for women, especially at night. The world can be a cruddy place, but there is such a thing as safety in numbers.

Practicality can also mean needing an instigator. Some of us are lazy. There have been many times where I stayed thirsty a half hour because I didn’t want to get off the couch. In all social dynamics, there’s usually someone who instigates. They plan the parties. They plan dinner. They plan the runs. And if it gets you to put your feet to the pavement, then all the better.

Take a look at yourself and then make a change (I might have borrowed this)

“Behavior is contagious. That’s all well and good, Q, but what can I do to lead the change?”

I’m glad you asked. It actually starts pretty simply. Make good decisions.

Yep. If you want to have a positive impact on the people around you, make good decisions.

Behavior is contagious, so make sure what you’re spreading to others is something that they want instead of high blood pressure.

That’s the starting point. But let’s get into more specifics. Let’s say you’re in the middle of your own change. How do you model good examples of change? How do you model a change that others can follow?

You make your change sustainable.

The worst thing in the world you can do is go after extremes and hope something sticks. Fad diets show initial promise and then they bust because people can’t stick with them and they revert to old ways (and sometimes rebound to a point worse than where they started).

Small goals should lead to bigger goals. Focus on the small goals. If you want to run a marathon, you might have to start with half a mile. If you want to drop 50 pounds, you’d better start with 5. And when you make your big awesome change, when people want to ask you about the extreme things that have happened and the extreme things you did, tell them about the little goals instead. Show them something realistic. Show them something they can do tomorrow.

I can’t run a marathon. I can’t. I know I can’t. But I can complete a 5K. And you know who did a 5K before they did a marathon? Pretty much every single person I know who’s run a marathon. If I want to go after a marathon, I start there because it’s manageable.

Along these small goals, think about what you can do now to reach those long-term goals. Long-term, audacious goals are nice, but they’re easy to miss.

If you say you’re going to run a marathon this year, any number of things can go wrong. You could get injured. You could have some other health issue. You could have to change jobs. Hell, the race could get cancelled because of a storm. And then you missed your goal. You failed.

But what if your goal was something different? What if your goal was to run 3 times every week to help prepare for the marathon you want to run? What if you broke your big goal into smaller ones to meet along the way? You might have a few misses, but you give yourself the ability to have more wins without one thing ruining the whole party.

My Super Awesome Year of the 5K and the Super Awesome Year of Me were built this way. I was going to complete a 5K every month. I wasn’t going to run all of one. I wasn’t going to hit a certain time. I wanted to do these things, but that wasn’t the goal because something could happen. And it did. I never got where I wanted to go exactly, but I met my goals.

Likewise, I set daily goals for each month instead of saying all or nothing for the month. I’ve missed at least one day every month for each goal, but I’ve hit at least two-thirds each month. It’s not perfect, but those little X’s hurt a lot less than one big X would just because I had a bad day. This is all just to set up an environment where losing doesn’t equal failing. I can lose on a day because success doesn’t depend on one day. It depends on the whole month.

OK, now we’ve become good models for our social system, what’s the next step?

Be the support system. Be the peer pressure (but nicely). Be the instigator.

We live in a world where it is WAY too easy to stay connected to each other, so we might as well make good use of it.

First and foremost, reinforce messages. Whatever you’re trying to communicate, know that once isn’t going to be enough. Know that people will have to hear from you multiple times for it to stick. I’m not saying spam people. I’m not saying don’t shut up. I’m saying that you need to check in regularly. Want people to know what you’re up to? Then let them know every few days. Want a friend to join you for a workout? Maybe you’ll have to ask them a couple of times (or show them why it’s doable for them). You have to be visible.

Next, be positive. Don’t be the a-hole that tears people down. It doesn’t work. If you think getting mad and insulting someone will convince them you’re right, look at American politics (and probably other countries as well, but I’m American, so I don’t pay attention to other countries that much). No one wants to follow the lead of someone they don’t like and/or admire.

You can’t make people like your ideas or your lifestyle. But you can be there to catch them if they decide to drop in to see what it’s like. And that might mean adjusting what you’re doing to meet their needs. A lot of people like to run alone (e.g., me), but if you’re trying to help a newbie out, get out of your comfort zone to help ease them in. Join them for a run (or two or two dozen). Tell them about good routes. Point them toward good gear (or good resources to find said gear). Will they keep up with you right away? No, but that’s not your goal. Your goal is to help them. You can always block times to run on your own, but helping others is a worthy goal all by itself.

And last, don’t be afraid to push a little. If you’re worried about someone’s health, tell them. If you think someone’s doing something dangerous in their diet, offer them a viable alternative. You might not want to be the bad guy, but it’s better to be the bad guy than to be the guy who sat by and said nothing while friends and loved ones made crappy decisions.

I don’t know how much this helps. I hope it helps some. Probably could have summed up these ideas in less than half the words, but what fun is that? Either way, keep making good choices. Even if you’re not actively trying to lead change, you’re still influencing somebody, whether it’s your kid, a coworker, or a significant other. They’re watching you. That sounded creepy.


6 thoughts on “The Contagiousness of Behaviors: How Are You a Part of the Solution?”

  1. I am also floored and flattered when people tell me that my running encourages them to get out and do the same. We live in a world where like you said – everything is online and super connected and everyone gets virtual high fives. So when I don’t get a lot of likes or comments on a pic, I’ve just begun to assume I annoy people with my running (I don’t care either way – just my assumption). And then I get people that when I finally see them in real life they say my posts have inspired them to do X or they’re texting me for running tips. So it sounds cliche AF but I keep doing it thinking if it helps just one person – that’s enough for me.

    Related: you may enjoy this podcast episode where Gretchen Rubin talks about habits and how understanding which of the 4 tendencies you are will influence how you can best set yourself or someone else up for the best success in creating good habits. I’m an obliger through and through – my guess is you’re a questioner with upholder tendencies. 🙂


    1. I’ll be sure to check it out. I read her book, The Happiness Project (if you haven’t, I think you’d enjoy it). It was one of the inspirations for this current year (including tracking daily instead of making a whole month what was tracked). I’m actually due for a run today, so I may just play the podcast in the background instead of my usual music. And it is nuts how much people pay attention to social media posts. People who never engaged in my running posts last year still asked about it. It was weird. Flattering but weird.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m only partially into the podcast (walk on campus, so I had time), but the description mentioned habits being more important than willpower. I’ve read a willpower book (The Willpower Instinct; also a great read), and so I was immediately arguing in my head “Willpower leads to habits!” But we’ll see what the podcast actually says before I start complaining in earnest (if nothing else, the book is going into my queue).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Listened to the podcast. It was interesting, but I still feel like The Willpower Instinct might be a better read (for real, read it; it’s the bombdiggity). I’m going to read the habits book anyway just to see her perspective, but I can’t say I’m going in totally open-minded. And spot-on for questioner. Took the quiz and everything. I was optimistic rebel would be higher, but nothing else was even close.

        Liked by 1 person

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