When you see someone smiling or you hear laughter, you often can’t help but smile or laugh yourself. Now scientists from the University of Florida have shown that the same applies to certain non-aggressive rude behaviors.
A series of several studies conducted by researchers Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum and Amir Erez has shown that the exhibition of rude behaviors by an individual, activates concepts associated with rudeness in the minds of others. Those being targeted by rude manners and people witnessing such behavior are equally affected. Rudeness is contagious in this manner.
The research showed that once the mind is stimulated with negative concepts, a person is more likely to interpret subsequent actions as rude, even if they are ambiguous or benign, and one is more likely to act with malevolence during interactions with others, thus further infecting them with hostility and negativity.
The scientific study of the transmission of negative behavior is not new. In the 1960’s, the infamous Bobo doll experiment showed that children who observed adults act abusively towards a doll, were themselves abusive to the doll. What was different about this experiment, when compared to these recent studies, was that the behaviors were aggressive, including hitting with a mallet and yelling, and they were acted out by someone the subjects looked up to – an adult. Hence it can be said that children in the study were intentionally mimicking negative behavior because they were copying the adults.
In this case, however, Foulk and his colleagues studied low-intensity negative behaviors, such as rudeness, which are more common in everyday interactions.
First Study – Does Observing Rude Behaviors Activate Concepts in the Mind Related to Rudeness
In one of the studies, the participants witnessed an exchange between an actor, who they perceived was a participant arriving late to the experiment. In the control condition, the experiment administrator dismissed the actor offering to reschedule. In the negative condition, the administrator rudely berated the actor. The study participants were then asked to complete a Lexical Decision Task (LDT) in which they decided as quickly as possible if a string of letters formed an actual word, ie. CHIKHEN. Here are the results:
Critically, some of the LDT words were friendly (e.g., helpful), some were aggressive (e.g., savage), and some were rude (e.g., tactless). Response times to the friendly and aggressive items were similar across conditions, but response times to the rude items were significantly faster for participants in the negative condition relative to the control condition. People who watched a rude interaction had concepts about rudeness active in their mind, and thus were faster to respond to those concepts in the LDT. These findings suggest that exposure to rudeness seems to sensitize us to rude concepts in a way that is not intentional or purposeful, but instead happens automatically.
Second Study – Does Sensitivity to Rudeness Impact Social Behavior?
In another study, the researchers asked participants to play the role of an employee in a bookstore. The subjects watched a video with either a rude or polite interaction among coworkers, and then were asked to answer a customer email. The email was either polite, highly aggressive, or moderately rude. Here is what was discovered:
Notably, the type of video participants observed did not affect their responses to the neutral or aggressive emails; instead, the nature of those emails drove the response.
However, the type of video participants observed early in the study did affect their interpretation of and response to the rude email. Those who had seen the polite video adopted a benign interpretation of the moderately rude email and delivered a neutral response, while those who had seen the rude video adopted a malevolent interpretation and delivered a hostile response. Thus, observing rude behaviors, even those committed by coworkers or peers, resulted in greater sensitivity and heightened response to rudeness.
Third Study – Does Watching Rude Behavior Make Us More Obnoxious Towards Others?
This study consisted of a series of negotiation exercises among participants. After an initial negotiation, “the carrier” subject was sent into a new negotiation with a new partner.
As you might guess, participants who negotiated with a rude [initial] partner were in turn perceived as rude in their subsequent interaction with a new partner. These “carriers” evoked feelings of anger and hostility in their new partners, and even incited vindictive behaviors.
Moreover, these effects of negative contagion were evident in negotiations that took place up to a week after the initial exposure, suggesting a fairly long infectious period for negative behaviors.
We often hear that laughter is infectious, but beware, so is obnoxious behavior. If social behaviors, especially negative ones, are in fact contagios in this way, then does that explain why our society seems to be trending towards greater meanness and callousness? More importantly, can this pattern be broken with awareness and mindfulness?
Waking Times originally created and published this article (Rude Behaviors Shown to be as Contagious as an Infectious Disease). It is re-posted here with permission.