Social contagion makes it easy to spread fear and hate. Here’s how to spread their opposite

Sign of the times.
Sign of the times.
Image: Reuters/Bryan Woolston
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A plague of hatred seems to be spreading across the West. In the US, bigotry and hate crimes are up 6% according to the FBI, with a nearly 70% increase aimed specifically at Muslim Americans. Meanwhile, cases of harassment and intimidation against women and minorities are becoming more widespread.

The Daily Beast goes so far as to refer to this sense of social and political callousness as a kind of “contagion.” This analogy is grounded in truth. Research has shown that emotions and behaviors, from xenophobia to violence to suicide, can spread like viruses through a process called social contagion.

But it’s not only negative behaviors that are transmissible. If you’re looking for an antidote to the dark emotions sweeping across the US, UK, and many other parts of the world, the solution is to spread the cure: It’s called companionate love.

Three unusual cases of social contagion can help us understand companionate love. The first study, published in Administrative Science Quarterly in 2014, examined hundreds of social workers, psychologists, nurses, and food-service personnel at a long-term care facility that had reported a surprising uptick in workplace satisfaction. The employees’ increased happiness wasn’t directly attributable to any changes at work; it wasn’t as if the facility had suddenly begun offering fancy benefits or big bonuses. On the surface, there was no explanation as to why this particular workplace was experiencing lower absenteeism, fewer cases of interpersonal conflict, and less staff burnout. Yet for some reason, the employees at this facility were happier and more efficient at their jobs than employees at similar facilities.

Even more remarkably, the positive workplace culture rippled outward to influence the facility’s residents. People who were housed in the units with happy caregivers reported they were in better moods and had a higher quality of life. As a result, residents’ health improved, with fewer emergency room transfers.

The second case of social contagion features a public utilities company that reported higher-than-usual workplace satisfaction, employee commitment, and personal accountability. Like the long-term care facility, on the surface, nothing seemed particularly unique about this company culture that might account for these results.

The third case involved firefighters, whose occupation comes with a high rate of professional stress known to spill over into the home. But the emergency crew in this particular study possessed an exceptionally high personal ability to buffer the effect of job stress and work-family conflict.

What did these three scenarios have in common? University of Pennsylvania management professor Sigal Barsade and Olivia “Mandy” O’Neill, an assistant professor in the George Mason University School of Management, wanted to find out. At first they found nothing particularly remarkable about these environments, but they eventually discovered an anomaly. Each place, it turned out, was expressing a rather remarkable abundance of a particular type of kindness that set them apart from others.

When Barsade and O’Neill mapped the emotional culture of employees at these three facilities, they charted the spread a specific group of social contagions that included caring, compassion, and tenderness. They called this collective contagion “companionate love.”

In a culture of companionate love, employees work side by side in collaboration, each “expressing caring and affection toward one another, safeguarding each other’s feelings, (and) showing tenderness and compassion when things don’t go well,” write Barsade and O’Neill in the Harvard Business Review. “Now imagine a workplace that encourages those behaviors from everyone, where managers actively look for ways to create and reinforce close workplace relationships among employees.”

Unlike viruses, a social contagion like companionate love spreads through a kind of lock-step synchronization of countenance, body movement, language, and attitudes. We are built to receive and perceive cues, to understand displays of happiness and compassion, and to create a harmony of emotions with others. Every person is unique, but a smile, hug, kind word, or show of empathy carries universal meaning—and activate similar empathetic responses.

Kindness matters, and we now have evidence suggesting how it matters. Companionate love becomes a counterbalance to a culture of meanness that can otherwise damage the social fabric of any workplace. Malice introduces a kind of social virus to an otherwise cohesive and well-functioning system, and over time, spreads from one team to many teams. In this way, the person who’s short on agreeableness tends to determine the performance of an entire group. While offsetting a culture of meanness isn’t easy, over time, a single person can lead to the type of organizational changes Barsade and O’Neill saw firsthand.

These findings also apply to our national culture. Even the smallest exposure to companionate love makes a difference. When Indiana University conducted a 2014 experiment measuring emotional contagions on Twitter, they found users tweeted more positively based on how much contact they previously had with other positive tweets. And well before social media, revolutionaries from the Civil Rights movement in the US to Gandhi in India wielded the tools of companionate love through their words and actions, reaching others and ultimately conquering hate.

In these strange days of unrest, we’re already seeing companionate love spread through random acts of kindness. Protestors share umbrellas with strangers during rainy marches and come together to help lost protestors reunite with their groups. Messages of support flood our social media feeds and go viral. Jewish and Muslim children are linking arms against Donald Trump’s immigration ban.

We are fighting a virulent sentiment of meanness. Kindness is the closest thing we have to a remedy. We won’t change minds by shaming others, mocking them, or fighting with them. Even if our intentions are good, these negative emotions will only hasten the spread of the disease. Instead, we must work to change the way people feel—and we can begin by changing the way we treat each other.