Beyond Contagion

Introduction ESRC logo

How and why do behaviours spread from person to person? In particular, how does aggression and violent behaviour spread? When, as in 2011, riots began in London, why did they then occur in Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool? One of the most common ways of addressing such issues is through the notion of 'contagion'. The core idea is that, particularly in crowds, mere exposure to the behaviour of others leads observers to behave in the same way. 'Contagion' is now used to explain everything from 'basic' responses such as smiling and yawning (where the mere act of witnessing someone yawn or smile can invoke the same response in another) to complex phenomena like the behaviour of financial markets and, of course, rioting. What is more, laboratory experiments on the 'contagion' of simple responses (such as yawning) serve to underpin the plausibility of 'contagion' accounts as applied to complex phenomena (such as rioting).

Despite this widespread acceptance, the 'contagion' account has major problems in explaining the spread of behaviours. In particular, there are boundaries to such spread. If men smile at a sexist joke, will feminists also smile in response to the men's smiles? If people riot in one town, why is it that they also riot in some towns but not others? For example, in 2011, disturbances spread from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool but they did not spread to Sheffield, Leeds or Glasgow. 

'Contagion' explanations cannot answer such questions because they assume that transmission is automatic. They do not take account of the social relations between the transmitter and receiver. This project examines a new account of behavioural transmission based on the social identity approach in social psychology. This suggests that influence processes are limited by group boundaries and group content: we are more influenced by ingroup members than by outgroup members, and we are more influenced by that which is consonant with rather than contradictory to group norms. The social identity approach is therefore ideally suited to explaining the social limits to influence, both for 'basic' phenomena and rioting.

This research is funded by the ESRC, Ref ES/N01068X/1.