Social Contagion Theory: Definition and Examples

Social contagion theory definition types and examples, explained below

Social contagion theory postulates that people have a tendency to imitate others. Whether this involves observing another individual’s actions directly or on a media platform, people have a natural inclination to mimic what they see.

Behaviors, emotions, and expressed attitudes can spontaneously spread throughout a group of unrelated individuals or a social network consisting of close others.

The spread does not have to be intentional or a result of conscious intent.

Social Contagion Theory Definition

The concept of social contagion has been the subject of research in the area of social influence for decades (Levy & Nail, 1993).

Unfortunately, as Levy and Nail state:

“there exists a distressing lack of consensus regarding the use of some of its most fundamental, key, and central concepts. Definitions have been vague, inconsistent, and often times contradictory” (p. 236).

They provide no fewer than 11 distinct definitions proposed by various researchers over the years.

Fortunately, near the end of their literature review, they offer a reconceptualized definition:

“In its broadest sense, social contagion is defined as the spread of affect, attitude, or behavior from Person A (the “initiator”) to Person B (the “recipient”), where the recipient does not perceive an intentional influence attempt on the part of the initiator” (p. 275).

Social Contagion vs. Conformity

There are two main differences between social contagion and conformity.

First, with conformity, the recipient is under pressure from others to engage in a specific act. The conflict is induced externally. However, in social contagion, the conflict may already be present in the recipient. The conflict stems from an internal source.  

Secondly, the pressure to conform is often overtly expressed, although there are exceptions. The pressure is plain to see in the actions of others. However, in several forms of social contagion, the tendency to perform the behavior occurs either involuntarily or at an unconscious level, or both.

Types of Social Contagion

There are several types of social contagion that have been proposed and studied.

1. Echo contagion

This type of social contagion occurs when the recipient spontaneously imitates the affect or behavior of the initiator. The imitation is relatively exact, but also relatively involuntary and unconscious. Hence the term “echo.”

Examples of echo contagion include: yawning, hiccupping, laughing, and coughing, among others.

Provine (2012) subjected participants to a five-minute video which portrayed someone yawning 30 times.

Results revealed that “observers were more than twice as likely to yawn while observing the yawns (55 percent) than to yawn while viewing a comparable series of smiles (21 percent), the control condition” (p. 14).

Pennebaker (2012) has provided conceptual replications of similar behaviors.

2. Hysterical contagion

This refers to the spread of physical symptoms without a causal pathogen. The behavior imitated is relatively exact, involuntary, and operates unconsciously.

One key distinguishing element of hysterical contagion is that it usually involves an undesirable act.

The term “hysterical” is chosen due to its similarity with Freud’s concept of conversion hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895; 2004) and description of hysterical neurosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1987 edition).

Various researchers have studied conceptually similar constructs, but have utilized different terminology, such as: hysterical imitation (English & English, 1958), mass hysteria (Corsini, 1984) and collective hysteria (Goldenson & Glanze, 1984).

They all refer to a condition that reflects pathology: abnormal emotional behavior, beliefs, or physical symptoms that occur across a group.

For more on this type of contagion, see our article on moral panic.

3. Disinhibitory contagion

This type of social contagion involves the recipient experiencing disinhibition to engage in a behavior. The recipient’s behavior is not an exact imitation of the initiator’s behavior, but falls within the same behavioral class.

Unlike the previous two types of social contagion, disinhibitory contagion operates at a relatively higher level of cognitive processing. Therefore, it is within conscious awareness.

According to Levy and Nail (1993), disinhibitory contagion applies to situations in which there is an approach-avoidance dynamic. The behavior is engaged when restraining factors are weakened while approach factors are strengthened.

4. Emotion contagion

This refers to the spread of emotions across individuals. It can be formally defined as the “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally” (Hatfield et al., 1994, p.5).

The spread of the emotion from initiator to recipient is generally considered automatic and occurring unconsciously through mechanisms involved in the mimicry of facial expressions.

Social Contagion Examples

  • Fleeing the Scene in Emergency: If in a large crowd where one person begins running and flailing their arms as if panicked, others in the crowd will immediately do the exact same thing. They will run in the same direction and exhibit the same sense of fright. This is a highly adaptive reflex in most mammals.
  • Yawning: When one person yawns, there is a very high probability that those around will also yawn.
  • Groupthink: Sometimes when people are in a group, they tend to all conform to a certain perspective or attitude. Any movement away from the commonly accepted stance is punished so that the group maintains an outward appearance of harmony and cohesion.
  • Nausea: When one person ingests a substance which is then dramatically and energetically expelled, it can create the same reaction in others. This is a highly adaptive occurrence of social contagion that has helped the human species survive consuming various natural toxins or poisonous substances.  
  • Peer Pressure: Although perhaps not strictly fitting the scientific definition of social contagion, peer pressure involves individuals acting according to a known expectation of behavior. It can cause people to engage in behavior in which they are morally opposed or could cause harm to themselves or others.  
  • Workplace Culture: Every organization has a culture. Some organizations purposely try to instill a culture of ruthless competitiveness, while others try to create an atmosphere that is conducive to collaboration and teamwork. The culture creates common behaviors that are supported in part through social contagion processes.  
  • Classroom Participation: Most teachers will tell you that it can be hard to get a class discussion off the ground, especially with teenagers. However, after the first student raises their hand to offer their opinion, the ball can get rolling and an exciting and meaningful discussion can ensue.
  • At a Comedy Show: Sometimes a comedian’s jokes are difficult to interpret. They may straddle the line between being clever and witty or just rude and caustic. Therefore, it’s important to set the tone and get the audience in the right frame of mind as early on as possible. Setting that tone is capitalizing on social contagion.    
  • Fashion Trends: If a celebrity starts wearing something unique that really catches the public’s eye, it can create a fashion trend that spreads throughout a specific demographic group like wildfire.  
  • Societal Panic: When comic books first became popular in the 1950s, there was widespread panic throughout society. Many politicians, educators, and parents believed that the short-form “books” were a bad influence on children. Although they did not explicitly use the term social contagion, that is exactly what they were referring to.   
  • Deindividuation: This occurs when a person is a member of a group or crowd and begins to undermine their own morality out of a sense that they are anonymous within the crowd. It happens in riots, for example, when otherwise law-abiding people start raiding shops.

Applications of Social Contagion Theory

1. In Education

Burgess et al. (2018) provide a review of literature on how social contagion theory operates in a school context.

As the authors explain, the theory has not been extensively applied, but there exists substantial research which “can be considered as different manifestations under the umbrella of social contagion” (p. 165).

Below are several applications of social contagion theory in the educational context.

a) Peer influence

Peer influence refers to how others with whom an individual is associated affects their attitudes and behaviors (Moody, 2001).

Most of this research has focused on negative influences such as smoking, drinking, and substance use (see Brechwald & Prinstein, 2011).

For instance, Cohen and Prinstein (2006) found that peers with high status had a pronounced effect on conformity to risky behavior. IN addition, participants high in social anxiety were influenced regardless of peer status.

Other studies have found that peers can influence verbal SAT scores (Zimmerman, 2003), and that peer acceptance and group membership predicted GAP among some university students (Wentzel & Caldwell, 1997).

b) Teacher Contagion

The actions of a teacher can have a powerful effect on students. The famous “Dr. Fox Effect” (Naftulin et al., 1973) shows how the expressiveness of a lecturer can impress students, regardless of status or student knowledge of the subject (Peer & Babad, 2014).

Houser and Waldbuesser (2017) demonstrated that more expressive teachers induced students to be more expressive, while Mottet and Beebe (2000) found that the emotional responses of teachers and students covary. Frenzel et al., (2009) found that teacher enjoyment influenced student enjoyment over time.

In a surprising study on stress contagion (Huang et al., 2016; Wethington, 2000), Oberle and Schonert-Reichl (2016) found a link between teacher burnout and cortisol levels of students.

Similarly, Westman and Etzion (1999) found that tension between school principals and teachers spreads across all staff.

Burgess et al. (2018) conclude that these studies provide evidence of how emotion contagion, as a form of social contagion, plays an important role in educational settings. 

2. In Organizations

Social contagion theory has also been applied to the behavior of employees in organizations.

For instance, Ferguson (2006) conceptualizes employee misbehavior as a result of social contagion, Porter and Rigby (2009) explain high turnover as a function of social contagion, while Tong et al. (2002) find that a recent minor operational incident (MOI) increases the likelihood of a later accident (explained within a social contagion framework).

Norman et al. (2005) suggest that leaders than inspire hope can produce a contagion effect on employees. Snaebjornsson and Vaiciukynaite, (2016) lobby for a more nuanced “follower-centric” approach to the study of leadership that incorporates emotional contagion.

Sy et al. (2005) found that the mood of a leader can affect group performance. They explain such results in terms of mood contagion. Other studies have demonstrated the spread of affect in organizations (Barsade, 2002) and professional sports (Totterdell, 2000).

3. In Social Media

Alshaabi et al. (2021) note that social contagion dynamics have been studied extensively in social media by examining messages posted and re-posted.

For instance, Bond et al. (2012) studied social contagion and political mobilization, while Kramer et al. (2014) focused on emotional contagion.

Social contagion in the form of spreading rumors (Kaligotla et al., 2105; Zubiaga et al., 2016) and misinformation (Del Vicario et al., 2016) and how it effects political polarization (Spohr, 2017; Törnberg, 2018) have received more recent attention.

Hodas and Lerman (2014) liken social media to a pathogen that spreads across social networks to infect everyone in its path.

Their research however, demonstrates that whereas in pathogenic contagion, in which the larger the social network the more severe the spread, this is not the case with social contagion in social media.

Instead, highly connected individuals are less likely to perpetuate the infection. This is primarily due to individuals with large networks not noticing the information due to limited time or cognitive constraints (Hodas & Lerman, 2012; Weng et al., 2012).


Social contagion theory states that behaviors, emotions, and attitudes can spread among individuals.

Although there are several types of social contagion, most of them operate outside of conscious awareness and may be involuntary.

Research on social contagion theory in education has included examining how teachers can influence the moods and stress levels of students.

Peers can also affect each other through a social contagion process which is distinct from conformity, influencing risky behavior and academic performance.

Social contagion can also affect how leaders influence employees via emotional contagion, turnover within an organization, the likelihood of accidents, and professional sports teams.

The study of social contagion dynamics has been studied extensively in the context of social media, examining the spread of misinformation and rumors, but also discovering limitations of contagion based on cognitive constraints of users.


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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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