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Behavioral Contagion

by Alan Allegra  
7/18/2016 / Christian Living


Picture yourself in a roomful of people, many of whom you like or at least respect. One of them yawns. Two more yawn. Another few yawn. Do you feel the urge yet?

You are sitting with some friends, watching a comedy. They start to laugh at something you didn't think was so funny. They laugh uncontrollably, and soon you're laughing too, but you don't know why.

I'm not trying to hypnotize you -- I'm introducing you to what social scientists call "behavioral contagion." This means people will "catch" certain behaviors from others.

You may have seen the same effect in a theater, when one or two audience members start clapping, and soon the room is filled with applause. In more extreme cases, someone stands and whistles, bringing the entire audience to a standing ovation. We won't even mention "the wave"!

On these occasions, you may be a reluctant participant. You're not tired; the joke wasn't that funny; the performance was mediocre at best. Yet -- perhaps so you wouldn't appear or feel left out -- you caught the "contagious behavior."

What mother hasn't warned, "If everyone jumped off a bridge, does that mean you should do it, too?" Scientists have documented "contagious risk-taking behavior" as particularly worrisome. "Come on! Everybody's doing it!" is a teenage mantra that has led to many a heartache.

God, the ever-present, ever-loving, ever-wise parent, has his own advice about contagious behavior: "Do not be deceived: 'Bad company ruins good morals'" (1 Corinthians 15:33). Hanging around with the wrong people will influence you in a negative way.

Of course, it can work both ways: "Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm." (Proverbs 13:20). There are consequences to be reaped according to who we allow to influence us.

Whether it's the desire to fit in with the crowd or the fear of being left out or being conspicuous, something makes us vulnerable to contagious behavior, especially bad behavior.

It takes a power, will, and wisdom greater than ours to resist evil and choose the good. That power is the Holy Spirit given to those who belong to Christ, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). It is not necessary to be a reluctant participant in bad behavior: "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded" (James 4:78).

We can have victory in the power of the Spirit: "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). If we read and obey God's Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit instead of the seductions of the world and questionable friends, we will avoid the heartaches of sin and the pull of peer pressure.

Listen to the wisdom of Solomon: "My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent . . . Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice . . . but whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster" (Proverbs 1:10, 20, 33).

It has been wisely said, "If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas." We need to choose our friends and companions wisely, because we will catch whatever causes them to act the way they do. Our best advice? Flee from the fleas!

Alan is Content Coordinator for Lifestyles Over 50 (Thrive Media) and contributor to the Allentown, PA, Morning Call. He is also an adult Sunday school teacher and Bible study leader. Passionate about reviving theology and church methodology, and being a senior citizen!

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