Flu season is nearly upon us, and in an effort to limit contagion and spare ourselves misery, many of us will get vaccinated. The work of Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis has helped restrict the spread of the nasty bug for generations, and the influenza vaccine is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. But before the vaccine could be developed, scientists first had to identify the cause of influenza — and, importantly, recognize that it was contagious.
New research by Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum, and Amir Erez at the University of Florida takes that same first step in identifying a different kind of contagious menace: rudeness. In a series of studies, Foulk and colleagues demonstrate that being the target of rude behavior, or even simply witnessing rude behavior, induces rudeness. People exposed to rude behavior tend to have concepts associated with rudeness activated in their minds, and consequently may interpret ambiguous but benign behaviors as rude. More significantly, they themselves are more likely to behave rudely toward others, and to evoke hostility, negative affect, and even revenge from others.
The finding that negative behavior can beget negative behavior is not exactly new, as researchers demonstrated decades ago that individuals learn vicariously and will repeat destructive actions. In the now infamous Bobo doll experiment, for example, children who watched an adult strike a Bobo doll with a mallet or yell at it were themselves abusive toward the doll. Similarly, supervisors who believe they are mistreated by managers tend to pass on this mistreatment to their employees.
Previous work on the negative contagion effect, however, has focused primarily on high-intensity behaviors like hitting or abusive supervision that are (thankfully) relatively infrequent in everyday life. In addition, in most previous studies the destructive behavior was modeled by someone with a higher status than the observer. These extreme negative behaviors may thus get repeated because (a) they are quite salient and (b) the observer is consciously and intentionally trying to emulate the behavior of someone with an elevated social status. (Read more from “Study: Rude Behavior Spreads Like a Disease” HERE)