The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Lessons Learned: The Contagion Effect and Kindness

happy children

One of the first things they teach you in preschool and kindergarten is to be a kind person. Teaching young children to be acceptant of their peers is one of the building blocks of elementary school, as educational systems try to instill this friendly behavior into students from a young age. Importantly, you’re taught the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. They hope that by teaching this when they’re young, children will be able to develop their brains into maintaining a friendly attitude for the remainder of their lives.

It’s a shame that for some people, friendliness is lost in day-to-day life as they grow older.

In my Introductory to Management class, we recently discussed emotional intelligence and, more specifically, the contagion effect. The contagion effect essentially says a person’s conscious or subconscious attitudes or emotions will affect the behavior or emotions of others, which seems like a simple concept for most people to accept. However, some people seemingly do not grasp the idea that their interactions and emotions can affect the lives of others, and it hurts.

Supplementing our lesson on the contagion effect was a video clip from the television show “Undercover Boss,” where the CEO of a fitness company went undercover in one of his  franchise gyms. Surprisingly, the young woman that was supposed to be training him to work the gym’s shake bar came off as incredibly rude, arrogant, and straight-up mean, even cursing at the CEO in training and at customers. Obviously, she had no idea she was dealing with the CEO of the company, but her actions were indicative that she behaves like this all the time and with little remorse. Customers and the undercover CEO were in shock and visibly upset with the woman and, by the end of the episode, the young woman was fired for her actions.

This might only be one dramatized example of the contagion effect running its course, but I think it’s suggestive of a common theme I often encounter. While I like to believe most people in the service industry are smart enough to not be disrespectful to customers, and I typically have good interactions with service industry workers, the negativity embodied in the “Undercover Boss” episode is something I feel is easy to come across on a daily basis in regular life.

Though I try not to snoop on other people’s conversations, it’s physically impossible not to overhear things, especially if you’re sitting in a lecture hall with 400 other people. After spending multiple semesters in lectures of this capacity, it’s apparent to me that some people have nothing better to do than to be negative and insulting when speaking of others. Maybe they forgot what they were taught in elementary school, but overhearing negative speak like that can put a damper on my day, even if it is something that has no direct effect on me.

Along the lines of kindness, I think something many people fail to realize is that your interactions with someone can sometimes make or break their mood for a day. I, for one, was having a tough day a few weeks ago when I went into Antonio’s Pizza to bring something home for dinner (stress eating, am I right?) and the young woman at the counter complimented my shirt. It’s been three weeks since that happened, but I still distinctly remember it because it made my stressful day seem a little less serious.

I find it a bit ironic how cyclical this lesson can be. You’re first taught at preschool to be a nice person, and fifteen years later at college, I’m being taught almost the same thing but on another scale. You might be thinking at this point, “Hey, Dan, we know to be a nice person, we don’t need to be told to be one.” But I think it’s a bit deeper than that. In our stress-filled, rapidly moving modern environment and contentious political climate, I think kindness can often be swept under the rug.

So, I leave you with this: You never know how someone’s day can be going. Someone can be having the most miserable day of their life and your friendly interaction with them—whether it be doing something as direct as complimenting them, or indirect, such as them witnessing you being kind to someone else—can make whatever they’re going through seem a little less terrible. Our actions, both consciously and subconsciously, have a contagion effect on those around us, and we should be aware of it. So, don’t be the negativity in someone’s day, channel your inner preschooler, and be the person you were taught to be at the beginning of your academic career.