The Media: Carriers of Contagious Information

The media play a critical role in modern society because they are the carriers of information about how people behave. And, the evidence from social science is clear that information about others’ behavior can have a contagious effect—leading observers to behave similarly, which can lead still more and more observers to conform (Cialdini, 2001). In the economic arena, marketing professionals understand how to harness this power. Television commercials depict crowds rushing into stores and hands depleting shelves of the product. Advertisers proclaim their products as the “largest selling” or “fastest growing” in the market. Restaurant owners designate certain menu items as “our most popular,” which immediately makes them even more popular. Consider the advice offered more than 350 years ago by the Spaniard Balthazar Gracian(1649/1945) to those wishing to sell goods:

Their intrinsic worth is not enough, for not all turn the goods over and
look deep. Most run where the crowd is—because the others run. (p. 124)

This tendency to run because others are running affects more than product sales. Indeed, it accounts for some of the most bizarre and befuddling forms of human behavior on record. Throughout history, people have been subject to extraordinary collective delusions—irrational sprees, manias, and panics of various sorts. In his classic text on “the madness of crowds,” Charles MacKay listed hundreds that occurred before the book’s first publication in 1841. It is noteworthy that many shared an instructive characteristic—contagiousness. Often, they began with a single person or group and then swept rapidly through whole populations. In epidemic fashion, they were transmitted by contact. Action spread to observers, who then acted and thereby validated the correctness of the action for still other observers, who acted in turn.

For instance, in 1761, London experienced two moderate sized earthquakes exactly a month apart. Convinced by this coincidence that a third, much larger quake would occur in another month, a soldier named Bell began spreading his prediction that the city would be destroyed on the fifth of April. At first, few paid him any heed. But those who did took the precaution of moving their families and possessions to surrounding areas. The sight of this small exodus stirred others to follow, which in cascading waves over the next week led to near panic and a large-scale evacuation. Great numbers of Londoners streamed into nearby villages, paying outrageous prices for any accommodations. Included in the terrified throngs were “hundreds who had laughed at the prediction a week before, but who packed up their goods, when they saw others doing so, and hastened away” (MacKay, 1841/1932, p. 260).

After the designated day dawned and died without a tremor, the fugitives returned to the city furious at Mr. Bell for leading them astray. As MacKay’s description makes clear, however, their anger was misdirected. It was not the crackpot Bell who was most convincing. It was the Londoners themselves, each to the other.

Most people feel that behaviors become more valid when many others are performing them. In instances of mass delusions, this social validation extends to wildly irrational acts that seem to reflect correct choices not because of any hard evidence in their favor but merely because multiple others seem to have chosen them. Thus, the media should take care in the depictions of panics, as those depictions are not only likely to reflect the panic but to incite it as well.

Besides the number of others who have performed an action, there is another feature of others that makes their actions contagious—similarity. People follow the actions of others who are like them. Here, again, the media must exercise caution—this time in the presentation of self-destructive behaviors, as these behaviors can take on a copycat character. For example, after highly publicized suicide stories appear in the media, the suicide rate jumps in those areas that have been exposed to the stories (Phillips, 1989). Apparently, certain troubled individuals imitate the actions of other troubled individuals in the act of suicide. What is the evidence that this increase in self-inflicted deaths comes from the tendency to look to similar others for direction? Copycat suicides are more prevalent among people who are similar in age and sex to the victim in the previously publicized suicide story. For instance, following a German television story of a young man who killed himself by leaping in front of a train, railway suicides increased dramatically, but only among other young German men (Schmidtke & Hafner, 1988).

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