David Robson, in his book The Expectation Effect, recounts a story about the mysterious spread of illness amongst teenagers in Portugal in 2006. From seemingly nowhere, several hundred students from various areas of Portugal became afflicted with similar symptoms. They showed up at doctor’s offices and hospitals complaining of problems breathing, feeling dizzy, and signs of skin rash. Doctors struggled to explain the ailment. Some thought allergies were to blame, some thought a virus was the underlying cause, while others figured the symptoms were the result of being exposed to some type of poison. After a few days of this mysterious illness surfacing, doctors came to understand that the symptoms being expressed matched those that characters from a popular teen show at the time had suffered in a recent episode. Robson writes, “Somehow the ‘virus’ had jumped from the small screen to a handful of viewers, creating real physical symptoms—despite the fact that the illness in the program was totally fictional.” What’s stranger still is that the viewers that “caught” this “virus” that wasn’t real through the TV screen were able to somehow transmit it to other classmates who hadn’t seen the show. What these students experienced, and doctors observed, was what scientists call a “mass psychogenic illness.” This is where real physical symptoms are experienced by multiple people where no underlying physical cause exists. The illness is created in the mind of sufferers as a result of their expectations. These types of “outbreaks” may be rare, but they have occurred across cultures and periods of human history. Mass psychogenic illnesses are another example of social contagion.
Our brain has developed what neuroscientists refer to as mirror neurons. Their purpose is to help us track what others are doing. They cue us to mirror what our brain is seeing in order to build a connection between us and support empathy. Mirror neurons help us feel like we understand what others are feeling, thinking, and doing. Consider your mirror neurons as nature’s nudge to help us sense how others are feeling. Our body language tends to mirror that of those with whom we’re talking. Mirroring builds rapport. Our mirror neurons don’t just cue us to physically respond to others but also to respond to their emotions. We sense their feelings and catch them ourselves. If someone is happy and laughing, we feel happier and laugh easier. If someone is tense and angry, our physicality tenses in response.
This mirroring transcends physical gestures and emotions including behaviors. We can catch the goals of others such that our behavior modifies. We don’t copy the behaviors of anybody. Our willingness to mimic follows some proclivity to pursue the goal. If we’re not a smoker, for example, we aren’t tempted by watching others smoke. However, if we are when we see others reach for a dart and strike a match, our cravings for a cigarette are likely to increase. Seeing someone else pursuing one path or the other may make us likely to follow. We can catch someone else’s self-control or their indulgence. When our behavior mirrors that of those around us, it’s referred to as social spreading. Social spread flows faster through those we know than around strangers. The closer and more meaningful the relationship, the more likely social spread. Our Portuguese students knew each other and liked each other. The spread of symptoms moved quickly as a result. Almost a form of selective infection. We are infected by those for who we have affect. Who we see ourselves as is influenced by our relationships with others. A part of our assessment as to who we are is determined by what we think others think of us. This leads to their choices influencing our choices.
In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal offers a study of military cadets as a striking example of the power of peers to set the tone for the group’s standards. The study found that the best predictor of any cadet’s future fitness performance was not their level entering but the level of the lowest cadet entering the group. That is the group’s fitness sunk to the standard of the lowest performing member. Independent of who we are and how we show up to our environment, we become creatures of our context. McGonigal writes, “our individual choices are powerfully shaped by what other people think, want, and do—and what we think they want us to do.” The knife’s edge is that both bad and good behaviors can spread like a sneeze across a group. No one is immune to the behaviors of others. When others are doing something, we tend to think it must make sense. McGonigal notes, “Trusting the judgment of others is the glue that makes social living work… What other people want must be good. What other people think must be true. If we don’t yet have an opinion, we might as well trust the tribe.” Researchers have shown that we make choices in our individual lives based on what we think others are doing in areas like electricity usage at home. For example, where we believe others are doing things that are conserving electricity, we’re more likely to do these things as well.
What’s your DTE? The fuel gauges in our cars may express DTE as Distance ‘Til Empty but in many of us the Drive To Emulate is great. We look at and try to be like others. We want to fit in, belong, and have what we think others have. It’s natural. It is a knife’s edge which can help or hurt. We can either copy others and give up on determining our own goals thereby living someone else’s life and chasing someone else’s approval or we can consciously and carefully choose our heroes? Jeff Olson writes in The Slight Edge, “You can also define a person by the heroes he or she aspires to emulate. Who are your heroes? Who are you modeling yourself after?” Consider the following questions in order to get a sense of the strength of your drive to emulate. When you see others indulge, are you more likely to indulge as well? How important is the opinion of others as an influence on your actions? How often do you check a social media post to see how many likes you have received? Do you look and see what others are doing before you decide what you will do? To what degree is your answer to why you’re doing something because others are? The more susceptible we are to being influenced by others, the more carefully we want to choose those that we’re surrounding ourselves with. We’re influenced by those around us so own responsibility for choosing constructive influences.
A French saying, “Dis-moi qui sont tes amis et je te dirai qui tu es” translates to, tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are. This idea has been echoed by Warren Buffett who observed that “You will move in the direction of the people that you associate with.” Billy Cox, a sales training expert has noted, “You will become like the five people you associate with the most. This can be either a blessing or a curse.” Olson goes a step further urging, “Become acutely aware of who you are modeling. This has everything to do with your philosophy and your attitudes, which have more to do with your actions and what you’re creating in your life than any other factor.” Who we’re seeking to emulate is, ultimately, an expression of our values and a significant determinant of our direction. Don’t let your mirror neurons turn you into a moron. Consciously curate who it is you’re willing to copy. Lean on separate wisdom from Buffett where he suggests, “It’s better to hang out with people better than you.” McGonigal writes “To a remarkable degree, our brains incorporate the goals, beliefs, and actions of other people into our decisions. When we are with other people, or simply thinking about them, they become one more “self” in our minds competing for self-control. The flip side is also true: Our own actions influence the actions of countless other people, and each choice we make for ourselves can serve as inspiration or temptation for others.”
To guard against picking poor peers to puppet we can rely on a separate French phrase, “mieux vaut être seul que mal accompagné” which translates to better to be alone than poorly accompanied. We want to avoid the fate of those being written about in the biblical verse of Jeremiah 2:5 that reads, “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” We have heroes that we admire and look up to personally. However, the groups we’re in also have heroes. Our companies, communities, and countries have heroes. Olson writes, “You can define a society by the heroes it admires.” Moreover, what a group considers its heroes can change. Author Christopher Caldwell in his book The Age of Entitlement makes the case that the types of heroes that Americans aspired to celebrate changed in the 1980s. Before the 1980s, when Americans were asked who their country considered heroes worth emulating answers would include the founding fathers, poets, and other philosophers. Those that were considered wise and experienced in making pragmatic sense of the world were celebrated. In the 1980s, Caldwell suggests, things changed; and it became flamboyant business moguls that became the idols of America. Wealth, riches, and material desires followed as values to pursue as opposed to wisdom and learning. Nowadays, forty years after the 80s, the new heroes are those that have fame. From the inception of Reality TV shows some twenty years ago to the current flock of social media influencers, those that have limited objective competence but seem to have amassed large numbers of “likes” or “follows” are the new heroes being celebrated. Are these the types of influences we want over our behaviors?
In the movie Cinderella Man, Russell Crowe plays James Braddock. Braddock was a boxer in NY during the Great Depression. Professional athletes got paid to perform and not much more in those days. There were no health plans or injured reserve lists to occupy. When Braddock broke his hand while fighting, his career, effectively, ended. He took what jobs he could to try to put food on the table for his family. They lived in sparse, difficult conditions. Even the odd jobs he could pick up weren’t secure. He endured physical labor which was incredibly painful for someone with a broken hand. Moreover, he did this with the uncertainty that he would be able to do it again tomorrow. Eventually, even the job he was able to perform didn’t need him as business slowed. With no source of income and no savings, the ability of Braddock to provide for his family dried up. This crushed Braddock’s confidence. He sunk into depression as all he wanted to do was to work and provide. At his lowest point, he walked to a government welfare office and took some support. This was personally painful.
Braddock slowly recovers, finds work, and seeks a return to the ring. No promoter is advocating for him. He has to beat the bushes and convince others he still has gas in the tank left be competitive. He gets a fight, makes a buck, and continues the process of building back his boxing career. One of the first things he does after making a few dollars fighting is return to the same government office from which he collected welfare. He seeks to repay what he received to the surprise of the clerk. Braddock would have none of the clerk’s instinct to refuse the return. There was no obligation to return the welfare received but Braddock didn’t want to feel indebted to anyone, not even the government. These scenes are a key part of the movie that show us clearly Braddock’s values for self-reliance and personal responsibility. He didn’t want something for nothing. All he wanted was an opportunity to fight, to show what he could do. He’s presented and seen by the public in his time and many watching the movie in 2005 as a hero for precisely these values.
Contrast Braddock’s deep reluctance at taking government support with the rush made by businesses and individuals to feast on the seemingly never-ending gush of government support offered during Covid. For many, assistance was seen as an entitlement. It wasn’t distributed based on objective, demonstrable need. It was made available and sucked up by the masses as fast as governments could print it. Unlike Braddock, individuals and businesses felt no shame collecting. They were thrilled to fill out simple online forms and joyed in the funds hitting their bank accounts days later. The values Braddock exemplified of personal responsibility and self-reliance had either evaporated or been eviscerated. We, individually and collectively, are not better because of this.
Perhaps, before we worry about articulating who we want to aspire to be like or who we desire to emulate we can ARM ourselves by taking time to define our Anti-Role-Models. These are the people or characteristics which you’re trying to avoid becoming like. It’s as important to know what you won’t allow as it is to identify to what you’re seeking to aspire. Will the peers you pick spread symptoms of sickness or help you strive for success? Our first goal is to stay away from disease. A place to start could be getting clear about what types of people from which we want to steer clear. We can work to define our anti-role models. For example, if we look at a survey like this one done for the better part of the past 50 years by Gallup, we can see what levels of trust and respect are associated with a number of professions. Unfortunately, politicians and lobbyists consistently fall at the bottom both receiving low to very low views of trust associated with them in excess of 60%.
The lessons of these disrespected and distrusted professions are prohibitive. That is, they serve as useful suggestions on how not to behave. Regardless of our political beliefs we likely hold a contemptuous view of many politicians considering them as having adopted an oath opposite to that of the Hippocratic oath adopted by doctors. Politicians could, sadly, be seen as embracing the hypocritic oath. We see them as principle-less souls flip-flopping from position to position with the ease and grace of a gymnast somersaulting. Worse yet, our political leaders too often reflect what the Stoic philosopher Plutarch observed which was that “the greatest benefit in governing is the freedom from being governed themselves.” A common criticism of politicians during the pandemic across nations is the view that they were creating “rules for thee and not for me.” Politicians were happy to impose restrictions and rules just to proceed to ignore them on a personal level. These acts of overt hypocrisy are tough to witness.
Recognizing our drive to emulate and seeking to define our anti-role-models will help us determine where we don’t want to go. Perhaps looking at politicians will make it clear that we don’t want to be hypocrites, we don’t want to be inauthentic in our direction to others, and we don’t want to spend our days defending the indefensible. From this recognition of what we don’t want we can look forward to finding positive peers to pursue.