Behavioral Contagion

Behavioral Contagion Definition

Behavioral Contagion

Behavioral contagion is the tendency for people to repeat behavior after others have performed it. People very often do what others do. Sometimes we choose to imitate others, for example, by wearing the same type of clothes as our friends. Most of the time, however, we are not aware of the fact that we copy behavior. Research shows that humans nonconsciously imitate a lot of behaviors. Examples are speech variables such as syntax, accents, speech rate, pauses, tone of voice and behavioral variables such as gestures, mannerisms, postures. Furthermore, we take over each other’s facial expressions, moods, and emotions. Other well-known examples are laughter and yawning.

Behavioral Contagion Analysis

Why do we imitate? Whereas behavioral synchrony in many species of animals promotes safety (think of schools of fish or flocks of birds), in humans, imitation also serves other functions. First, imitation is a very efficient tool to understand others and learn from them. By doing what another does, we know what the other person is doing. We don’t have to make the same mistakes and go through trial and error learning; rather, we can copy the best behavioral option immediately. This is also an efficient way to transfer skills and culture. In case of emotional contagion, when we take over the facial expression of our interaction partner, we feel what others feel, we understand them and can empathize with their pleasure or pain, which brings us to another function of imitation.

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Imitation also serves a social function and is a powerful tool in bonding and binding people together: It functions as social glue. We like others who imitate us (as long as we don’t notice it, otherwise it will feel awkward), act more prosocial toward them and feel closer to them. Many salespersons and other professionals know this aspect of imitation and use it in attempts to influence consumers or clients. Imitation or mirroring is often advised in commercial books on sales and influence tactics.

How do we imitate? The human brain seems to be wired for imitation. There is an intimate connection between perception and action, seeing and doing, in the human brain. A nice example of this intimate link is the so-called mirror neuron, discovered by a group of

Italian researchers in the mid-1990s. These brain cells are active both when people perform a certain behavior (e.g., grasping) and when we merely see someone else perform that behavior. These brain cells do not discriminate between our own and other people’s behavior. Although there is no final word about these mirror neurons and whether they actually cause imitation, there is more and more evidence for the hypothesis that imi-tation is hardwired in the human brain. Researchers nowadays are trying to explain exactly how imitation works and how it is related to human characteristics such as empathy and mind reading.


  1. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893-910.
  2. Meltzoff, A., & Prinz, W. (Eds.). (2002). The imitative mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.