We've heard it whispered at the grocery store, in the park, at the
PTA meeting: first one, then another then ANOTHER friend is getting divorced.
What is happening? It seems that
divorce can be "contagious" in close social groups.
It is not just divorce that appears contagious among circles or networks
of friends: getting married can be "contagious" too. So can
having babies. Financial markets suffer from such contagion as well: consider
the various 'bubbles' in which herds of investors drove up prices
for stocks past all rational levels. We all recall our mothers telling
us as teenagers to resist peer pressure and think for ourselves: "If
everyone jumps off a cliff are you going to jump too?" But now it
seems there actually is social science research that may now document—and
start to explain—the phenomenon.
As social scientists (people who study patterns of human behavior) have
adopted the scientific methods of the physical or biological sciences,
social science researchers are getting closer to understanding how attitudes,
beliefs and behaviors can spread through populations as if they were somehow
"infectious." But, unlike studying a virus, studying the rational,
and irrational, human in his or her culture is a particularly challenging
task. It seems we understand and predict the effect of mysterious dark
matter better than we can predict group human behavior! Social science
is still trying to understand the particular mechanism of group behavior
that underlies "social contagion."
A first step toward better understanding the "social contagion"
phenomenon was published in 2012, using data from decades-long studies
of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts that had been researching the
causes of heart disease. In reviewing three decades of data on marriage,
divorce and remarriage of more than 12,000 Framingham residents in that
heart study, Rose McDermott of Brown University found that, statistically,
participants were 75% more likely to become divorced if a friend was divorced
and 33% more likely to end their marriage if a friend of a friend is divorced.
Various explanations for this have been proposed. If divorce had been an
unwanted option in a social group, and one person in the group takes the
divorce option and talks about it, or even advocates for that option in
order to buttress their divorce decision, this conduct will have a significant
affect on those individuals close to the divorcing party. It gives the
people around them information about what divorce is like. If a respected
member of a social group (including a family) takes the divorce option,
the status of that person may lend authority and legitimacy to that option
for others in the group—even giving some the courage to take the
step toward divorce. Sometimes, close friends who talk and support their
divorcing friend become enmeshed in the struggle, taking on their friend's
emotions and internalizing hurt and conflict that may spill over into
their own marriage. Of course, once the divorce ball starts rolling through
a social group, it seems that it picks up momentum and one, then another,
then another pursue the divorce option.
Another explanation for the statistics garnered from the Framingham residents
may have less to do with simple "contagion." People usually
construct their social groups based on common social values and outlook,
e.g. faith communities, political parties etc. Even social groups based
on family ties will have a close spectrum of social values and outlook.
In other words, is it possible that social groups which experience high
rates of "divorce contagion" are also groups where divorce may
be an acceptable option for a troubled marriage? The researchers of the
Framingham data did not have this depth of information available to them
in order to answer these, and similar, questions.
Nevertheless, researchers assert that common group values cannot, alone,
explain the phenomenon observed over the years of documented mass hysteria,
contagious rule-breaking behavior or even financial contagion phenomenon.
These researchers assert that we simply have evolved a predisposition
to copy the behavior of those around us. This tendency, they say, is the
foundation of all human culture.
In the end, are we humans merely higher orders of "fish schools?"
The new research helps us to understand ourselves, a little. We may instinctively
want to copy our social group, but as humans we also can recognize the
"social contagion" effect and, hopefully, look with our eyes
wide open before we take that leap off the cliff.