Social Contagion Hypothesis

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105

Concept description

Paul Marsden (1998, reference below) describes social contagion hypothesis as “the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious.”

Marsden elaborates:

“Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice. The term contagion (ken­tâ-jen) itself has its roots in the Latin word contagio, and quite literally means “from touch”. Contagion therefore refers to a process of transmission by touch or contact.

“The Microsoft Dictionary (Microsoft 1997) defines contagion as the “transmission of a disease by direct contact with an infected person or object; a disease or poison transmitted in this way; the means of transmission; the transmission of an emotional state, e.g. excitement; a harmful influence.” From this definition, contagion refers to 1) the social transmission, by contact, of biological disease, and 2) the social transmission, by contact, of sociocultural artefacts or states.

“The contagion concept first became popular as both a descriptive and explanatory device for social, as opposed to biological, phenomena in the late 19th century France, notably through the work of James Mark Baldwin (1894), Gabriel Tarde (1903) and Gustave Le Bon (1895). Empirical research into the phenomenon did not, however, begin until the 1950s. This more recent research has unequivocally established the fact of the social contagion phenomenon, and has identified its operation in a number of areas of social life. The implications of this social contagion research are radical: The evidence suggests that under certain circumstances, mere ‘touch’ or ‘contact’ with culture appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. …

“Whilst the vast majority of social contagion research has demonstrated the existence and voracity of the empirical phenomenon, the theoretical implications of the results have not been addressed. The results of contagion research suggest that just as we do not choose to be infected with, and pass on, biological contagions, we often behave as if we have little control over the culture we become infected with and consequently spread. Such an observation undermines the traditional understanding of the human subject as an autonomous agent whose action is defined by individual intentionality and rational evaluation. Whilst we may like to believe that we consciously and rationally decide on how to respond to situations, social contagion evidence suggests that some of the time this is simply not the case. Rather than generating and ‘having’ beliefs, emotions and behaviours, social contagion research suggests that, in some very real sense, those beliefs, emotions and behaviours ‘have’ us.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Income Inequality and Poverty (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


Paul Marsden (1998), Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?, The Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1998, Vol 2, at, accessed 12 December 2018.

Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified on 12 December 2018.

Image: Aylin Kanpak, The power of social contagion, Medium, 29 November 2017, at, accessed 12 December 2018.