Hostility Spreads Like a Contagion at Work

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In a finding that should not surprise anyone who’s ever had a job that required human interaction, rudeness appears to travel throughout a workplace like a “contagion,” say researchers from the University of Florida in a new paper in The Journal of Applied Psychology. Someone acts surly toward you, and you spread that surliness to the next person you encounter; even a harshly worded email can be highly infectious, the authors write.

In one experiment, grad students who were made to negotiate with a jerk were more likely to behave rudely toward their next negotiation partner. When deciding how to divvy up a “set of resources” — the study authors don’t spell out what, exactly, these resources are, but in studies like this, it’s often some small amount of money — the students who’d previously worked with a partner who was aggressive or insulting tended to pass the bad vibes onto a subsequent interaction; they were more likely to choose the most hostile option presented (in which they took a loss to ensure that their partner wouldn’t get anything) than the cooperative option (which would’ve split the nebulous “resources” evenly). 

The idea that being around a jerk means that you are, in turn, more likely to act like a jerk is pretty intuitive, but, surprisingly, so far the scientific literature on emotional contagion, as the phenomenon is called, has mostly focused on the spread of positive behaviors. But, of course, negativity spreads from person to person, too. Good thing there’s an antidote.