Courage Contagion: Social Influence in Protests

07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The last few weeks in Iran have reminded us of many things we'd rather not remember about governments, and of at least one thing that we should remember about people: they can stand up for their beliefs even when doing so poses great risk. Amid threats from Ayatollah Khamenei that further protests would be met by "bloodshed and chaos," and jarring evidence of continued violence against peaceful protesters, Iranian citizens have expressed their resolve to keep demonstrating until the election is reconsidered.

The bravery of protesters -- from those in Iran to civil rights activists in the American South 50 years ago -- is a major reason that violence and coercion so often fail to quell political movements. However, psychologically, protesters' behavior runs counter to several intuitions. Typically, learning that something is dangerous causes people to avoid that thing, especially when learning occurs through means as horrifying as the videoed deaths of protesters like Neda Sultan. The sheer size of many protests should compound people's reluctance to participate; it's unclear why anyone should risk harm simply to make the Iranian government contend with three million and one demonstrators instead of three million. Why would people overlook their personal safety and join a dangerous protest, even when their individual contribution to it will be inevitably small? One possibility that's often ignored is that courage may be contagious.

Psychologists have long known that we are enormously influenced by the actions, beliefs, and attitudes of those around us. For the most part, the study of social influence has focused on negative versions of these effects, cataloging myriad ways that the presence of other people renders us thoughtless and selfish. We tip less at large tables, fail to intervene when someone needs help but other bystanders do nothing, and spiral into debt trying to keep up with our neighbors' standards of living. However, social influence is not as one-sided as its most prominent descriptions. More recent research has demonstrated at least two ways that other people can bolster our ability to face danger.

First, others serve as powerful models of what we can expect from the environment, and ways that we can respond to it. The most well-known example of this is vicarious fear conditioning. During normal fear conditioning, you see a neutral stimulus (a blue square, for example), and it is paired with something aversive, like an electric shock. Later, seeing the blue square alone is enough to become tense and anxious; you have learned to fear something perfectly innocuous by association. In vicarious conditioning, people learn fear through others: I watch you being shocked after seeing the blue square. Later, when I see that square, my brain and body react as though I had learned to fear it by being shocked myself.

However, vicarious conditioning is critically different from regular conditioning; not only the fear-evoking object, but also your reaction to it, will shape my later emotional responses. If you fear something, I will also. If you do not, I may actually be buffered from feeling fear when I have to face it. This effect is called social referencing. Referencing is most often studied through children, who look to their parents to learn how to react to new experiences. This process is in action after a toddler falls -- without injuring himself -- and for a split second, looks his parent's expression for a cue as to what to do. Research has demonstrated that, in such situations, if parents look frightened, children are much more likely to start crying. If parents instead model positive behavior like smiling, children will follow suit, aborting their typical panicked reactions. Other animals show this effect also; a recent study showed that even ancient, inborn fears, such as rhesus monkeys' terror for snakes, can be reversed if monkeys see a courageous cage-mate playing with a rubber snake before being faced with one themselves. Such social referencing likely plays a role in inspiring people to conquer their fears through other's bravery. In a recent column, Roger Cohen quotes an email he received from an Iranian student:

"I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to be killed. I'm listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs. I always wanted to have very narrow eyebrows. Yes, maybe I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow!"

The student goes on to say that she wrote those lines "for the next generation," so they would know the character of those who came before them. However, her words and attitudes may have just as much impact on her own generation, the ones taking a deep breath and following her into an uncertain, but fiercely upheld struggle.

The presence of other people not only reduces the anticipatory quakes of facing risk; it can also lessen the suffering we feel during hardships, if we have company. An enormous and underappreciated public health risk factor is social isolation. Lonely people suffer greater anxiety, stress, and heart disease than the non-lonely -- an especially troubling idea given that more people live alone now than at any time in history. The other side to this is that the presence of people softens the blow of negative experience. People living in violent neighborhoods, for example, report less anxiety about the risks of living there as the cohesion of their community grows. Physical pain sensation is also reduced by the presence of close others, and in a recent brain imaging study, people demonstrated less neural response to pain when holding their romantic partner's hand than when alone.

Others' courage can both inspire us to face risk and support us as we experience hardships. This feedback loop between the bravery of individuals in a group and their effect on others lends people the tenacity to continue through dark conditions like the one we have witnessed in Iran in the last weeks. While the outcomes of these protests are uncertain, the "courage in numbers" shown by the citizens of Iran has been extraordinary. At least some of this courage may stem from the positive side of social influence. More importantly, it is a central reason that, as President Obama reminded the Iranian government last week: "suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away."