Is Stupidity Contagious?

A hearty Damn Lefties Thank You goes out to Justin Wolfers over at the Freakonomics blog, for being the first person I’ve seen in MSM coverage to seriously question the idea that happiness is contagious, drawn from the study published in this week’s British Medical Journal.

There are all sorts of methods one could take to at least partially debunk the conclusions of this research.  I prefer the ‘sniff test’, which consists pretty much of taking a sniff, and seeing if it smells like bullshit.  It’s a cute idea, to think that happiness is contagious throughout your social network, and it’s great to think that, as one of the authors says, “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.”  After all, happiness is not a fixed-supply item, like money, and so that means all we can all be infinitely happy if we just build our social networks right.

But come on – do you really think that if my friend Sally’s friend Jack’s friend Donna gets a good performance review at work, that I am somehow magically made more happy than if I win a contest and get $5,000 in prize money?  I know that I don’t.  Money does not equate to happiness, but neither is there a “cloud of happiness” floating through my social network, such that anything that happens to someone I’m acquainted with will somehow, inevitably, make its way to my psyche.

Indeed, Wolfers points out that a paper in that very same issue of that very same journal debunks, by the method of reductio ad absurdum, the conclusions of the first.

Interestingly, the same issue of the BMJ contained a very careful article by Ethan Cohen-Cole and Jason Fletcher making precisely this point. They employ a pretty cheeky research strategy: if you want to show that a research design is silly, show that it leads to silly conclusions.

They use Fowler and Christakis’s approach on another dataset, and show that it leads to the unlikely conclusion that height, headaches, and acne are also contagious. The more likely explanation, of course, is that all are subject to similar environmental influences. For instance, the same jackhammer causing your headache is likely causing mine.

So, kudos to Wolfers for being willing to state the obvious, skeptical response, rather than the chin-scratching ‘hmmmm, how interesting’ response that this research has evoked from the 6 PM news crowd.  Sorry to be the Grinch in this holiday season, but it takes a little more than association with happiness to make yourself happy.

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One Response to Is Stupidity Contagious?

  1. Tripp says:

    It’s probably down to poor science, but I think that there’s some truth to it. Much in the same way that “misery loves company”, people who are happy will probably try to spread that to their friends… though probably not their friends friends friends… directly at least. British studies on happiness in society suggest that people were happier during the 1970’s, when the British economy was in the toilet, than they were during the heady times (which were filled with heady goodness, I’m told) preceding the current economic pool of shite that we find ourselves swimming in at the moment.

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