Bad Behavior Is Contagious

Two new studies measure effects of proximity on racial bias, managerial unfairness.

TWO STUDIES FIND that how people behave can influence other people’s behaviors and perspectives:

A new study suggests that when people observe a white American smiling at, standing in close proximity to, or engaging in friendly nonverbal activities with a black American, their own feelings of racial bias decrease, and they are less likely to believe racial stereotypes. Co-authors include Greg Willard of Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts; Kyonne-Joy Isaac of Princeton University in New Jersey; and Dana Carney of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

The group asked participants to watch one of two videos. In one, white Americans exhibited positive nonverbal behaviors toward a black American; in the other, white Americans exhibited negative nonverbal behaviors. In a survey, those who watched the first video were more likely to rate the black individual highly for positive attributes such as kindness—and to say they would befriend that person—than those who watched the second.

“Prejudice is often less overt. It manifests often as micro acts of aggression,” says Carney. “Our study also indicates that positive behavior toward different social groups can be contagious.”

“Some evidence for the nonverbal contagion of racial bias” was published in the June 2015 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

A second study finds that when an organization’s top leaders behave unethically or unfairly, its middle managers often mirror that behavior. The study’s co-authors include Gijs van Houwelingen and Marius van Dijke of Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands and David de Cremer of the Cambridge University Judge Business School in the U.K.

The group found that one way to prevent the spread of bad behavior is to increase the distance between top leaders and middle managers—when managers and leaders interacted in separate social circles, they treated their subordinates more fairly, even if they were being treated unfairly themselves. The same was true if managers’ offices were on separate floors or in separate buildings from those of their bosses.

Says van Houwelingen, “Managers at all levels … need to strike a balance between a certain sense of closeness to ensure efficiency, and some sense of distance to ensure that negative top-level behavior does not spread unhindered through all layers of the organization.”

“Fairness Enactment as Response to Higher Level Unfairness: The Roles of Self-Construal and Spatial Distance” was published online by the Journal of Management and will appear in print in 2016. A video is available at