HR Strange But True

How Workplace News Becomes ‘Contagious’

It’s often astounding how fast news—especially when it’s “juicy” or ominous—can circulate around a workplace. So how does such information (or a rumor) become “contagious”?

Computer modeling can shed light on how behaviors may become “contagious” in large groups, showing that the memory of one individual can indirectly influence that of another via shared social connections, says new research sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

“In large social networks, our model demonstrated that information is ‘contagious’ in much the same way that behavior seems to be contagious,” say researchers Christian Luhmann and Suparna Rajaram of Stony Brook University, New York, in a press release. “These results suggest that information transmission is a critical mechanism underlying the social transmission of behavior.”

While research has shown that various behaviors—such as smoking or getting tattoos—seem to spread throughout social networks, the mechanisms driving this behavioral contagion remain mysterious. To shed light on these contagious phenomena, Luhmann and Rajaram decided to incorporate known cognitive processes into computer models that are capable of simulating groups so they would be able to see how individuals interact, and how information flows, within groups that ranged from two to as high as 500 people.

The researchers started by simulating information sharing in small three-person groups. Each simulated group member was programmed to memorize information and learn from the other two members of the group, mimicking findings derived from experiments with real people to reflect actual memory-related processes. The researchers simulated 1,000 group-versus-individual comparisons.

The recall ability of the collaborative group was compared to the combined memory performance of three simulated individuals who “studied” words independently. In total, the researchers simulated 1,000 group-versus-individual comparisons.

The results mirrored patterns of information sharing and collective memory found among real people. The groups were able to recall significantly fewer items than the three individuals combined together. The computer model showed that the group members converge on certain similar information, which limits the amount of information addressed, in a phenomenon known as “collaborative inhibition.”

Then the research was expanded to examine collaborative groups of different sizes up to 128 members. The researchers found that collaborative inhibition increased as the groups grew larger. To see how information would spread throughout a large group, Luhmann and Rajaram created a model that placed individuals into large, realistic networks and allowed them to interact with their “neighbors.”

As one might expect, the results showed that direct neighbors showed more similar knowledge than did individuals who were indirectly linked.

According to the press release, this suggests that a shared neighbor acts as a “go-between,” transmitting information to the individuals on either side and allowing them to indirectly influence each other. The researchers found that this indirect influence waned as the “distance” between two individuals grew, leveling off after the infamous “six degrees of separation.”

The researchers believe that these findings could shed light on the mechanisms that drive real-world contagious phenomena, including rumors, eyewitness testimony, and even fads and fashions.

Carrying this concept over to the workplace gossip mill, HRSBT thinks the research shows why in a social network like a company, information that is passed along from a small group keeps getting influenced by numerous go-betweens, who add their own personal slant. As the news is transmitted to myriad others, it is repeatedly distilled until the final version contains mostly the nastiest or scariest elements of the information—which, of course, makes for the best workplace gossip!