Social Contagion

By Coach Ron Wolforth-


This phrase may be seen as a more ostentatious version of the much more familiar sayings, “peer pressure”, “birds of a feather flock together”, “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future” or “if you lay down with dogs, don’t be surprised if you’ll wake up with fleas”!


The reason I really like this phrase is that the word ‘contagion’ is obviously a very powerful word. It implies infection or catching something from someone else. In my experience inside of baseball and out, this is extremely applicable.


I vividly remember at 17 years of age, I was a very young freshman and didn’t turn 18 until after the first three weeks of college. Early on, I found out that the baseball team had a little get together and no one had invited me. I obviously was hurt. I expressed my feelings to one of the upperclassmen with which I felt I had a good relationship. He smiled and said, “Well Wolf, I don’t think you’ll like the party very much. I really don’t think it’s you but if it means that much to you, we have a party again this weekend after the football game” and gave me the address. 


I eagerly showed up expecting a great time. What I experienced was, to put it mildly, a mixture of disappointment and revulsion.


Not even half way through the party I sought out the teammate and told him he was absolutely correct, this was not my scene, apologized for burdening him with my previous feeling of slight and told him to never worry about a future invitation again… I was ‘good’. I got my things and left.


To this day at 58 years of age, whenever I even sense a party or a get together will unfold in any fashion like that college party, I avoid it like the plague. It is not for me.


Obviously, this is a specific example of the social dynamic and group interface that we all face in our lives every single day. Most of our daily group interactions are much subtler but no less impressionable.


For example:

If our group has a high tolerance for lying or falsehoods, we will often unconsciously shape our own behavior to have similar responses.


If our group is extremely goal driven and tenacious in their achievement of those goals, we will also unconsciously shape our behavior to mirror our group’s common responses.


Social contagion is actually neutral. It either can be an amazingly motivational and reaffirming influence, or it can be poisonous, cancerous and/or debilitating.


A real Blessing for me is to travel around the country and watch college baseball teams warm up and play in 3 game series.


Each and every team has its own personality, its own culture and its own self-image.


Something as simple as how the group hustles from the dugout to their individual defensive positions is telling, or how every hitter runs out a fly ball that is almost certainly going to be caught is revealing. Every team is unique. Examples of this are almost infinite.


There are two points that I want to make with my topic of today.


#1. Select the group(s) in which you choose to associate/belong consciously and if possible, with extreme due diligence. Surround yourself with people who share your ideals, philosophies and your mission.  Extract yourself from groups that are not in alignment with those values as soon as it is practical to do so.


#2. Spend some time each and every week really investigating, examining, defining and reinforcing who you are and what you believe. That way whenever the group doesn’t align specifically with the essence of who you are and what you believe, you can choose to 1) express your individuality in as ‘team centric’ of a way as possible, 2) go along with the herd for now or 3) make arrangements to extract yourself from the group when necessary.


The complexity of life clearly dictates that we will never be able to be all things to all people. We often must choose the specific group(s) with which we will be aligned or a member.


So often we are unconsciously negatively corrupted by the groups to which we belong. I know I certainly have.


The real challenge for all of us arises when we share many things in common with a specific group and their impact has been primarily positive, but there exists some foundational contradiction(s) that will inevitably become implacable and have deleterious effects to both yourself and the group. Wisdom sometimes tells us we must leave the group but often emotion clouds our decision-making process.


I see these phenomena every single day. People stay in a group when they should have left quite some time ago.


I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you the sobering fact that high performance achievers and the groups in which they belong make up less than 10% of any population. I personally believe the number is closer to 3% of the population. Therefore, you can be absolutely certain that if your group’s daily behavior and process is in most ways quite similar in behavior and process to a majority of the other groups you compete against, your current group IS DECIDEDLY NOT a high-performance group. Period.


You may even be somewhat successfulin the eyes of your specific universe, but I assure you that success’ is not primarily because of the exceptional habits of you and your team. It is because your competition is even more dysfunctional or lower performing than you are. This fact is often times hard to swallow.


I say the following often to my elite high school, college and professional clients, “One can often just show up and beat mediocre teams and hitters. That must give you ZERO comfort as you lay your head down at night on your pillow. In order to beat teams and hitters who are extreme high performers and are used to winning and coming out on top, one simply can’t do what everyone else is doing. Excellence is a choice. The greatest enemy of great… is good. Great is extremely rare. Who and what are you? Good or great? ‘Good’ comes a dime a dozen. ‘Great’ has very very few peers.”


The world at large is made up of groups, teams, cliques, subsets, factions, associations, collaborations, fraternities/sororities, etc.          


Invariably the group and the group’s leaders dictate behavior, goals, mission and process.


Almost every day the groups in which you are a member will attempt to influence and shape your behavior. You must decide for yourself if the group’s current cultural norms and daily behavior is sufficiently in alignment with your own for indeed they are a social contagion. They are without question unconsciously and subconsciously shaping you. Only you can decide if those specific influences are great, good, innocuous, or detrimental.


In which case, I believe you have only three choices.


            1) Do what everyone in your group does and become mediocre right along with your teammates.


            2) Carve out very specific ways you can demonstrate and preserve your individual preferences and standards without otherwise negatively affecting the team culture. In this case, prepare yourself for considerable ‘blow back’ and vitriol from your group’s leaders and team members pointing out your lack of conformity and reverence for the group ‘norm’. 


            3) Extract yourself from the group when appropriate/practical and find another group that more closely aligns with your values, beliefs and mission.


Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do therefore excellence is not an act but a habit.”


What habits are the groups you belong to creating, extinguishing or reinforcing in you today?  Constantly be aware of social contagion and its possible influences, both negative and positive, on your behavior.


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