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See Inside May / June 2011

We're in This Together: When Anxiety Becomes Contagious

In a crowd, everyone feels equally anxious

Anxiety, it seems, varies widely from one person to the next. What leaves you in a knot of angst may not even faze your friend. But two new studies show that during a crisis, anxiety seems to be contagious; you and your friends will probably ultimately arrive at the same anxiety level.

David Eilam of Tel Aviv University measured how groups of voles—a small, social rodent—responded to threats produced by barn owls, their main predator. Like humans, a few voles are very anxious, a few are not at all, and most are in the middle. When barn owls flew over the cages of individual voles, each of the animals’ nervousness increased by about the same amount, as measured by standard behavioral tests. The frightened animals continued to display the wide range of anxiety levels they started with.

But when Eilam took groups of voles with different individual anxiety levels and exposed them to barn owls, they all ended up equally stressed out. “The variability that was there before diminished, and the entire group behaved almost the same,” Eilam says.

He believes that behavioral norms might be beneficial for social animals during a crisis. This convergence to similar behaviors may help explain why humans turn to religion and other rituals after a major catastrophe. These ceremonies, Eilam says, may keep the most anxious humans from going over the edge.

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