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Misery Loves Company: Is a Negative Attitude Contagious?

The emotional wellness of the people in your life has an impact on yours. This is according to a new study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, which found that the way the people around you respond to stressful events — whether those people react negatively or positively — may be contagious when a major life transition affects your wellbeing.

For their study, the researchers looked at 103 pairs of roommates in their first year of university, analysing their “cognitive vulnerability”. This is your tendency to think that negative events are a reflection of your own deficiency or that they will lead to more negative events. Previous research has show that a high cognitive vulnerability increases your risk of depression, which is another thing that was shown to rub off on others during this study.

According to the study authors, ‘We found that participants’ level of cognitive vulnerability was significantly influenced by their roommates’ level of cognitive vulnerability, and vice versa.’ None of the students involved in the study chose their roommate, but instead roommates were randomly assigned. The contagiousness that the researchers noted was seen after just three months of the pairings living together.

Another interesting finding of the study was that the participants who exhibited an increase in cognitive vulnerability during the first three months of college, compared with those who did not experience an increase in cognitive vulnerability, had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at six months. The researchers noted that, when participants were under high-stress conditions, this effect was particularly strong.

Up until now, wellness experts have believed that cognitive vulnerability doesn’t change much once you pass through early adolescence, and so this study sheds new light on this theory. The findings indicate that a big transition in life in which you are continually exposed to a new social situation – such as college – can alter your cognitive vulnerability can be altered. The researchers commented that it is likely that genetic, biological and environmental factors all likely play a role in your level of cognitive vulnerability.

The authors concluded by saying, ‘Our findings are consistent with a growing number of studies that have found that many psychological and biological factors previously thought to be set in stone by adulthood continue to be malleable.’ They added that college freshmen are in a unique social environment, and so further research is needed to determine whether cognitive vulnerability may change over time and in other situations.

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2013 by and tagged , , .
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