Editor’s note: Tara-Nicholle Nelson will lead a free webinar from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m PDT (1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT) on Thursday, Oct. 8: "Three Low-Cost Ways to Make More Money by Connecting with Women Real Estate Consumers." Women make or influence an estimated 91 percent of real estate decisions, and they think about, shop for and buy homes differently than men. Click here to register and find out more about real estate’s gender factor.
In my leisure-time reading lately, I’ve noticed that several concepts just seem to keep coming up over and over again. And they’re not just garden-variety topics, either. Social contagion theory, for example, is a growing area of study in social science that I read about in Psychology Today ("Is Depression Contagious?"), on Deepak Chopra’s blog, and in a couple of other places, all over the course of a couple of weeks.
The most in-depth article I read on the topic was a 10-screen New York Times article detailing the results of a new re-analysis of some of the data from the six-decade-long Framingham Heart Study, which resulted in the eureka-style epiphany that "good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses."
Similarly, bad health behaviors were found to run in groups, too. If you smoke, the people around you are more likely to smoke. If you become obese or drink too much, the people around you were found by the study’s authors to be about 50 percent more likely to do the same.
This "social contagion" was found to survive up to two degrees of separation: people who shared a common friend with the obese person (but didn’t actually know the obese individual themselves) were found to be 20 percent more likely to be obese, and, as Chopra so concisely summed it up, "a friend of a friend is 10 percent more likely." (Skeptics take note: There is also a field of social psychology that feels the causation runs in the opposite direction. Convergence theorists believe that, like my Mom said, "Birds of a feather flock together" — not that the birds’ feathers conform to each other because they are flocking together. But I digress.)
The New York Times article was titled, "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?"
Of course, when I read that, in my hypertext real estate and finance-fixated brain, the first window that popped open was, "Are Your Friends Making You Broke?" That is, does social contagion theory apply to personal finance behavior, too?
There’s no reason why it shouldn’t. The same invisible, but very real, social influences that cause a YouTube video of a deer coming in through the dog door to go viral and that allow Twitter to go from zero to infinity-million users in 10 minutes are certainly powerful enough to render the vernacular of foreclosure fears; the depressive emotionality felt by many upside-down homeowners; and even the perceived urgent need for loan modification infectious from person to person.
Perhaps, with this social contagion theory, we’ve struck upon a new explanation for the human inclination to try to keep up with the Joneses. Maybe this is why every one of my buyer clients, during a house hunt or just after closing, blossoms into a little referral center, as the client all of a sudden seems to have a number of friends and relatives who also need to buy. …CONTINUED
Or perhaps this is why, once you see one for-sale sign on a block, it seems almost inevitably to multiply into a few more signs — even when home values are down and the sensible thing to do would be to wait until the market is more favorable to sell.
I marveled at this during the early stages of the housing crisis I pray we’re now coming out of: How many homeowners who had no plans whatsoever to sell got all fired up to do so as soon as their neighbors or colleagues sold their homes, despite that the timing was all wrong, both for their personal lives and for the market?
More critically, I think social contagion theory might provide an explanation for the phenomenon I’ve spotted lately of keeping down with the Joneses. One Internet guru or another actually sent out an e-newsletter recently spouting the "fact" that one’s annual income can be approximated by averaging the incomes of the three people with whom you spend the most time. (I guess that means all those hours spent visiting your fixed-income granny are not doing your salary any favors.)
Whether or not that specific statistic is real, my anecdotal observations do suggest a strong "yes" to the question of whether the company you keep can keep you broke.
I’ve seen time and time again where homeowners who planned to stay in their homes forever — and who haven’t lost their jobs or any income but have lost value in their homes — hear that someone they know stopped making the mortgage payments and "stuck it to the bank" or got a fabulous loan modification, and end up trying to do the same, formerly unthinkable behavior (i.e., missing mortgage payments) and end up losing their home to foreclosure. And walkaways? Definitely contagious, in my humble opinion.
I’ve seen more than one case — in which one office worker, truly struggling with her debt, falls behind on her payments but has some success settling credit-card bills with her creditors — trickle over throughout the office so that, soon, every other person seems to be abstaining from making their payments or filing for bankruptcy to get out from under the debt they were handling just fine a few months earlier.
And what about the people you live with? Does the likelihood that an originally prosperous individual will experience a fall in fortunes go up if they live with someone who is financially irresponsible? So many of the reader inquiries I get are from people whose financial component of their relationship seems to be built on an "opposites attract" theory.
I get at least one e-mail a week from someone who had to put everything in their own name because their significant other had crappy credit or minimal income. Are they inevitably going to be dragged down? Are we even comfortable with the suggestion that upwardly mobile folks should choose their company by the balance of their bank accounts? If we’re not comfortable with it, does that discomfort make the contagious potential of "broke-ness" any less of a reality?
So, maybe being uncomfortable means we should throw caution to the wind and hang out with whomever we like, no matter how broke or flush they might be. But here’s another possibility: Perhaps, we should read this study as empowering us to be the spark — the germ — that spreads an epidemic of positive, responsible financial behavior.
It wouldn’t cost anything. Our own finances would stand to benefit, and we might even avoid the contagious mortgage risk-taking and the resulting walkaways and foreclosures that have crunched the credit markets and brought global finance to its knees.
The headline then might be, "Is Prosperity Contagious?" It’s certainly an outbreak worth trying to start.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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