We’ve all experienced that moment where someone next to you, whether at school or in the office, starts to show the first symptoms of a cold. You know that by the week’s end, you—and probably everyone around you—will be sick. The theory of social contagion is the same, except that instead of spreading viruses, you’re spreading behaviors.

Students at a high school in Endwell, New York, wanted to see if social contagion could apply to students’ GPAs. Through a program called NetSci High, systems scientist Hiroko Sayama and his research lab at SUNY Binghamton were paired up with students to help them complete the study.

The study had students make a list of everyone in their class and then group them by who they considered to be best friends, friends, acquaintances, relatives, or unknown to the student. Researchers then linked the social circles with data such as GPA, attendance and disciplinary actions during the school year.

Researchers found that students whose friends’ average GPA was higher than their own at the start of the study were more likely to improve their GPA, moving up around 10–15 spots in the class ranking.  Students with a higher GPA than their friends were more likely to drop their grades. Those at the top of the class made no change, and those that students named as best friends seemed to have made little impact on grades. Researchers hypothesized that those friendships were probably formed by factors such as similar personalities, and the students and their best friends may have had similar grades to begin with.

This is only the first step in exploring social contagion theory. There are many subtle and complicated facets that make up friendship, and researchers would have to use more sophisticated techniques to pinpoint the direct cause behind rising grades. Peers may influence subconscious behaviors like study habits, but students could also seek out friendships with those they admire, or they could feel pressured to boost their grades if their friends are getting better scores.  Researchers also point out that friendships form and drop all throughout the school year, and a study looking at those finer details would be beneficial as well.

That study may not be that far off, though; all four of the student authors have graduated high school and gone on to college to pursue careers in science.

Further Reading
“Good Friends, Good Grades: GPA Can Be Contagious,” Albany Democrat-Herald, February 17, 2013.
“Study Asks: Can High School Students ‘Catch’ Good Grades?” Education Week, February 13, 2013.
“Do Good Grades Spread Like Measles?” LiveScience, February 13, 2013.