The Social Contagion of Antisocial Behavior

Milena Tsvetkova, Michael W. Macy

Sociological Science, February 4, 2015
DOI 10.15195/v2.a4


Previous research has shown that reciprocity can be contagious when there is no option to repay the benefactor and the recipient instead channels repayment toward strangers. In this study, we test whether retaliation can also be contagious. Extending previous work on “paying it forward,” we tested two mechanisms for the social contagion of antisocial behavior: generalized reciprocity (a victim of antisocial behavior is more likely to pay it forward) and third-party influence (an observer of antisocial behavior is more likely to emulate it). We used an online experiment with randomized trials to test the two hypothesized mechanisms and their interaction by manipulating the extent to which participants experienced and observed antisocial behavior. We found that people are more likely to harm others if they have been harmed and they are less likely to do so if they observe that others do not harm.
Milena Tsvetkova: Department of Sociology, Cornell University  E-mail:

Michael W. Macy: Department of Sociology and Department of Information Science, Cornell University  Email:

  • Citation: Tsvetkova, Milena, and Michael W. Macy. 2015. “The Social Contagion of Antisocial Behavior.” Sociological Science 2:36-49
  • Received: November 24, 2014
  • Accepted: January 5, 2015
  • Editors: Jesper Sørensen,  Gabriel Rossman
  • DOI: 10.15195/v2.a4

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