Monday, January 18, 2016

The Danger of Indifference

One of the themes in this blog over the years is goal contagion, which is the idea that we often adopt the goals of the people around us.  See someone helping others, and you suddenly want to be helpful.  See someone being aggressive, and it makes you more likely to engage aggressively with others.

What about apathy?

If you see people being indifferent about a task, is that contagious as well?

That question was explored in a paper in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Pontus Leander, James Shah, and Stacey Sanders.  

They suggested that when people are wavering in their commitment to a goal, then being exposed to apathy decreases people’s motivation to pursue a task.

In one study, participants performed twelve GRE analogy problems.   Prior to solving these problems, participants did a task in which they responded to words presented in the center of the screen.  Prior to seeing the words, pictures were flashed quickly on the screen.  These pictures either showed students looking bored or students looking engaged.  A control group saw no pictures.  The pictures were flashed quickly enough that they could be perceived subliminally.  After solving the GRE problems, participants were asked for their undergraduate grade-point average, which is a broad measure of their commitment to academic work.

Participants with a high GPA were relatively unaffected by the prime.  Those with a low GPA solved fewer analogy problems when they were primed by apathetic students than when they were primed by energetic students or received no priming at all.  

This result suggests that exposure to apathy can decrease the motivation for people who are already unsure of their commitment to a goal.  Another study used primes for apathy and primes for anger.  Only primes for apathy led people to perform more poorly on a later test.  This finding suggests that apathy is not just creating negative emotion that influences performance.

Another study used a more sensitive measure of commitment to academic achievement.  Once again, participants were exposed to images of people being either apathetic or not.  For half the participants, the images showed academic situations, and for half the participants, the images were of nonacademic situations.  All participants then solved anagrams, which they were told were a measure of verbal fluency.  For example, they might see the letter ECTAR and would have to form the word CRATE.  

An interesting pattern of results was obtained.  The prime that was not in an academic context had very little influence on people’s behavior.  

The pictures in an academic context had an interesting influence on people’s behavior.  Participants who were not strongly committed to academic achievement spent less time on the anagrams and solved fewer anagrams when they saw pictures priming apathy than when they saw pictures unrelated to apathy.  Participants who were strongly committed to academic achievement actually spent more time on the anagrams and solved more of them when they saw pictures related to apathy than when they saw pictures unrelated to apathy.

This pattern suggests two conclusions.  First, the influence of apathy is situation specific.  Second, the influence of seeing apathy depends on a person’s commitment to the goal.  People who are not committed to the goal interpret apathy as a signal that they should also give up.  People who are strongly committed to the goal actually get even more committed by seeing apathy.

The researchers ran several other studies to rule out other interpretations of the study.  For example, one study demonstrated that just thinking about the goal does not lead to these effects.  The influence of apathy requires that people have either a low or high commitment to the goal.

What does all of this mean?

We interpret the actions of the people around us.  When we see people acting indifferently to a task, we know that they are expressing a lack of interest in that task.  That lack of interest is then related to people’s existing commitment to a goal.  When people are wavering in their commitment to a goal, then seeing others who are apathetic nudges them in the direction of giving up.  When people are highly committed to the goal, then seeing others who are apathetic actually increases their commitment to the goal.


  1. The students who are competitive are sizing up the competition and thinking this is an easy win.

    Ask Josephs, he'll know what I'm talking about.

    Liz W

  2. As dangerous as the prejudged?

  3. Another interesting thing about the GRE. Most colleges don't care! When I called one of my prosepective graduate schools they said that the GRE is usually the last thing they look at when deciding whether or not to accept you

    GRE Problem Solving