How Ideas Become Contagious Online

Hivemind author Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that humans swarm in sync and change course en masse

Hope Reese
OneZero
Published in
6 min readSep 3, 2019

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Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Rose Cavanagh

SSarah Rose Cavanagh doesn’t see the impact of social media as all good or all bad — instead, the psychologist calls herself a “techno-pragmatist.” In her new book Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World, Cavanagh looks at the way humans behave as a “hive” — specifically, how we influence each other to reach common goals. She draws from psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, all in an effort to understand how our hive operates in real and virtual worlds.

Cavanagh argues that, like bees, humans swarm in sync and change course en masse. She points to the legalization of marijuana, or support for gay marriage, as examples of those tipping points. Public support was “slowly building, but then seemed to, all of a sudden, flip,” she tells OneZero. “It’s about having enough of the hive take a stance.” In Hivemind, Cavanagh explores how public sentiment shifts, and eventually transforms into action.

Cavanagh currently works as an emotion regulation researcher at Assumption College in central Massachusetts, where she explores how managing emotions in the classroom affects student performance. OneZero caught up with her to discuss the internet’s role in intensifying in-groups, how to challenge thinking in the tribe, and the way our social worlds influence our view of reality, among other subjects.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneZero: How do humans operate within the hive? How much autonomy do we actually have?

Sarah Rose Cavanagh: The extent to which we are both an individual and a collective species is fascinating — you can see it most easily in strong groups like cults, or sports teams, where people bond and share emotions and goals. Not only do we share our emotions, but on a basic level of mannerisms, facial expressions, and gait, we line up — especially when we have experiences where the emphasis is less on the individual. So dancing together, chanting together at sports events — you feel collective fury. It’s something psychologists call “collective effervescence.”

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Hope Reese
OneZero

Writer (currently) in Budapest, bylines @NYTimes, @TheAtlantic, @Undarkmag, @VICE, @voxdotcom & more; follow on Twitter @hope_reese; hopereese.com