The Power of Social Influence

We’re all contagious! 

Did you know that?  Whether we are medically sick or not, every one of us is constantly emitting contagions that affect the people around us.  And we are constantly catching contagions from people near us, contagions to which we are not immune, though we sometimes think we are immune.  Let me give you some examples.

The summer after I graduated high school, my grandfather took my brother, dad, and I on a week-long fishing trip up in northern Saskatchewan.  And I couldn’t believe it, within a couple days I was saying things like, “Nice day, eh?” and “soary” instead of “sorry”.

Have you ever noticed how yawning is contagious?  If you see someone yawn, studies have proven, it is much more likely that within the next minute you’re going yawn too.

Laughing is also contagious, and smiling and frowning, even shivering.  If you see someone who’s obviously cold, it triggers in your mind feelings of being cold and you might shiver too.

It’s said that if you have a close friend who is obese you are 3 times more likely to become obese yourself.  One reason is because when you spend time with a person who has bad eating habits and you watch them eat, it triggers in your brain feelings as if you were eating that way and it causes you to desire to eat like that even more.  And also having an obese friend causes you to adjust your concept of an acceptable size, and so it becomes more acceptable to you to put on a few more pounds.  Also, we like our friends to like us, and if we exhibit self-control in our eating and exercise around them, it makes them feel bad and they may not like us, and so we, maybe unconsciously, feel pressure to be like them so that it won’t hurt our relationship.

Ever notice how hanging out with a positive, upbeat person can lift your mood and how spending time with a “downer” can drain you of joy and energy?  We tend to absorb the feelings and emotions of those around us.  I read an article this week, written by a doctor.  He said he was taught that one way to recognize if a patient is depressed is by examining your own mood once you’ve finished interacting with them.  If you feel kind of depressed yourself after you interact with them, it’s a good chance they are depressed.

Have you ever brainstormed with somebody who was really creative and found yourself becoming more creative?  Creativity is contagious.

I think of my childhood and adolescent years and it appears stupidity is contagious too.  Why did I throw pencils toward the classroom ceiling and get them stuck?  It’s what other kids did.  What possessed me to stand in an open field with my bow and arrow and shoot arrows straight up in the air and then try not to get hit by them?  Well, my friend did it.

And I suspect you’ve experienced occasions like I have, where you’ve spent time with a godly person, maybe a few hours, a day, and you go away elevated, encouraged, and with a greater desire to honor God and to be holy and to be a servant in your life.  But no doubt, you’ve also had the opposite experience, one of being with a worldly person who has no taste for the things of God and you have felt kind of drained of your enthusiasm for the work and worship of God.

Emotions, attitudes, mannerisms, language, ideas, perspectives, values, behaviors, habits are all contagious.  Whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are influenced by the people that we spend time with.  And we are, largely, reflections of the people that we have been surrounded by in our lives.  We are all somewhat like chameleons.  We change colors depending on our background.

It’s occurred to me that this is a principle God wanted to impress upon our hearts as well.  Let’s look at several scriptures that show this…

Scriptures that teach about the power of social influence

Well, let’s start with Deuteronomy 7:2-5, “and when the Lord your God delivers them [the inhabitants of Canaan] before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them.  You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.  3 Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons.  4 For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.  5 But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire”.  He told them, “Eradicate every bit of pagan influence in the land”.

Deuteronomy 20:16, “Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.  17 “But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God”.  But if you know the story of the book of Judges you know they failed to do as God told them.  They did not totally remove these evil nations.  And sure enough they learned their ways and became just like them.

Psalm 119:115, “Depart from me, evildoers, That I may observe the commandments of my God”.  In the company of bad people it is difficult to be good and easy to be bad.  In the company of good people it is difficult to be bad and easy to be good.  If you want to be good, hang around good people.  If you want to be bad, hang around bad people.  It’s like, as we’ve talked about before, if you want to eat big sticky buns at work every morning then you know who to hang out with at work, the sticky bun crowd.  You don’t want to hang around those juicer people, those health nut people, because you can’t comfortably eat a sticky bun around them.  But if you want to juice and eat super healthy, then you don’t want to hang around the sticky bun brigade because they’re going make you feel weird for juicing.  You want to hang around the juicers.  In the company of bad people it is easy to be bad.  In the company of good people it is easy to be good.

Let’s look at some proverbs.  Proverbs 13:20, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm”.  Some more modern proverbs that are very similar are, “Show me who your friends are and I will show you who you are becoming” and “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”.

Proverbs 22:24-25, “Do not associate with a man given to anger; Or go with a hot-tempered man, 25 Or you will learn his ways And find a snare for yourself”.  Hang around short tempered, angry people and likely you’ll become an angry person.  But if you want to be patient, slow to anger, as God is with you, hang out with slow to anger, patient people.

Let’s turn back in the Bible to I Kings 11.  Here’s a puzzling paragraph.  I Kings 11:1, “Now King Solomon [whose father David had such a great influence on, Solomon was a man of great faith and devotion to God, wisest man in the world and who wrote most of the Proverbs] loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the sons of Israel, “You shall not associate with them, nor shall they associate with you, for they will surely turn your heart away after their gods…  [But maybe Solomon thought he was an exception.  As the wisest man in the world, surely God’s warnings about the corrupting influence the pagans would have on him if he befriended them and intermarried with them didn’t apply to him.  Surely those warnings are just for naive gullible immature sort of people.  And maybe Solomon saw this as a good thing for the nation.  By marrying these princesses of other nations, perhaps he thought it would secure peace or alliances.  Surely some of us are so spiritually grounded and stable that what we’re talking about doesn’t apply to us, right?  Well…] …Solomon held fast to these in love.  3 He had seven hundred wives, princesses [Sure makes you question his wisdom. How could you be wise and bring upon yourself 700 mother-in-laws? I don’t know.] and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away.  4 For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.  5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians and after Milcom the detestable idol of the Ammonites.  6 Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not follow the Lord fully, as David his father had done.  7 Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable idol of Moab, on the mountain which is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestable idol of the sons of Ammon.  8 Thus also he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods”.  If Solomon (the wisest man in the world) was not immune to the contagions of other people, neither are you and I.  As I thought about how this could have happened, I realize Solomon probably did not acquire these 1000 women all at once.  I suspect it was a gradual process throughout his 40 years as king.  He gradually brought in these influences into his life.  And I think this evil that he became involved in was also a gradual development.  He began giving in to just a little compromise here and there.  Maybe at first, allowing a persuasive wife to go sacrifice to her god back in her homeland.  Then maybe, allowing her idol to be built closer to home so that she wouldn’t have to travel so far.  Then one day, giving in to her pressure and attending her church.  Then if he allows that for one wife, he has to allow it for the others.  And the evil gradually developed.

Have you heard how you boil a frog alive?  You don’t throw it into a pot of boiling water, because it’ll jump out.  You put the frog in room temperature water and then slowly gradually turn up the heat.  Since they’re cold blooded, they won’t really notice and they’ll stay there until they’re boiled alive.  At least, so I’ve heard (never tried it myself).  But I think that sort of thing happened to Solomon and can happen to us.  We begin to permit subtle, bad influences in our lives.  Maybe we just watch some movies that aren’t really wholesome.  Maybe just hang out, on occasion, with some not so godly people.  And maybe at first, we’re a little disgusted with what we see, but we soon get used to it, become comfortable with it.  We don’t realize it’s encroachment into our thinking, our morality, and our attitudes.  We allow ourselves to become closer with those friends, hang out with them more, allowing more of their influence into our lives.  We realize they’re uncomfortable if we talk about our faith and we want them to like us, so we tone it down.  We talk more about what they want to talk about, making our minds less spiritual and more worldly.  And it’s a gradual process until Satan has cooked us.

I Kings 21:25, “Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, [why was he so bad?] because Jezebel his wife incited him”.  He wouldn’t have been as bad of a guy had it not been for the influence of his wife.

I Kings 22:43, “He walked in all the way of Asa his father; he did not turn aside from it, doing right in the sight of the Lord.  However, the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and burnt incense on the high places”.  I Kings 22:51, “Ahaziah the son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel.  52 He did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.  53 So he served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger, according to all that his father had done”.  Those are a couple examples of the sort of statements that are all throughout the books of Kings.  Often summarizing a king’s reign, it will say, “So and so walked in the way of his father”.  Parental influence is especially powerful.  You’ll notice at the end of verse 52 that Jeroboam caused Israel to sin.  You know the more power you have the more powerful your influence, the more contagious you are.  King Jeroboam influenced his nation to commit great sin.  You can see why it’s important to vote into office the most moral people we can, because they can have a lot of influence on our nation to do more right or to do more evil.

2 Chronicles 21:6, “He [Jehoram] walked in the way of the kings of Israel, just as the house of Ahab did [Why did he do that?] (for Ahab’s daughter was his wife), and he did evil in the sight of the Lord”.  You see the influence of Jezebel carrying over into future generations.

2 Chronicles 22:2, “Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem.  And his mother’s name was Athaliah, the granddaughter of Omri.  3 He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab, [Why did he do that?] for his mother was his counselor to do wickedly.  4 He did evil in the sight of the Lord like the house of Ahab, for they were his counselors after the death of his father, to his destruction”.  Why was he the way that he was?  Because of his counselors.

2 Chronicles 24:1, “Joash was seven years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Zibiah from Beersheba.  2 Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest”.  Apparently Jehoiada the priest was a great influence on Joash.  The text goes on to describe the great work he did to restore the temple and the worship of God.  But then notice 24:17.  “But after the death of Jehoiada the officials of Judah came and bowed down to the king, and the king listened to them.  18 They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols; so wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this their guilt”.  Apparently it’s not just young people who are influenced by their companions.  We usually think of teenagers when we think of people who need to be careful about whom they hang out with and who they listen to.  But Joash was a mature man when he listened to these officials, and their negative influence undid all the years of Jehoiada’s positive influence on his life.  Who are your closest companions?  Who are your chief counselors?  Are they people who are irreverent toward God?  Are they people that engage in things that Christians should not?  We are warned over and over and over again in scripture that that’s a recipe for spiritual disaster.

Now let’s get a few NT passages.  I Corinthians 15:33, we’re probably familiar with, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’”  In other words, do not say to yourself, “I can have ungodly friends and it won’t affect me. I can watch raunchy movies and hang out at those places where sin thrives and it won’t affect me. I am immune to the influence contagions of other people”.  Have you heard the tale of the two wolves?  A grandfather was talking with his grandson and he said there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.  One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, courage, and love.  The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred, and cowardice.  The grandson thought about it for a second, then he looked up at his grandfather and said, “Grandfather, which one wins?”  The grandfather said, “The one you feed more”.  If you start to keep more of the wrong company, feeding the bad wolf more, the bad wolf is going to start winning.  Do not be deceived.  Bad company corrupts good morals.

Ephesians 4:16, “from whom [Christ] the whole body [which is the church], being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love”.  The verses tell us about how the church grows, not just numerically, but in this context, especially in spiritual maturity, in Christlikeness.  It happens when you are connected and interacting with other Christians like members of a body, and each are doing their part, those who can teach are teaching, and those who can give are giving, and those who can encourage are encouraging, and those who can whatever are doing it.  You’re influencing them and they’re influencing you.  You’re being influenced by the teaching and the inspiring examples and encouraging words.  That’s a primary means by which we grow, it’s through the influence of other members of the body of Christ.

How about some verses from II Timothy.  What made Timothy such a stand-out servant of God in the Bible?  Well, apparently it had a lot to do with the influences in his life.  II Timothy 1:5, “For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice.”.  3:15, “from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation.”.  So in childhood he had the godly influences of his mother and grandmother who taught him the Scriptures.  Then as he got older…  3:10, “Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance.”.  Paul took Timothy to his side and made him his companion.  So he had the influence of Paul as well.  That’s why he became the man he did.

Well, there many other passages we could look at about the power of people to influence each other.  We have the power of teachers to influence churches (Gal 5:7-9; Rom 16:17), the power wives can have to influence their husbands (I Pt 3:1-2), the power of parents to influence their children (Eph 6:4), the power of Christians to influence each other for good or bad, how we can be stumbling blocks to each other or spur one another on to love and good deeds (I Cor 8:9; II Cor 9:1-2; Heb 10:24-25).  But we probably get the point.  Whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are influenced by the people in our lives, and they are influenced by us as well.

Now, another related thing God wants us to know…

If the way we are and what we do is because we’ve been influenced by others, it neither excuses the sin, nor spoils the righteousness.

We saw in a number of passages that God holds people responsible for the way they live, even if they’ve been influenced by others to be that way.  God didn’t excuse Solomon or Ahab or any of the evil kings because they were under the influence of their fathers or mothers or wives or friends or whomever.  And those individuals who did right in God’s sight (because they were under the influence of good people), God did not neglect to bless and honor them.

There’s this reoccurring statement in the OT about this.  It says that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Him, but shows lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Him and keep His commandments (Ex 20:5-6; 34:7; Num 14:18; Deut 5:9-10; Jer 32:18).  I think that’s saying that God, on the one hand, will not excuse people for hating and disobeying Him simply because it’s the family tradition they were raised in.  Even though they’re just doing what they learned to do from their father and their grandfather and their great-grandfather, God will not excuse it.  On the other hand, if we influence our kids and our grandkids to love and obey God, who then influence their kids and grandkids to love and obey God and so on for 1000 generations, God is not going to look at those future generations and say “Well, they’re only good because it’s their family tradition.  It’s just the way they were raised to be.  It’s easier for them to obey, so I’m not going to bless them as much for their obedience”.  No.  If we raise our kids and grandkids to love and obey God, God will grant to them the same grace and mercy and forgiveness and eternal life and inheritance as He will give to us and to those before us who have influenced us.  I think that is awesome.  It compels me to be careful about what I say and do at home, it compels me to be an example, to pray with them often, to teach them about God and why we must walk in His ways, to discipline and train them to love and obey God, because if I do that, then the chances are much greater that they will love and obey God and be saved.

So let’s come to some…

Conclusion and Application

We all have people in our lives that will be in our lives whom we cannot avoid.  We cannot change who our parents are.  And if we’re married, God doesn’t permit us the option of just changing who our spouse is.  We may not have much choice about who our colleges are at work or who our neighbors are.  We may not be able to afford to quit our job or move.  We may not have a choice about who we sit by on the airplane or who we interact with at the checkout counter at the grocery store.  But we do choose who our closest friends are. We do choose who we seek out for companionship and counsel and for enjoyable leisure time. We do choose what we watch on TV and on our computers and phones and what we listen to and read. And if we’re not married, we can choose our spouse.  We do make a lot of choices about the influences we will be receiving and what kind of influences will be predominant in our life.  And those choices of the influence we will be receiving are really some of the most important decisions that we make in life. Those choices about who will be closest to us and who will be talking to us mostly, are choices about the kind of people that we will develop into and the destiny to which we are headed.  Let us choose our companions carefully.

Now, to clarify, this is not to say that we should not be a friend to tax collectors and sinners as Jesus was. We’re called to follow in His steps, to be salt and light in the world, to get to know people and serve them and show them that we love them, build a relationship with them.  But we are to also, like Christ, make it evident to them that the most important thing in the world to us is our relationship with God, and if they want to be really close with us, if we’re really going to be comfortable with each other, they’re going to have to come to repentance and give God His rightful place in their life.  Remember when Jesus was teaching a large crowd and some said, “Jesus, your mother and your brothers are standing outside wishing to see You” and He said, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it”.  In other words “These are the people that I’m closest with, it’s these people who obey God”.  You don’t have to say it in those exact words to people, but you can communicate it by saying things like, “Sorry friend, I can’t hangout this evening I’m going to a Bible study,” and “Friend, I can’t go there with you or do those things with you because I want to follow God’s ways in my life”.  And that will communicate the message, that while you care about them and you would give them the shirt off your back if they needed it and you’d like to be close to them, they’re going to have change their heart and life if they want to be “besties” with you.  And I think as we mature in Christ, as we become more like Christ, we can’t help but delight in who Christ delights in, to have the most affection for those whom Christ has the most affection.  Our closest friends, like Christ, should be those who hear the word of God and do it.

Another application we should make of this is, let’s use the power of our influence more often. Let’s recognize that we are contagious and infectious and if we’re determined to be like Christ, then the contagions we give off are good.  And so let’s be coughing and sneezing and wiping our contagions on people as much as possible (figuratively speaking of course). I mean if we’re going to be reflecting Christ, let’s not keep to ourselves and deprive people of our influence that they desperately need. Let’s get together with and interact with people more, especially with one another. Let’s intentionally pursue being closest friends with one another, if not for our own sake, then for their sake. But maybe you’re kind of like me. I have more of an introvert personality. I used to be more so. I’ve been changing over the years as I’ve made myself interact with people more. But still I kind of like to keep to myself. I don’t crave social interaction. But you know what? The less I interact with people and the less you interact with people, the less influence we have on people, the less help they have to stay on the narrow road that leads to eternal life. So the next time we’re faced with a decision like whether or not to attend a church get-together at the park, whether or not to hang around and talk with people a little after services, whether or not to invite someone to lunch with us, whether or not to attend a class, whether or not to attend a small group, whether or not to get together with people in something, I hope we will remember and factor into our decision that the more we interact with people the more we influence them, and social influence is powerful.

-James Williams



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