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The way the people around us respond to stressful events — whether those people react negatively or positively — may be contagious when we are in the midst of a major life transition, a new study says.
What's more, the increased risk of depression that comes with negative thinking also seems to rub off during these times, the study found.
For the study, researchers looked at 103 pairs of college-freshmen roommates' "cognitive vulnerability," which is the tendency to think that negative events are a reflection of a person's own deficiency or that they will lead to more negative events. Those with high cognitive vulnerability are at an increased risk of depression, studies have found.
"We found that participants' level of cognitive vulnerability was significantly influenced by their roommates’ level of cognitive vulnerability, and vice versa," the researchers wrote. All roommates in the study were selected randomly; students did not choose their roommates. Only three months of living together was needed for this contagiousness to be seen.
The researchers also found that those who experienced an increase in cognitive vulnerability during the first three months of college had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at six months, compared with those who did not experience an increase in cognitive vulnerability, according to the study. The effect was particularly strong when participants were under high-stress conditions.
Prior to this study, it was thought that cognitive vulnerability didn't change much once a person passed early adolescence. However, the new findings suggest that during big transitions in life — when a person is continually exposed to a new social situation — cognitive vulnerability can be altered, the researchers said.
They noted that genetic, biological and environmental factors all likely play a role in a person's level of cognitive vulnerability.
Further research is needed to determine whether cognitive vulnerability may change over time, the researchers said, noting that college freshmen are in a unique social environment.
"Our findings are consistent with a growing number of studies that have found that many psychological and biological factors previously thought to be set in stone by adulthood continue to be malleable," the researchers said.
The study was published online April 16 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Pass it on: Negative thoughts can be contagious, especially when we’re going through a big life change.