Behavioral Osmosis

Yawns and Ya'lls

There's a trick I like to play on my wife sometimes. I let out these big exaggerated yawns until she finally can't help but yawn herself. It's nearly impossible to resist yawning once you've seen it. This little prank of mine usually only takes a minute before I have her fighting them off with all of her might. The best part is that she seems to be suddenly unsure how she got so tired, or maybe she's just "feeling yawny," as she says. I have fun with it until she notices that I am setting her up, which at that point I am forced to stop it, or else.

With yawning, the behavior of one person gradually becomes unconsciously adopted by others within reach or sight. Similar to yawns in this way are accents, the more you hear them the closer you become to having one yourself.

I lived with a friend during college, Ethan, who was born and raised in Queens, New York, and I would be lying if I didn't admit to you that Ethan's Queens accent started coming out of my mouth sometime during Junior year. It was as if I myself was bo'n in Queens New Yo'k. I can still hear Ethan's voice as he often explained himself, saying things like "I mean listen," before making an argument or "you knowut I mean?" after one. I regurgitated these phrases out of my own mouth, not realizing that it was happening like osmosis.


Just like a Minnesota boy (me, Chris) talking as if he grew up in Queens, neither can anyone else resist the pull to use the word "ya'll," after spending significant time in the South (USA). These accents and phrases are contagious, ain't they?

Yawns and accents are simple examples of behavioral osmosis, the harmless kind. But more important is the accidental adoption of dangerous behaviors through osmosis. Negativity is the one I'm thinking of most, it's contagiousness and it's addictiveness. Hang around a complainer for even one day and you will realize the disgust and contempt you feel for the person's attitude, but also the sudden urge you will feel to do a bit of yourown complaining.

This is why who you surround yourself with makes all of the difference in how you act, talk, and think.

Your Circle

If it is true that we are "like the five people we spend the most time with," then what happens when one of these people shows poor attitude, speaks ill of others, or thinks the world is out to get her? Negativity acts more like reverse osmosis in this way, which removes the natural minerals from water. While reverse osmosis can be credited for creating clean drinking water, it also has negative effects, stripping out many of the beneficial minerals humans need to survive. Likewise, so too does negativity take our natural human state and strip it of its potential to thrive and grow.

Maybe you think that you aren't easily influenced by others, and maybe that is true. You might never say "ya'll" no matter how many years you spend in Texas and I wouldn't be able to get you yawning even if I kept you awake for three days. But I challenge you to look at yourself hard here before discrediting the existence of behavioral osmosis. Let me ask you: How do you speak, think, walk, and talk? What do you believe, feel, and dream about? What are your hobbies, passions, and skills? Now, dig deep, and answer: can you point to any of these aspects of yourself as a result of your age, demographic, ethnicity, culture, family, or beliefs? The answer will undoubtedly be "yes." And if you have bad friends–people who think, act, or speak negatively–then you are being influenced badly as well, whether you realize it yet or not, and this only gets more challenging as time goes on.

As we grow older, we become more set in our ways and less malleable. Most of us will keep the same friendships, visit the same places, and think about the same things. Have you ever seen a grown adult convinced to switch from Republican to Democratic party, or Democratic to Republican? Likely not. The same reasoning explains why grandpas dress like grandpas, not because they suddenly turned old one day and decided to hike their pants up; no, this style was (believe it or not) in vogue earlier in their lives, but as time changed, their style didn't. We all are, after all, the proverbial old dog who are probably able to learn new tricks but simply prefer not to. This is why too, as we age it becomes increasingly important to surround ourselves with others who will make us better. This is important for selfish reasons, yes, to improve ourselves, but it also allows us to be generous to others. Watch what happens next.

As we seek others who make us better, we become passionate about making others better too. For example, having a great mentor (I wrote about one of mine HERE) makes us want to find a mentee to help in the same way. A patient teacher gives us the desire to teach patiently. A friend who speaks truth when we need it most gives us passage to step-up and speak truth to others. When we experience the life-enhancement of having great people around us, we then seek to be a great person for others.

horse yoke pull teamworkIn this way, we are like the two horses who, separately, can pull a lot of weight, but combined, can pull much more. One horse can pull 700 pounds and another can pull 800 pounds, but when they are yoked together, they can pull over 3,000 pounds, twice their individual capabilities. The stronger horse helps the weaker horse exceed its potential while the weaker horse rises to the occasion and elevates the stronger horse.

The PayPal Mafia

Perhaps the best example of behavioral osmosis is the success story of the "PayPal Mafia," a term used to describe the founding employees of PayPal, the world's leading online payment engine. These founders, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and Chad Hurley to name a few, have, since their early days at PayPal, gone on to create some of the largest technology companies and have funded or advised many others. It might be safe to say that 50% or more of today's billion-plus-dollar technology startups have succeeded by the hands of these five people, directly or indirectly.

From Musk comes Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, and the Boring Company. From Hoffman, the creation of LinkedIn and major venture capital backing for Airbnb, Uber, and others. Thiel started Palantir, a data analytics company that helps locate terrorists, and he was the first major investor in Facebook. Levchin co-founded Yelp and kept Yahoo! alive. Chad Hurley co-founded YouTube. The list goes on, the ripples of innovation and success continue to create opportunity and convenience for the world.

I often wonder if these five founders were actually that special or smart. I ask others, "Were they each, as individuals, destined for greatness and just-happened to be in the same place at the same time?" I argue that this is highly unlikely and that, instead, these five business moguls probably fed off of each other, made each other better, elevated their potential. Their togetherness helped them to overcome challenges and embrace experiences that promoted greatness within them. Their positive attributes came alive in their behaviors and osmosis took its course.

So I ask now: who are the people that you spend the most time with, or those who you look up to? (Side note: if you want to "surround yourself with great people" but don't know any, you can easily do this through books, podcasts, interviews, etc. In today's internet age, you have access to the brightest minds in whatever field you are interested in excelling in).

Now, another question for you: who are you rubbing off on? Who is yawning because you yawn, or saying "ya'll" because you do? Are you flooding others with positivity or are you dragging them down? Are you gossiping, complaining, or frowning, or are you lifting up, encouraging, and speaking truth when truth needs speaking?

Furthermore, are you working your hardest at whatever it is you do? Are you fulfilling your potential and helping others around you do the same? What will your "mafia" look like in ten or twenty years? Maybe it won't be full of billionaire tech entrepreneurs, but will it at least be better off because you were there?

These are questions worth asking. Behavioral osmosis is real and empowering, even if you might have yawned a few times while reading this post. See ya'll next time.


If you liked this post, you might also like these other posts of mine:

Oh, and here's a picture of Ethan (right) and me, Chris (left). Ethan is just one of the many people in my "mafia" that helps make me a better person.




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