How we affect others, and others affect us:

In my essay on social networks and research of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, I describe a few of the striking medical effects produced by social networks:

By studying Framingham as an interconnected network rather than a mass of individuals, Christakis and Fowler made a remarkable discovery: Obesity spread like a virus. Weight gain had a stunning infection rate. If one person became obese, the likelihood that his friend would follow suit increased by 171 percent. (This means that the network is far more predictive of obesity than the presence of genes associated with the condition.)

A similar pattern appears when the researchers looked at the spread of smoking, loneliness and happiness. In each instance, the social network appeared to be a major causal factor, determining whether or not someone was able to quite cigarettes or experience lasting happiness. The reality, then, appears straightforward: our friends strongly shape our behavior. We imagine ourselves as individuals, responsible for our own choices and emotions, but that sense of independence is a romantic myth. There is no wall between people.

At first glance, there is something very troubling about this data. It seems to undermine a central pillar of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which each of us is responsible for our own sins and blessings and behavior. (The criminal justice system, after all, doesn’t judge the group or sentence the collective – it puts the individual on trial.) Given the power of social networks, shouldn’t we just give up on all the self-improvement? After all, why diet when we still have overweight friends? Why try to quit smoking when our colleagues still light up? Why try to make ourselves happier when we’re married to an unhappy person? Sometimes, it can seem like a slippery slope from social networks to nihilism.

But I think that attitude get’s the real import of this research exactly backwards. Sure, our social network is important (although not so important that our will is irrelevant). What we all too easily forget, however, is that we’re also part of a social network, which means that if we lose weight then it’s easier for our neighbors to lose weight, and that if we quit smoking than everyone we know is also more likely to quit smoking. Being socially connected, in other words, makes us more responsible for our actions, not less. Here’s how James Fowler put it during our interview:

Everyone always tells me that this research is so depressing and that it means we don’t have free will. But I think they’re forgetting to look at the flipside. Because of social networks, your actions aren’t just having an impact on what you do, or on what your friends do, but on thousands of other people too. So if I go home and I make an effort to be in a good mood, I’m not just making my wife happy, or my children happy. I’m also making the friends of my children happy. My choices have a ripple effect.

That reminds me of the wonderful story told by Desmund Tutu:

The biggest defining moment in my life was when I saw Trevor Huddleston (the former president of the anti-apartheid movement), and I was maybe nine or so. My mother at this time was working as a cook in a school for blind, black blind people. And she was cooking for the women in this institution, and I was standing with my mother on the veranda when a white man went past wearing a long black cassock – he was a priest – and as he strut past, he did something that I found striking. He doffed his hat to my mother. And I, I was just surprised that a white man should do that to a woman, black woman, who was a simple domestic worker.

Because we’re social animals, trapped in a dense web of relationships, even a mere tip of the hat can change a life.

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