Awareness Wednesday: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks

Your colleague’s husband’s sister can make you fat, even if you don’t know her. Sound outrageous? According to the authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, there may be some truth to this statement! Renowned scientists Christakis and Fowler explain in their book how your friends’ friends’ friends can affect everything you feel, think, and do… and how much you weigh.

In the following video, Harvard professor and health care policy specialist Nicholas Christakis provides compelling evidence for our profound influence on one another’s tastes, health, wealth, happiness, beliefs, even weight, as he explain how social networks form and how they operate.

Though the entire video is worth watching, minutes 2:00 through 8:00 directly speak about the “obesity epidemic”.

We have also included excerpts of the video transcript for those of you who are unable to or do not have the time to watch the video…

“Suddenly it had become trendy to speak about the “obesity epidemic.” And, along with my collaborator, James Fowler, we began to wonder whether obesity really was epidemic, and could it spread from person to person [and we did some studies on] 2,200 people in the year 2000… If your friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 45 percent higher… If your friend’s friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 25 percent higher… If your friend’s friend’s friend, someone you probably don’t even know, is obese, your risk of obesity is 10 percent higher. And it’s only when you get to your friend’s friend’s friend’s friends, that there’s no longer a relationship between that person’s body size and your own body size.

Well, what might be causing this clustering [of people of similar body sizes]? There are at least three possibilities. One possibility is that, as I gain weight, it causes you to gain weight, a kind of induction, a kind of spread from person to person. Another possibility, very obvious, is homophily, or “birds of a feather flock together.” Here, I form my tie to you because you and I share a similar body size. And the last possibility is what is known as confounding, because it confounds our ability to figure out what’s going on. And here, the idea is not that my weight gain is causing your weight gain, nor that I preferentially form a tie with you because you and I share the same body size, but rather that we share a common exposure to something, like a health club, that makes us both lose weight at the same time

And when we studied these data, we found evidence for all of these things, including for induction. And we found that, if your friend becomes obese, it increases your risk of obesity by about 57 percent in the same given time period. There can be many mechanisms for this effect. One possibility is that your friends say to you something like — you know, they adopt a behavior that spreads to you — like, they say, “Let’s go have muffins and beer,” which is a terrible combination. But you adopt that combination, and then you start gaining weight like them. Another more subtle possibility is that they start gaining weight, and it changes your ideas of what an acceptable body size is. Here, what’s spreading from person to person is not a behavior, but rather a norm. An idea is spreading.

Now, headline writers had a field day with our studies. I think the headline in the New York Times was, “Are you packing it on? Blame your fat friends.” What was interesting to us is that the European headline writers had a different take: They said, “Are your friends gaining weight? Perhaps you are to blame.” And we thought this was a very interesting comment on America — and kind of self-serving, “not-my-responsibility” kind of phenomenon.

Now, I want to be very clear: we do not think our work should or could justify prejudice against people of one or another body size at all. Now, our next questions was: Could we actually visualize this spread? Was weight gain in one person actually spreading to weight gain in another person? And this was complicated because we needed to take into account the fact that the network structure, the architecture of the ties, was changing across time. In addition, because obesity is not a unicentric epidemic, there’s not a “patient zero” of the obesity epidemic — if we find that guy, there was a spread of obesity out from him. It’s a multicentric epidemic. Lots of people are doing things at the same time.

[We did a study of the past thirty years and mapping peoples’ social connections and body sizes. We saw that over time, peoples’ body sizes will grow], … people [will] be born and die; … Ties will form and break. Marriages and divorces, friendings and defriendings. A lot of complexity, a lot is happening just in this thirty year period that includes the obesity epidemic. And, by the end, you’re going to see clusters of obese and non-obese individuals within the network. Now, when looked at this, it changed the way I see things, because this thing, this [social] network, is changing across time, it has a memory, it moves, things flow within it, it has a kind of consistency. People can die, but it doesn’t die; it still persists. And it has a kind of resilience that allows it to persist across time. And so, I came to see these kinds of social networks as living things, as living things that we could put under a kind of microscope to study and analyze and understand…

Now, what is the point of this? How does this help us understand [the world]? How does this help us figure out some of the problems that are effecting us these days? Well, the argument I’d like to make is that networks have value. They are a kind of social capital. New properties emerge because of our embeddedness in social networks, and these properties inhere in the structure of the networks, not just in the individuals within them. So think about these two common objects [pencil lead/graphite and a diamond]. They’re both made of carbon, and yet one of them has carbon atoms in it that are arranged in one particular way, on the left, and you get graphite, which is soft and dark. But if you take the same carbon atoms and interconnect them a different way, you get diamond, which is clear and hard. And those properties of softness and hardness and darkness and clearness do not reside in the carbon atoms. They reside in the interconnections between the carbon atoms, or at least arise because of the interconnections between the carbon atoms. So, similarly, the pattern of connections among people confers upon the groups of people different properties. It is the ties between people that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And so it is not just what’s happening to these people — whether they’re losing weight or gaining weight, or becoming rich or becoming poor, or becoming happy or not becoming happy — that affects us; it’s also the actual architecture of the ties around us.

Our experience of the world depends on the actual structure of the networks in which we’re residing and on all the kinds of things that ripple and flow through the network. Now, the reason, I think, that this is the case is that human beings assemble themselves and form a kind of superorganism. Now, a superorganism is a collection of individuals which show or evince behaviors or phenomena that are not reducible to the study of individuals and that must be understood by reference to, and by studying, the collective, like, for example, a hive of bees that’s finding a new nesting site, or a flock of birds that’s evading a predator, or a flock of birds that’s able to pool its wisdom and navigate and find a tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific, or a pack of wolves that’s able to bring down larger prey. Superorganisms have properties that cannot be understood just by studying the individuals. I think understanding social networks and how they form and operate, can help us understand not just health and emotions but all kinds of other phenomena — like crime, and warfare, and economic phenomena like bank runs and market crashes and the adoption of innovation and the spread of product adoption.”

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