The Frontal Cortex

Social Determinism

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael F. Martin
    September 28, 2009

    The Judeo-Christian doctrine is considerably more complex. Consider:

    “And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+4:9&version=KJV

    And also Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew.

    http://waywords.wordpress.com/2008/10/05/the-kingdom-of-heaven-as-organism/

  2. #2 Arthur H.
    September 28, 2009

    Cool article. You didn’t really touch on the leaders vs followers though. There are people who have overweight friends and think, “oh well, why bother getting into shape?”. Then there are the leaders/independent thinkers who have overweight friends and say, “I really don’t want to deal with the health problems my friends have, I am going to get into shape”. I wonder if you could do some rough statistics and find out the ratio of leaders to followers in social circles.

    Oh and I though I would point out a small typo: “…whether or not someone was able to quite cigarettes…”

  3. #3 bob koepp
    September 28, 2009

    So, inquiring minds want to know; is a “sense of independence” a “romantic myth,” or is that getting it “exactly backwards?”

  4. #4 Nerissa Belcher
    September 29, 2009

    I went to a new to me doctor last year. He and his staff were jerks. Your
    take home message is I should have charmed them all. My take home
    message was I found a different doctor. My new doctor and his staff are great.

    For the most part we’re better off leaving dysfunctional social networks
    than we are trying to change them.

  5. #5 royniles
    September 29, 2009

    If it weren’t for the web of causation, we wouldn’t have been “free” enough to evolve the intelligence that allows us to conceive of and understand its nature. Give me a break from these vacuous free will precepts.

  6. #6 Balaji Sundaresan
    September 29, 2009

    Thanks for the fascinating analysis. People cannot eschew responsibility and try to hitch hike on shortcoming’s of others.
    Its obvious that we can start an epidemic and end it as well but the catch is we have to stop the self-justification loop.
    Your article reminds me of a recent interview with President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. It’s one of the greatest turn around story.
    Check this out:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/207403

    “In Rwanda, killers and the relatives of their victims live side by side, in every village in the country, and together are building their future.”

    Isn’t this the true power of social network?

  7. #7 BrandonH
    September 29, 2009

    I like to look at this from a thermodynamic perspective: diffusion and convection are analagous to the dispersion of habits and attitudes, while Newton’s laws of motion explain the difficulty in breaking habits.

  8. #8 Ron C
    September 29, 2009

    I think we may be getting way too out in front of what this particular study implies. That social networks influence us is apparent from this and other work. But what happens when individuals within a network change their behavior but the network doesn’t. My guess is that most of us have witnessed an individual, even prominent individual, in a social group changing a behavior like losing weight, stop smoking, or some other prominent visible change and have little effect or no effect on the group. And if a person does impact weight loss in a group say, how does this dovetail with the data that most weight loss is slowly regained by most (but not all) individuals. And if the prominent individual loses weight and others either don’t or lose weight and then regain it, there’s some data that suggests the prominent individual’s status will change to help the group deal – like the prominent person either gains more stature or the group rejects or distances themselves from the individual. I’m cautious about not going too far yet with one study.

  9. #9 Eric Hester, England
    September 29, 2009

    The story of the hat is a good one. King Louis XIV of France, Le Roi Soleil, took off his hat for every woman, even if she were a simple housemaid. But he did not remove it for a man unless he were a member of the clergy or a royal family.
    I read this blog avidly in England at tea time every day.

  10. #10 Elizabeth
    September 30, 2009

    Perhaps some parents already know this; hence, their concern for the friends their children make,

  11. #11 Paul Emmons
    October 2, 2009

    Thank you for some wonderful thoughts. Just a minor correction: individualism is a trait characteristic of western Christianity, and the Eastern Orthodox decry it by way of contrast. A rather famous book by Bishop John Zizioulas, “Being as Communion” dwells on the isolation and meaninglessness that results from considering a human being apart from his or her relationships with others. Drawing on modern psychological sources as well as ancient theological ones, he finds this western habit at odds with a religion that professes belief in a trinity of persons united by love.

  12. #12 Becca
    October 16, 2009

    Re: the judeo-christian tradition

    Let’s not forget that on Yom Kippur we pray: Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu . . . (we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, . . .), repenting not just for our own sins but for those of anyone in our community.

    Perhaps the rabbis were onto something with that one.

  13. #13 Kevin Vogelsang
    November 6, 2009

    While I don’t deny that our social networks influence us heavily, I think this post writes off the undeniable force of “like attracting like.” We see ourselves in our friends (perhaps better said, we become friends with people who value similar things).
    Admittedly, I actually skimmed the Framingham study a few years ago, but I can’t remember if this concern was addressed.

    Another point: humans often take a relative viewpoint. This is indirectly related. We can imagine human characteristics exist on a spectrum (athleticism, intelligence, etc.) However, these characteristics can be honed or become atrophied. People size themselves up to each other and respond. You put a group of really good athletes together, they’ll push themselves. If you were to add a lesser athlete to the mix, they’ll float to the mean (or give up and find another group.)

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