Max Gladwell

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Putting Our Herd Mentality to Good Use

May 27th, 2008 by Max Gladwell · 1 Comment

How social networks can positively influence your behavior without you even realizing it. And vice versa.

Our parents had a pretty good insight when they warned us about “getting in with the wrong crowd” and how that troublemaking kid down the block could be a bad influence. A recent study finds that behavior among social groups, as well as extended groups i.e. friends of friends of friends, is highly contagious. From “Social Networks’ Sway May Be Underestimated” in The Washington Post:

The pair reported last summer that obesity appeared to spread from one person to another through social networks, almost like a virus or a fad. In a follow-up to that provocative research, the team has produced similar findings about another major health issue: smoking. In a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, the team found that a person’s decision to kick the habit is strongly affected by whether other people in their social network quit — even people they do not know. And, surprisingly, entire networks of smokers appear to quit virtually simultaneously.

In other words, just as a Big Mac can clog the arteries of someone you’ve never met, the life you save by quitting smoking may turn out to be more than just your own.

Taken together, these studies and others are fueling a growing recognition that many behaviors are swayed by social networks in ways that have not been fully understood. And it may be possible, the researchers say, to harness the power of these networks for many purposes, such as encouraging safe sex, getting more people to exercise or even fighting crime.

“What all these studies do is force us to start to kind of rethink our mental model of how we behave,” said Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist. “Public policy in general treats people as if they are sort of atomized individuals and puts policies in place to try to get them to stop smoking, eat right, start exercising or make better decisions about retirement, et cetera. What we see in this research is that we are missing a lot of what is happening if we think only that way.”

The influence of a single person quitting nevertheless appeared to cascade through three degrees of separation, boosting the chance of quitting by nearly a third for people two degrees removed from one another.

No doubt, this study will get marketers all hot and bothered about the prospects of utilizing MySpace and Facebook to promote their goods through our social graphs. We’re feeling a tad warm ourselves. But these are obvious and, for the most part, well documented in books like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (no relation). We know that word of mouth and word of mouse are the primary channels for buying decisions. The bigger questions, as the article points out, are the potential social, health and environmental benefits. We all have a great potential to affect positive change just by doing it ourselves…by walking the walk. Others are certain to follow. (This assumes you have friends to influence and be influenced by. Loners need not apply.)

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Tags: Health · Social Networking