How Your Friends Affect You, Now With Math

The New York Times Magazine and Wired both have major articles this week on recent empirical work in social networks, including significant research on how things like obesity, smoking, and even happiness spread between among groups of people. The Wired piece has better pictures


while the NYT piece is more thorough and thoughtful, and covers both the potential and the pitfalls of this kind of analysis.

For decades, sociologists and philosophers have suspected that behaviors can be “contagious.” … Yet the truth is, scientists have never successfully demonstrated that this is really how the world works. None of the case studies directly observed the contagion process in action. They were reverse-engineered later, with sociologists or marketers conducting interviews to try to reconstruct who told whom about what — which meant that people were potentially misrecalling how they were influenced or whom they influenced. And these studies focused on small groups of people, a few dozen or a few hundred at most, which meant they didn’t necessarily indicate much about how a contagious notion spread — if indeed it did — among the broad public. Were superconnectors truly important? How many times did someone need to be exposed to a trend or behavior before they “caught” it? Certainly, scientists knew that a person could influence an immediate peer — but could that influence spread further? Despite our pop-cultural faith in social contagion, no one really knew how it worked.

One thought on “How Your Friends Affect You, Now With Math”

  1. Hey –
    Interesting little article… especially since right now I’m writing about just this for a class. I’m reading the Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris, and she talks at length about how it is really one’s peer group that shapes the personality of a person, with long lasting effects that can be greater than parenting. Its an interesting book, and although I have my issues with the way the text was written, it is an easy read for those who don’t have a background in neuroscience. (For example, I like direct references from the text to the paper, rather than a long list of references at the end of the book. I also didn’t really like the way the book was organized, and there was a lot of grammar issues that irked the dork in me.) Another interesting book is The Developing Mind, and it is all about how relationships and friendships shape our personalities and the people we become. That book is by Siegel, and I enjoyed it as well. I’ll have to piece together these books along with a handful of articles studying behavioral genetics and such to write a more unified paper, but I’ll let you know when that happens :-) because you might like to read it.

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