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Author: Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler

Publisher: Hachette

ISBN: Mick Yates

Summary:If our friend's friends are happy, then chances are we are, too. And, if they are obese ...


ISBN 978 0 316 03614 6

“What a colossal waste of money it is for social scientists to prove the obvious,” the authors themselves write. They conducted an attention-grabbing study two years ago for the New England Journal of Medicine.  Essentially the study showed that if your friends are obese, chances are you are, too. Obesity is contagious. Time magazine subsequently named Christakis, a professor of medicine, sociology and health care policy at Harvard, one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

But let's step back a bit. The authors start with a simple and helpful discussion of common network themes - including the famous "Six Degrees of Separation", in which we can all connect to everyone else on Earth in 6 steps. They go beyond this, and suggest that there is "Three Degrees of Influence". In other words we are influenced, as social beings, by the friends of our friend's friends. Why stop at three? Well, there is an intrinsic decay in the system, the network evolves and changes, and biology partly gets in the way. Later in the book the authors also note that research suggest that friends (who we self-choose) have more influnce than first-degree-of-seperation siblings, underlining the point.

I am fascinated by social network theory, but social networking books often use complex relationships and maths. By showing how health practices can spread among group members, the authors avoid technical jargon. And they also start to more fully explain why we are all so fascinated with twitter, Facebook and the like.

Their fundamental point is that our social nature defines us. Partners choose like. And in some startling examples (the 1962 "laughter epidemic" in Africa) they show the contagious nature of so much of our social fabric - not just of groups but of each of us individually. Sometimes we all smell gas leaks, for example, when nothing is there. MPI (or Mass Psychogenic Illness) is the technical expression.

Yet more prosaically, a smile goes a long way. its contagious. And interestingly the more happy friends you have, the more likely you are to be happy. Why? Well, the way your friend's friends behave influences you - if they are all miserable, chances are you are, too. Maybe not too surprising.

But perhaps this is. Getting a $10,000 raise is less likely to make you happy than having a happy friend  — in fact "the raise is less likely to make you happy than is having a friend who has a friend who has a friend who is happy". Wow ...

The authors also explore some of the well trodden themes of "the rich get richer". But, uniquely, they express their findings in the fundamentals of our social nature, rather than in more abstract network theory. And they make the playful case that, as 2/3rds of us find partners with the help of others, "arranged marriages" are arguably the social norm.

Christakis and Fowler are also very interested in why this all happens. earlier studies (Dunbar) suggest that we have evolved in mental capacity to handle a network of 150 people. And its is suggested that language evolved not least because it is a more efficient way to stay in touch with these 150 contacts than, for example, grooming each one free of nits...

So, even though we are individuals, we are part of a superorganism, a hivelike network.

A smoker may have as much control over quitting as a bird has to stop a flock from flying in a particular direction,” the authors write. They therefore argue that if we become aware of the networks in which we’re enmeshed, we’ll all be better off. If we can figure out how the "obesity meme" and "smoking meme' spread through networks of friends, maybe we can do a better public health job.

In researching the book, I found this summary in a recent review by Janet Christie at particulary apt:

"Better understanding of social care networks is vital to face threats such as turmoil in financial markets or health epidemics, and networks give us the power to co-operate on a huge scale. If we look after ourselves, others will do the same; if we care about the planet, so will others; and when we practise random acts of kindness, our peers will too. So go on, be nice to someone today. You never know where it might lead."

If you haven't already got this book, go get it now.