Social Networks and How They Affect Our Lives
A social network is a social structure comprised of individuals that are connected through a relationship, whether that be friendship, common interest, financial exchange, family, sexual relationship, religious belief or any other form of interdependent relationship. This review will be primarily focused on the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks, written by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, although there will be several additional resources used to strengthen the arguments presented.
The review will be structured in a statement-evidence format. In other words, I will present an idea from the book and support it with additional evidence from various resources. This method will provide a summary of the book while supporting the claims that it makes. In 2009, Time Magazine named Dr. Christakis one of the 100 most influential people in the world for his accomplishments in the fields of Health Care Policy, Sociology and Medicine. His partner, Dr. Fowler, holds graduate degrees from both Harvard and Yale. His research has been focused on social networks, political participation, the evolution of cooperation and genopolitics (the study of genetic basis of political behavior).
Our social networks have a greater effect on our lives than nearly anything else. It makes sense, however, because the vast majority of the decisions we make concern other people. The primary objective of Connected is to expose how interconnected our lives are with those around us, and even those who aren’t so near. Dr. Christakis and Dr. Fowler discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend starts gaining weight or takes up smoking, you’re more likely to do the same. They have also discovered that beyond that point, which is called the third-degree of separation, you won’t be affected. In order to understand the theory behind the three-degrees of separation and its power to affect our lives, we must begin with the theory of Six-Degrees of Separation.
Fitzpatrick, Ernie. (2008). Six Degrees of Separation. www.articlesbase.com. Exact location: http://www.articlesbase.com/spirituality-articles/six-degrees-of-separation-375437.html
[“Six-Degrees of Separation is the theory that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries,” as defined by Ernie Fitzpatrick.
Frigyes Karinthy, a Hungarian Author, introduced the theory in his short story titled Chains. It wasn’t until 1967, however, that Stanley Milgram, a famous American sociologist/psychologist, examined the accuracy of the theory. Milgram randomly selected people from the Midwest to send packages to strangers located in Massachusetts. The senders were only given the recipient’s name, occupation and general location. They were instructed to send the package to a friend that they believed would most likely know the target recipient. The friend would do the same until the package had arrived at the target recipient’s location.
The participants anticipated hundreds of intermediate steps prior to the recipient receiving the package, however, it only took an average of five to seven intermediaries before the package was delivered. Milgram’s findings were published in Psychology Today, which validated the theory of Six-Degrees of Separation.]
So, if the majority of us are connected within six-degrees of separation, then there is certainly a possibility of someone separated by three-degrees (friend’s friend’s friend) having an effect on your life. Great, but how does this actually work? To answer this, Christakis and Fowler explore our emotions and their significance to communication:
First, we usually have a conscious awareness of our emotions. Second, our emotions typically affect our physical state. For example, we show how we feel through facial expressions, our tone of voice or our posture. Third, emotions are associated with specific neurophysiologic activities. Finally, emotions are exposed through physical actions, such as laughing, crying or shrieking. These characteristics of emotion are essential for humans to understand one another.
Parr, Lisa. (2005). Emotional Communication in Primates: implications for neurobiology. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Exact location: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2826104/
[Try to imagine how difficult it would be to communicate with another human if they didn’t express emotion. Studies theorize that our ancestors relied on emotional expression for survival. When humans were primitive and lacked adequate vocal communication, they needed a way to warn their tribe members of impending danger. In order to do so, they began to recognize when an individual was expressing specific emotions, such as fear, anxiety, stress, annoyance, etc. By detecting these signals, the primitive humans created a social network that aided in their survival.]
Ekman, Paul. (2009). The Argument and Evidence about Universals in Facial Expressions of Emotion. University of California, San Francisco. Exact location: http://www.paulekman.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/The-Argument-And-Evidence-About-Universals-In-FacialExpressi.pdf
[During the mid-twentieth century, psychologists began examining whether or not emotional expressions were innate human characteristics or if they were learned. It turns out that, although certain cultures express emotions differently in various situations, there are universal human expressions. For example, if you were to travel to a foreign country where you did not speak the language, you would still be able to understand the foreigners’ basic emotions. Your smile may invite a smile in return, whereas your fright might alert those around you to potential danger.
Emotions are contagious. In 1962 at a boarding school for girls in Tanzania, an epidemic of laughter broke out, but there was nothing funny about it. An irresistible desire to laugh spread from person to person until more than a thousand people had been affected. The incubation period from contact to onset ranged from a few hours to a few days. The epidemic began on January 30th when three girls started laughing uncontrollably, and by March 18th, 95 of the 159 students were affected. The school was forced to close. After the girls returned to their villages, the laughter began to spread again. Fortunately, the epidemic eventually petered-out several months later.]
The above example is certainly extreme, but it illustrates the power of emotional contagion. It is obvious that our emotions are connected within our social network, but what about our decisions? Before we being, it is necessary to understand how the shape of your social network, along with your location within the network, has an effect on your life.
Constructing a social network is easy. First, define what relationship you’re trying to illustrate within your diagram (friendships, family, sexual partners, etc.). Next, take a piece of paper, or whatever medium you desire, and draw a dot in the center. That dot represents you. Then, you’ll place those in direct relationship to you around you and connect the dots. Repeat this for each new relationship (dot) and you’ll have constructed a social network illustrating the relationship between you and everyone you know, and everyone they know, and so on. It’s a simple concept, but to actually acquire all of the necessary information is quite tedious.
Your location within a social network dictates two things: how much of an influence you have on others and how much of an influence others have on you. If you are located near the edge of the network, you’ll have fewer connections. This, however, isn’t always a bad thing. For example, if someone in the network catches a virus, the people located near the outer edge will be much less likely to catch it. Those located near the dense center of the network, however, will have a significant higher chance of acquiring the virus. This shouldn’t be shocking.
People often care more about their relative standing within a social network than their absolute standing in the world. In other words, people are envious. The people in your network are your competition, especially when it comes to finding a mate. A clever experiment illustrates this quite nicely: respondents were asked which of the following states they would rather be in:
A: Your physical attractiveness is 6; others average 4.
B: Your physical attractiveness is 8; others average 10.
As it turns out, 75% of the people surveyed preferred being in situation A rather than situation B. The experiment was repeated with Harvard undergraduates and the results were even more skewed: 93% chose situation A and only 7% chose B. This shows us that we would rather be above average within our network even if it means being below average in global standards. It makes sense; our species is dependent on finding mates located near us whereas we’re not as concerned about impressing those outside of our network.
We’re all interconnected in one way or another. Our actions influence those in direct relation to us, and in turn, they influence those in direct relation to them, although with less severity. You start to realize that, while we may seem to be making conscious decisions independent from our social networks, we’re actually quite dependent on them. This is why a friend’s friend’s friend’s obesity will eventually affect you in some way, even if you never meet the person.
Dr. Christakis’s and Dr. Fowler’s book exposes a completely new train of thought. We typically don’t consider how often others influence our actions, but, in fact, our social networks have more to do with who we are than we do. I would suggest this book to anyone who is interested in exploring the world of social networks and their extremely important impact on humans.