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Connected: Obvious, Original, Revolutionary

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 03, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Social network science offers a completely new way of looking at human behavior, two scholars say, because it examines both individuals and groups, and seeks to understand the intricate, complex and surprising processes by which we become interconnected.

Scientists increasingly view forest fires, earthquakes, revolutions and financial crashes as "bursts of activity in a larger system intelligible only when studied in the context of many examples of the same phenomenon," Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler write. While scientists used to study things by taking them apart, they say, science is now trying to figure out how things fit together-molecules into cells, neurons into brains and species into ecosystems-and understand the rules that govern interconnection and coherence. Discovering how networks of individuals and groups form, evolve and act is part of that larger trend.

Christakos, a physician, sociologist and professor at Harvard University, and Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, published groundbreaking research in the July 2007 New England Journal of Medicine demonstrating that obesity is contagious. Their provocative new book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, describes meticulous multi-disciplinary research, fascinating observations and history suggesting that all kinds behavior and emotions ripple through networks. Smoking, drinking, happiness, loneliness, political views, the likelihood of voting, the creativity of inventors, and word of mouth messages are all subject to the unexpected and nonlinear influences of our often unrecognized social connections.

Further, the authors suggest, social networks are part of our ancient biological heritage, and our position in our networks may be to some degree impacted by our genes and other circumstances beyond our control. Their compelling ideas and informed insights make lively reading. They cite the theory of primatologist Robin Dunbar who argues humans developed language to manage social complexity. Dunbar thinks language in humans evolved as an efficient replacement for grooming, the method other primates used to establish social cohesion. Language skills facilitate the constant cooperation and competition, abstract reasoning, insights, and empathy, demanded by human social networks of unrelated individuals. Of course there were long range unintended consequences. Once language served for small scale interactions, the authors say, "we were free to do other things with it, like write poetry-just as feathers evolved to keep prehistoric reptiles warm but they wound up using the innovation to fly."

Mirror neurons may be one mechanism of behavioral contagion. If you yawn when someone else yawns, and the sight of pain makes you wince, your mirror neurons are working. Facial expressions and responses to them may be another route. The authors note that when people imitate facial expressions of others, the signal passes from the facial muscle to the brain, rather than the more usual pathway from the brain to the muscle. They cite an experiment in which subjects listened, without speaking themselves, to recorded nonverbal vocalizations of otheres reacting to amusement and triumph and fear and disgust. The subjects' brains, monitored by MRIs, showed the sounds stimulated parts of the brain that control corresponding facial expressions.

The author's "Three Degree Rule" says everything we do affects our immediate family and friends, our friends' friends, and our friends' friends' friends. After that, our influence dims. But networks are dynamic, and they change as people move, get divorced, die, or adopt different behavior and interests. Their discussion of the impact within networks of gender, relationship, who identifies who as a friend and whether it is mutual, is fascinating and counterintuitive. According to their models, weight loss efforts might work better with a friend of a friend, rather than a friend, and you can be saddened by the unhappiness of someone you don't even know.

This work extraordinary implications for public health. For instance, should immunizations be given to be people with the most contacts rather than an entire population? Should weight loss efforts be directed toward those likely to have the most impact on their networks? Those aren't the only ethical and philosophical issues Christakis and Fowler raise. They say genes play a complicated role in how well connected we are, and where we are in network. They studied 1,100 twins drawn from a sample of 90,115 adolescents, and found genetic factors accounted for about 46 percent of variations in popularity. A kid with five friends had a different genetic makeup from a person with one friend. A person in the center of the network tended to have a genetic makeup that differed from a person at the periphery. And a person with five friends who know each other differed genetically from a person with five friends who don't.

These findings raise questions of fairness and equality, and more, they say. Does one deserve credit or blame for network-influenced good and bad behavior? If networks constrain our information and choices, do we have free will? Some answers may lie in deeper understanding.

What transformations will come from electronic networking? The answer is unknowable right now, but Christakis and Fowler note that evolutionary biology teaches us humans emerged in small groups where everyone was connected to everyone else by three degrees or less. That appears to be an important part of the way networks work, they say, andit may constrain our ability to connect even though technology gives us access to vastly larger numbers of people. In their study of college Facebook users, the students had an average of 110 friends, but of those, only 6.6 were close friends. That's not too far from Robin Dunbar's theory that the expected size for an interconnected human group would be about 150-about the size of Neolithic village or a Roman army unit-and that the size of a conversational group would be about four.

The authors suggest there is something powerful and positive in realizing the ways we are all intertwined, and even critics are captivated by their writing and research. Read a New York Times Magazine story and Wired review. You won't want to put this book down, but you might want to give copies as holiday gifts that will please your friends' and make your friends' friends' friends happy.

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