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How Are We Connected to People We Don't Know, And Does It Matter to Our Health or Happiness?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 08, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Bacterial and viral illnessesspread in human communities. But what about physical fitness, happiness, sadness and habits such as smoking, drinking and eating too much?

Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist and James Fowler, a political scientist, have uncovered powerful evidence that many kinds of behavior are contagious. They discovered an informational gold mine in records of the famous Framingham Heart Study, which has followed more than 15,000 people from Framingham, Massachusetts and their descendants since it was founded by the National heart Institute in 1948. Every four years participants got a compete physical, in which dozens of health measurements were collected--weight, heart rate, blood levels and illnesses. Participants were also asked to name their family members, their doctor, place of employment and residence, and friends who might be able to locate them if researchers needed help finding them later. With years of careful work sifting through data, Christakis and Fowler were able to create a map showing how 5,124 people were connected in a web of 53,228 ties among friends, family members and work colleagues.

When they summarized their findings on obesity in a July 2007 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, it was the first time a prestigious a journal had published on the subject of social networks and health.

A New York Times Magazine story,"Are Your Friends Making You Fat" , by Clive Thompson, describes the growing impact of their work and an increasing recognition that all kinds of behavior-healthy and unhealthy-may very well travel through networks in surprising ways. Counter intuitively, we don't just influence those in our immediate environs, the researchers say, but those at a distance in a web that stretches farther than we know. As Christakis and Fowler write in their new book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives: "You may not know him personally, but you friend's husband's co-workers can make you fat. And your sister's boyfriend can make you thin." If you think that sounds implausible, read their work. When you think about mirror neurons, subconscious social cues and subtle shifts in perception about what's normal and acceptable, it begins to make sense. It also suggests that health is a communal endeavor, and that public health policies need to reach beyond the individual.

Critics note that even when networks maps show in clusters of obesity, smoking or happiness, connectivity doesn't prove contagion as the cause. Factors of a shared environment and the tendency of people to gravitate toward those who are like them could account for that. But Christakis and Fowler found that the nature of the relationship influences the likelihood of spread. For instance, with obesity, spouses of different sex didn't have much effect on each other. But if a male in the Framingham study had a male friend who got fat, his chances of obesity doubled. If his wife got fat, his risk only went up 37 percent. It turns out that adults "catch" obesity when someone of their own sex gains weight--probably because people regard their own bodies in comparison with members of their own sex, and notions of acceptability are subtly influenced in that context. The Times story points out that the more we learn about social networks, the more issues arise: To what extent can we choose or influence our own networks? Is our level of connectedness somehow innate? What do networks say about individual responsibility? Do we have free will?Philosophers and scientists will spend years on these questions.

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