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James Fowler’s Advice: Don’t Run With The Wrong Crowd

Audio

Aired 9/23/10

You know the flu is contagious. But UCSD social scientist James Fowler would tell you that it is also socially contagious. His research into the flu is one of many studies he's done on how social networks lead to certain behaviors and, in this case, certain illnesses.

— You know the flu is contagious. But UCSD social scientist James Fowler would tell you that it is also socially contagious. His research into the flu is one of many studies he's done on how social networks lead to certain behaviors and, in this case, certain illnesses. His paper on the flu was published this week in the journal Plos One.

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler study genetics and the power of social networks.
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Above: Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler study genetics and the power of social networks.

In recent years, Fowler has found that bad influence from good friends can make you obese. Unhappy friends can make you unhappy. Friends who smoke can make you start smoking. If you know a lot of people who sleep badly, you’re more likely to sleep badly and you’re more likely to abuse drugs.

And we’re not just talking about absorbing attitude from your closest friends: If a friend of a friend of a friend of yours smokes, you’ve got a much better chance of catching the habit. Fowler’s academic treatises sound like things your mother might have told you. In fact, if a mom today tells her kids they shouldn’t run with the wrong crowd she can cite Fowler’s research to back her up.

But let’s get back to the flu.

Fowler’s new study tells us that understanding social networks is a great way to understand the spread of influenza and it can also help us put the brakes on the virus. He says the key is to identify people at the center of social networks… popular people with lots of friends.

Those who are socially well-connected are not only more likely to contract the flu, they are the vanguard of flu epidemics. Fowler says they get the flu about two weeks earlier than your average person.

Logical conclusion: If public health officials can identify these popular kids, monitor them and know when they’re getting the flu, they’ll be able to prevent a lot of other people from getting the flu by making sure plenty of vaccine is available in the places where a flu outbreak has gotten underway.

Fowler, by the way, says he identified people at the center of social networks for this study by asking people in the network to name a friend. Typically they named people who had more friends than they did. This means your best friend is probably more popular than you are. Think about that.

The idea of social contagions is nothing new. It’s part of our folk wisdom (remember your mom telling you not to run with the wrong crowd) and studies have shown that if your college roommate is depressed you’re more likely to be depressed. So I asked Fowler what new ideas he and his partner (Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard) have brought to the field.

“I think the thing that really captures peoples’ imaginations is this idea that it’s not just the people that we know who affect us,” said Fowler. “It’s the people they know who affect us. It’s the friends’ friends, and the friends’ friends’ friends that we’ve been able to show have an impact on our behavior.”

The work of Fowler and Christakis was the subject of a long article in the New York Times Magazine a year ago. That article said the mechanics of a social epidemic are a bit mysterious. You don’t start to smoke, after all, because your friends tell you to start smoking.

The Times’ article said that Christakis and Fowler hypothesize these behaviors spread partly through the subconscious social signals that we pick up from those around us. Christakis used the metaphor of a stampeding herd of buffalo, saying, “You don’t ask an individual buffalo, ‘Why are you running to the left?’ The answer is that the whole herd is running to the left!”

Again, I hear my mother... “So if the whole herd jumped off a cliff, would you jump off the cliff too?”

I asked James Fowler if his parents ever told him which buffalo herd he was allowed to run with.

“They did manage my friendships,” he said. “Not closely. But there was one person in particular where they said, ‘You can’t be friends with this person anymore.'”

I bet the guy smoked and slept badly.

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