James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, two social scientists, captured our attention in 2007 when they published data suggesting that obesity is contagious. Clusters of friends appeared to infect each other with bad eating habits.
These findings were the result of analyzing archived data on body weight and obesity dating back to 1971. The data had been collected as part of the Framingham Heart Study, a large-scale, long-term study designed to examine the factors that influence cardiovascular health.
The two continued to study the data and their 2009 findings show more examples of contagious behavior and illustrate the path of contagion through social networks. Apparently, good health and bad health are not only the result of good genes and diet, but are caused by who your friends are.
Behaviors like smoking, drinking, happiness, and loneliness appear to spread through social contact. In each case, spheres of influence appear to stretch out at least three degrees, starting with our closest friends, and extending to their friends and their friends’ friends. The strongest influencers proved to be NOT those in closest contact with each other, but rather those once removed.
The scientists found it curious that behaviors often skipped a link, leaving a non-smoker positioned between two smokers for instance. Their explanation for this is that the non-smoker may be unconsciously transmitting social signals indicating acceptance of the behavior without actually participating.
The study also found happy and unhappy people were clustered together in pockets within the network. Fowler and Christakis theorized that this phenomenon could be explained by our subconscious tendency to pick up on the emotions of those surrounding us. Whether you engage in good behavior or bad behavior, it makes sense that your opinion of what’s acceptable is shaped by the people around you.
If we apply the “three degrees” theory, most of us are connected to over 1000 people. That’s a powerful network over which we can influence or be influenced. If you want to change a behavior, the best way to guarantee success is to surround yourself with people whose behavior most closely resembles what you want for yourself.