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The concepts of “peer pressure” and “running with the wrong crowd” are far from new.  For quite some time, people have explicitly or implicitly explained their or other people’s behavior by referencing the influence that one’s social circle can bring to bear.

Nicholas Christakis is a leading researcher focusing on the ways in which the social networks that we are embedded in (friends, family, work, etc) directly influence our behavior, health, and happiness.  Christakis recently presented at TED in February and the video was just made available this month:

Full disclosure: I have not read Christakis’ work–books, articles or otherwise (although his book Connected is on my list).  However, that won’t stop me from commenting on it.  Conceptually, I think this is fascinating research, particularly because modern technology allows for our social networks to be much larger and for us to have even greater exposure and interaction with first-degree members of our network, potentially amplifying the larger network’s influence on our behavior.  Granted, if you reduce the hypothesis to its simplest form–that people are influenced by those in their social circle–it seems somewhat obvious.  However, as with many things that we assume to be true the real revelation here is understanding the specific dynamics and mechanisms that make it so.  A few questions/comments come to mind:

  • Self-selection and causality: Determining which direction the causality arrow points in this area strikes me as very difficult.  In general, Christakis seems to be arguing that social networks are causing behavior in individuals.  However, he does note that self-selection (or what he refers to as homophily) could also be at play–e.g. people tend to select themselves into particular groups because they feel comfortable surrounding themselves with like-minded.  I don’t see why there couldn’t be multiple causal stories here where the direction may be different at different times or for different issues.  Understanding which direction causality flows is critical, though, if one is thinking of implementing public policies to deal with, say, public health issues.  Are you targeting individuals or the social networks?
  • Free will versus environmental determinism: The research also brings up an interesting philosophical question–what is the balance, then, between an individual’s ability to exercise free will and the deterministic influence of their environment (in this case, their social network)?  Christakis’ research points to a probabilistic relationship versus pure determinism (e.g. you are 47% more likely to be obese if members of your social network are, rather than guaranteed to be), but the question is still a tricky one.
  • Business relevance: It certainly isn’t a revelation that, for example, consumers’ buying decisions can be influenced by their friends and social crowd.  Much ink has been spilled touting the need to create social proofs of one’s product or targeting influencers who can spread the desire for a product like a virus through their social network.  However, as mentioned earlier, Christakis’s research could open up new avenues if it is successful in identifying the specific mechanisms (and causal direction) through which social networks affect individual behavior and vice-versa.  Marketers would have  a field day.