Five tips for a healthier social network: New Scientist on “social contagion”

According to the latest issue of New Scientist, recent research shows that our moods are more strongly influenced by those around us than we tend to think. Not only that but we are also “beholden to the moods of friends of friends, and of friends of friends of friends – people three degrees of separation away from us who we have never met, but whose disposition can pass through our social network like a virus.” In short, we are who we hang out with.

No surprises there you may think. However, Michael Bond’s excellent article shows that maths and hard data are being deployed in a wide range of areas to reveal some curious aspects of how social networks of all varieties seem to work (it is well worth the effort to read the full feature).

According to Bond: “a whole range of phenomena are transmitted through networks of friends in ways that are not entirely understood: happiness and depression, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, ill-health, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online privacy, even the tendency to attempt or think about suicide. They ripple through networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, says Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has pioneered much of the new work.”

Later in the piece he continues: “While the mechanism of social contagion varies depending on the phenomenon being spread, in many cases the dynamics are very similar. For example, Christakis has found that with happiness, obesity and smoking habits, the effect of other people’s behaviour carries to three degrees of separation and no further. He speculates that this could be the case with most or perhaps all transmissible traits. Why three degrees? One theory is that friendship networks are inherently unstable because peripheral friends tend to drop away. “While your friends are likely to be the same a year from now, your friends of friends of friends of friends are likely to be entirely different people,” says Christakis.

And perhaps in an even more telling section, Bond reveals that: “Sociologists and others are using mathematical models to test these dynamics to try to understand better what triggers the spread of behaviours. Duncan Watts at Columbia University has shown that seeding localised social groups with certain ideas or behaviours can lead to the ideas cascading across entire global networks. This contradicts the notion – promoted by the author Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and others – that social epidemics depend on a few key influential individuals from whom everyone else takes their cue. It doesn’t ring true, argues Watts, because such “influentials” typically interact with only a few people. The key for the spread of anything, he says, from happiness to the preference for a particular song, is a critical mass of interconnected individuals who influence one another.”

All of this clearly has major implications for social media and online PR. It may be argued that most PR is an attempt to influence or “trigger” certain kinds of behaviour (ie buy my client’s message or product). I have to say I never ever did accept Gladwell’s theory of a few key individals acting as “gatekeepers.” And research now seems to be bearing this out. And what if three degrees of separation is shown to be a universal “influence limit?”

Having a greater understanding of the dynamics of social network behaviour and as well as what constitutes the “critical mass” of interconnected individuals for a given client goal or situation is surely going to be a key objective for any savvy digital PR specialist in 2009.

And on that note, have a look at Michael Bond’s top five tips for a healthier social network (applying this to the realm of social media, it offers a useful framework for who (and how much time) you spend with people…)

Michael Bond, New Scientist: Five tips for a healthier social network

1. Choose your friends carefully.

2. Choose which of your existing friends you spend the most time with. For example, hang out with people who are upbeat, or avoid couch potatoes.

3. Join a club whose members you would like to emulate (running, healthy cooking), and socialise with them.

4. If you are with people whose emotional state or behaviours you could do without, try to avoid the natural inclination to mimic their facial expressions and postures.

5. Be aware at all times of your susceptibility to social influence – and remember that being a social animal is mostly a good thing.



  1. Great post Andy. I’ve been ploughing through Mark Buchanan’s Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks. See: It covers some similar ground.


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