The Surprising Power of our Social Networks

Have you noticed that emotions are contagious? If there was any doubt about that, this fascinating book lays them to rest: “Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How they Shape our Lives”. Great explanation of how emotions and moods can spread from person to person. When I thought about the contagion of feelings, I was reminded of college days when everyone was studying for finals. I used to leave campus because I felt affected by the panic and anxiety among the students – now I find out that there was a scientific explanation for my behavior!

The authors apply their theory to many fields, including relationships, finance, and health care. In relationships: how did you meet your partner? We tend to marry someone who’s a friend of a friend, or within our extensive social network.

In finance: If you see a long line outside a bank, chances are you’re going to ask “what’s going on?” and you might join the line to withdraw your money too! Just like Black Monday, the stock market crash in 1987 – when we see other people selling their stocks, we anticipate a downturn, and we sell our stocks. In health care: obesity, sexually transmitted diseases. Obese people tend to have obese friends; we’re influenced by the behavior of our friends and our friend’s friends. So if I’m with a friend who eats a lot, I might eat more than I usually do. In addition to behavior, we change our norms – I might not eat more, but if my friend and her friends become obese, my notion of acceptable body size might change – the norm itself changes.

When the authors and others study social networks, they gain an understanding of how ideas, behavior and trends spread – and they can use this in service of stopping the spread of bad things, like germs or diseases. People working in public health have been using this approach for several years, for example, to get people to practice safer sex, and to use condoms. In order to get the message out with the highest effect, they find and talk to the person or persons who are hubs of those networks – those in the middle who have the most connections, and those who connect different groups of people. Those are the opinion leaders, the influencers.

Likewise, if we’re trying to promote change – social change, healthy practices, or improving a practice in a company or an organization – we would do well to use those influence leaders, both to assess the climate and interest in change, and to advocate for the change.

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