Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Two studies set to appear in the New England Journal of Medicine this week reveal the power of human interconnectedness and how one man's/woman's decision can impact many.
The first is a study looking at the impact of smokers and non-smokers on their "social network." The study examined how people are influenced by the behavior of individuals one, two and even three degrees separated from them. The study revealed that smokers and non smoker tend to form separate groups, and that smokers gradually became less central in their social networks (essentially getting pushed out). It also found that the closer a relationship was — between spouses, for example — the more likely that a decision by one person to quit smoking would influence the other. Behavior not only dictated your social grouping, but also changed the behavior of those close to you.
"There's a kind of cascading influence," says Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the study.
Christakis and James Fowler, a professors at the University of California, San Diego, have documented this cascading effect. Their work began, somewhat serendipitously, when they stumbled upon a trove of paper records from a heart study launched in the town of Framingham, Mass., in the early 1970s. Thousands of people in the town had shared information about whether they smoked. They also had given researchers contacts for spouses, friends, siblings and places of employment.
"We were able to recover these paper records and computerize them and reconstruct the social ties of a total of 12,000 people," Christakis says.
The records were a gold mine of information - which included three decades' worth of updates, including changes in workplaces, addresses and phone numbers for close social contacts, as well as documented changes in smoking behavior for many of the interconnected people.
The second study, spearheaded by the same group, looked at weigh gain and weight loss. This study suggested that your best friend's weight may be very influential in determining whether you'll gain or lose weight over the years. Researchers found that a person's chance of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if that person's close friend became obese. If it was a sibling or a spouse, the person's risk went up by more than one-third. Next-door neighbors, however, had no influence at all.
What do these findings all mean? For one thing we can correlate that what we do, how we behave and our life's choices do not exist in a vacuum. We are far more influential then we would like to believe. Our lifestyle ultimately impacts hundreds if not thousands of people interconnected to us through the ripple effect that is the human social network. These studies also provide one quick and simple answer to the timeless question "but what can I do to make a change- to make a difference in this world?" One such answer is simple - change yourself...and in that way, change others and change the world