You may think you are and what you do is entirely a matter of your personal choice and free will.  But is that true?  There's an old adage that you can be defined by the five people who are closest to you. You might be a reflection of the social networks that you belong to, and are not conscious of their influence.

Jennifer Robinson, writing in the Gallup Management Journal, says " They might not know who you are. But they can make you fat or thin, they can make you smoke or quit, they can make you happy or sad--and they don't even mean to. They do know the people that you know--and that's how your network of friends, their friends, and their friends' friends influence you. And rest assured, you're doing the same thing to them."

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, in their book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, argue that connections affect every aspect of our daily lives--how we feel, what we know, whom we marry, whether we fall ill, how much money we make and whether we vote all depend on the ties that bind us. The authors identify the process of social contagion, which works through transmission from one person to another like a virus. Except social contagion transmits behavior, norms and emotions.

Christakis and Fowler argue "social networks spread generosity and love...and. exert a dramatic influence over our choices, actions, thoughts, feelings and even desires. And our connections do not end with the people we know. Beyond our socializations, friends of friends  of friends can start chain reactions that eventually reach us, like waves from distant lands that wash up on our shores."

Christakis and Fowler pose the question that others have about social networks: What can they do for business? They say the key to the answer to that question may revolve around emotions and behaviors that are transmitted through the network. They argue that good emotions spread more effectively than negative ones, contending  "happiness may be a kind of social glue, and may be more powerful than unhappiness."

Christakis and Fowler gained prominence in the use of the Framington Heart Study, a longitudinal medical study spanning 1948 to the present on heart disease, particularly the factors of behaviors and emotional states. They demonstrated that different behaviors and moods, much like viruses, spread according to different patterns. They were also able to demonstrate that our position in a social network has a deep effect on how we fare, and they were able to conclude that as a general rule people with more friends and connections are happier, healthier and better off.

Connected provides a useful overview of social networks, how they work and why they matter, and can help us understand everything from teenage sexual practices to financial markets.

Christakis and Fowler contend that once you understand that emotions and behaviors can be transmitted by contagion, and that the context or environment shapes the transmission, leaders can harness the power of the social network in organizations by deliberately designing teams to optimize the social networks of everyone on it. They say that social networks and the behaviors, feelings and traits they transmit are always present and always functioning, whether organizations are aware of this or not. If they're transmitting good things they could be making the organization stronger and more profitable, and creating a culture where people are happier; or if the social networks are dysfunctional or transmitting negative behaviors, feelings and traits ,this could damage or destroy the organization and create a culture of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

One significant contribution of their study is to suggest that governments that want to affect change need to understand the nature of relevant social networks, and how they shape attitudes and behaviors. Taking this viral power, social networks could, as I have argued in a previous Psychology Today article, be the basis for powerful social movements and social change. We may be moving into an era, if we're not already there, where social networks , not social and government institutions, wield the real power.


Follow me on Twitter;  @raybwilliams

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