September 12, 2009

Social Contagion Theory

The New York Times has a long article, "Is Happiness Catching?," about the work of Nicholas Christaki and James Fowler on social networks within the venerable Framingham Heart Study that has been running since 1948. The findings aren't terribly astounding: happy people tend to have a lot of happy friends, unhappy people tend to have few and not very happy friends, fat people tend to have fat friends and get fat together at about the same time, smokers tend to hang out with other smokers, and so forth.

Author Clive Thompson seems rather naive at times:
"But how, exactly, could obesity or happiness spread through so many links? Between one immediate peer and another, some contagious behaviors — like smoking — seem pretty commonsensical. If lots of people around you are smoking, there’s going to be peer pressure for you to start, whereas if nobody’s smoking, you’ll be more likely to stop. But the simple peer-pressure explanation doesn’t work as well with happiness or obesity: we don’t often urge people around us to eat more or implore them to be happier."

A lot of the participants in the Framingham study are Italian-Americans, such as the Belliolis profiled in the article's opening paragraphs, and I can assure Clive Thompson that Italian-Americans do often urge people around them to eat more and to be happy. Indeed, eating and happiness is often linked in the Italian-American mind. (Whazzamatta, you don't like your grandmother's canoli? You don't love your own grandma anymore? C'mon, enjoy, enjoy. Be happy!). Similarly, Irish-Americans do often urge the people around them to have a wee nip or three.

This is one reason why parents spend so much money and effort on trying to get their kids into higher social classes with, among much else, healthier habits. For example, when I arrived at Rice University at age 17 way back in 1976, there were only 3 smokers out of the 250 guys in my dorm. Rice students weren't particularly upscale (they tended to be the children of engineers), but they tended to have Mr. Spock-like views on the obvious illogicality of smoking. Not surprisingly, I was never subjected to any peer pressure to start smoking.

Only on the 10th and last page of the article does the author finally get around to considering selection effects on the results, and he could go much farther. Consider weight -- so many of the rituals of friendship revolve around exercising and/or eating, drinking, or taking drugs. Consider two young women who are best friends because they go out frequently to Manhattan dance clubs together and try to lure men into buying them cocaine. If they weren't both slender, they wouldn't have taken up this hobby, and, in turn, this hobby keeps them skinny (until one, or both, goes into rehab).

Consider two male friends who get together most nights to down a six-pack of beer each and watch ESPN. If one of the pair got into triathaloning, they'd probably drift apart.

To my mind, perhaps more interesting than friendship ties are the social influences of kinship ties, which bring together people of different ages, sexes, and personalities. (You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives.) In-law ties are particularly complex and interesting, but understudied. One incomplete but illuminating definition of "class" is "the kind of people your relatives tend to marry."

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

43 comments:

Dutch Boy said...

Hah! Now I know why mom loved me best - my mother-in-law is rich!

Trent's Last Case said...

If ignorance is bliss, why aren't iSteve readers happy?

Anonymous said...

Consider two male friends who get together most nights to down a six-pack of beer each and watch ESPN. If one of the pair got into triathaloning, they'd probably drift apart.

Someone's been reading Taleb again.

Anonymous said...

"If ignorance is bliss, why aren't iSteve readers happy?"

Sounds like you answered your own question...

Anonymous said...

The old Moynihan Institute site used to have an awesome essay on why it is so hard for people to rise out of the black underclass: they have to totally turn their backs on their friends and relations.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Steve, another poke at the Irish. Tsk, Tsk, Tsk

Anonymous said...

One incomplete but illuminating definition of "class" is "the kind of people your relatives tend to marry."

Yeah, right. Try telling Hyacinth Bucket that.

Cleveland Steamer said...

As far as social contagion theory goes, it can get quite messy and sloppy, believe me.

Harry Baldwin said...

Here's another example of "social contagion"--once you have kids, you find yourself hanging out mostly with other couples who have kids, because those are the people with whom you now have the most in common. People who don't have kids are generally annoyed by them, don't enjoy kid-related conversation, and are not interested in activities that include children.

l said...

Do people who hang out together become more like each other? Yes. Are like minds and temperaments drawn toward each other? Yes.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic:

South Africa Sports Minister warns of World War III over Semanya
September 12th, 2009 - 1:12 pm ICT by ANI
thaindian.com

London, Sep 12 (ANI): The South African government has threatened a "third world war" if the International Association of Athletics Federation bans champion runner Caster Semenya over a test that shows her to be a hermaphrodite, a person with both female and male sexual characteristics...

Anonymous said...

More WWIII coverage at The Guardian.

Anonymous said...

This is right up your alley no? Family matters. The people you are around matters. You can read an study telling you that smoking/overeating is bad, if everyone around you does that stuff then you're more likely to indulge. Kind of common sense but it show how important environment is.

Interestingly, when the celebrators of diversity cheer various cultures, they never mention the burka, stoning, etc. They only talk about the stuff that jibes with what they love.

When you consider that cultural habits accrue as the Times article implies, and that we go out of our way to import people with practices we can't even admit they have... The cognitive dissonance is impressive.

Jim said...

Wee nips are not from Irish lips. That would be a Scot talking. In the old days, a wee Nip would be a redundancy.

Not Sane :-) said...

An interest in other people marks you sane. This personally reciprocated makes you happy.

Psychology and by extension Sociology follows.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Steve, another poke at the Irish. Tsk, Tsk, Tsk.

I was figuring someone would take that remark as anti-Irish.

I mean, come on really, is it?

Anonymous said...

Unrelated, but, Asprin overdose?!!!!

http://www.suntimes.com/1767469,christopher-kelly-blagojevich-dead-091209.article



Key Blogojevitch aid, who was to testify, found dead from aspirin?(!)


Are Chicago politics *that* full contact?

Jes'sayin'





BTW---I think you can influence a starling's behavior by putting it in with a bunch of canaries, but I also think you can influence a canary's behavior by putting it amongst a bunch of starlings. If 95% of a large group is neat and well-behaved, the "new" 5% will probably emulate them, but at some point a critical mass of the new group will eschew the new mores and begin certain behavorial folkaways and mores of their own. Whether these new mores and folkaways "catch on" is almost completely up to the prettiest females. If they reward it, it will flourish, but if they snub it, it wont.

Anonymous said...

Here's another example of "social contagion"--once you have kids, you find yourself hanging out mostly with other couples who have kids, because those are the people with whom you now have the most in common. People who don't have kids are generally annoyed by them, don't enjoy kid-related conversation, and are not interested in activities that include children.

Isn't this a relatively recent phenomenon? It seems to me that, while married couples usually socialize with other married couples, it isn't necessary that all their activities and conversation include their children. I think that, as recently as the 1960s and 70s, it was considered normal and even healthy for parents to socialize regularly with other adults in child-free environments and to be able to go for several hours at a time without giving their children more than a passing mention in the conversation.

On the other hand, nowadays, parents seem to give up any independent social life as adults and center their leisure activities around their children, either as a family or together with other families. No wonder people put off having children (and have fewer of them once they start) if it means 15 years of nothing but Disney!

Anonymous said...

I think the author of the Times article could learn a whole lot by simply going back and watching The Fox and the Hound again.

Anonymous said...

Whether these new mores and folkaways "catch on" is almost completely up to the prettiest females. If they reward it, it will flourish, but if they snub it, it wont.

And what if someone were whispering away, constantly reminding said females how dull the old mores were and how great the new ones were...

silly girl said...

"On the other hand, nowadays, parents seem to give up any independent social life as adults and center their leisure activities around their children, either as a family or together with other families. No wonder people put off having children (and have fewer of them once they start) if it means 15 years of nothing but Disney!"

How many thousand years were people primarily agriculturalists living in small communities with kids everywhere all the time?

Anonymous said...

South Africa Sports Minister warns of World War III over Semanya


Self-righteous SWPL'ers getting a taste of the raw African mentality which white South Africans have had to deal with for 300 years. Now if only we could all live in one country with these guys in charge. That would be SWPL paradise.

rob said...

Social contagion theory, though it didn't have a name, was the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous and it's offshoot programs.

There are 3 basic ways alcoholics and other addicts interact with people. Some are members of a deviant subculture. Some present normal facades to the outside and have enablers and codependents. Others have are very isolated.

Programs create ready-made social structures that encourage people not to drink, think differently than they're used to, live structured lives, etc.

Hell, SCT is pretty how how any culture, subculture, counter culture, religion, corporation, cult, fraternity, military stays around with people entering and leaving fairly steadily.

The interesting things that go under SCT are who, whom, what, and how. There was something in Life at the Bottom, a prisoner told Dalrymple that he commited crimes because he had always been easily led. Dalrymple asked if he had been easily led into studying the subjunctive of French verbs. Dude laughed.

Are people in general more likely to catch running 10 miles a day, or eat more food? Are some people more likely than others to catch certain things, and why?

If 5 slum kids are put in a middle class school, do the slum kids pick up middle class habits, or do middle class students pick up slum habits?

Intuitively, some things seem more contagious than others, what can be done to make good things more likely to catch? Figuring these things out would make uplifting various underclasses much safter. In effect, one could gaze into the abyss without it looking back.

DCS said...

The articles explains a lot about how "progressives" think: if we take a lot of people who live in low income, high crime areas where there is an absence of academic achievement and drop them (by busing) into schools populated by high achieving, higher income law abiding people, then the values and habits of the latter group will pass virally to the former group.

albertosaurus said...

Consider Koch's postulates:

1.The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy animals.
2. The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.
3.The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
4.The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.



Here I sit suffering from a real infection (H1N1) and now I also must endure contemplating the concept of social infections?

If this concept is of any utility it must be more than merely suggestive it must be predictive. So does this "theory" mean that if you associate with a alcoholic, you'll become an alcoholic? We can test this easily enough.

When I was in the National Guard I chose to become a medic rather than a mechanic. Probably a bad choice as subseqently I have more often experienced broken cars than I have gun shot wounds.

In actual practice National Guard medics in my unit spent their weekends at the SF General drunk tank tending to the street bums. They had a lot of juandice secondary to cirrhosis and an ocassional Korsakoffs syndrome or two.

If there is anything to "social contagion" then those medics should have higher alcoholism rates than those who were spared that experience.

Wanna bet?

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

""Here's another example of "social contagion"--once you have kids, you find yourself hanging out mostly with other couples who have kids, because those are the people with whom you now have the most in common. People who don't have kids are generally annoyed by them, don't enjoy kid-related conversation, and are not interested in activities that include children.""

Isn't this a relatively recent phenomenon? It seems to me that, while married couples usually socialize with other married couples, it isn't necessary that all their activities and conversation include their children. I think that, as recently as the 1960s and 70s, it was considered normal and even healthy for parents to socialize regularly with other adults in child-free environments and to be able to go for several hours at a time without giving their children more than a passing mention in the conversation.

On the other hand, nowadays, parents seem to give up any independent social life as adults and center their leisure activities around their children, either as a family or together with other families. No wonder people put off having children (and have fewer of them once they start) if it means 15 years of nothing but Disney!"

Yes, quite true. And well said. The sacharine devotion to their children that people publicly profess today is unseemly. I've heard grown men - rocket engineers - say with a straight face that their kids (it's always kids, not children) are their highest priority. Explains alot about NASA's recent dismal performance, doesn't it. Of course a man's children are important to him - and he should have the decency to be a good provider,.....and to shut up about it.

When my dad came home from work the first thing he wanted was a stiff drink - not to talk to some boring 8 year old kid. Children should be seen, and not heard.

And not heard about.

Svigor said...

Are like minds and temperaments drawn toward each other? Yes.

We need studies to tell us these things, now that All Traditions Must Go.

You know, birds of a feather flock together?

ben tillman said...

Yeah, right. Try telling Hyacinth Bucket that.

Well, she did bat .500.

William1066 said...

Rob said: ''Are people in general more likely to catch running 10 miles a day, or eat more food? Are some people more likely than others to catch certain things, and why?

If 5 slum kids are put in a middle class school, do the slum kids pick up middle class habits, or do middle class students pick up slum habits?''

In all things natural, human behavior included, you have to factor in entropy: If not in some way prodded, things tend to move from order to disorder. Examples of 'prodders' include photosynthesis, drill sergeants, and Asian parents.

Anonymous said...

How many thousand years were people primarily agriculturalists living in small communities with kids everywhere all the time?

Many thousands, but they sure ran away from it as fast as they could when somebody invented cities.

When my dad came home from work the first thing he wanted was a stiff drink - not to talk to some boring 8 year old kid.

Yes, but your mother probably didn't work. Your father came home knowing that his children not only had been looked after but had been given attention and nurturing by your mother.

Wives typically decide how couples socialize. When they were home all day with the children, they didn't want or need to spend yet more time with them in evenings. Nowadays, if both parents work, mothers feel obliged to spend their leisure time with their children and often want to anyway, if they are at all maternal by nature, since they have had no time with them during the day. Meanwhile, their stay-at-home sisters probably feel obliged to turn being a super-mom into a career in order to justify not working for pay.

People who say their children come first really mean, "as long as I don't have to scale back my career ambitions or give up the beach house." Meanwhile, even people who aren't particularly ambitious or materialistic are cajoled and pressured by SCT into being careerists and Disneybot parents.

Anonymous said...

Now if only we could all live in one country with these guys in charge. That would be SWPL paradise.

I thought that's what we all voted for on November 4, 2008.

David said...

rob said

> If 5 slum kids are put in a middle class school, do the slum kids pick up middle class habits, or do middle class students pick up slum habits? <

You win the cigar. That's the correct question to ask the NYT's Thompson.

We know the answer. Social contagion operates on latent characteristics. Upward influence works on people with upward capacity; downward influence works on all.

Anonymous said...

"If 5 slum kids are put in a middle class school, do the slum kids pick up middle class habits, or do middle class students pick up slum habits?''


I think it will be the middle class students will tend to pick up the slum habits. It is easier to be a savage than be civilized. Being civilized involves making some personal sacrifices for the good of the whole. No wonder rap music and black culture is so popular today. If it would have been easier to be civilized we would all naturally gravitate towards behaving like Austrian aristocrats, Victorian English people or like the traditional Japanese rather than ghetto rapstars.

Dutch Boy said...

Our ancestors were well aware of social contagion, hence the proverb that "one bad apple spoils the barrel."

Paul Mendez said...

After college I worked in an office full of people who drank way too much. So, my drinking steadily increased. Not because of peer pressure but because if everyone else had 3 beers for lunch and hit happy hour after work every night, I could have 2 beers for lunch and hit happy hour once or twice a week and still feel like I was being moderate. When I got a new job in a more temperate office environment, I was suddenly self-conscious of how much I drank.

Likewise, a few years ago I joined a social club dominated by old, fat men. Since then, I've put on 30 pounds and still nobody would describe me as, "The Fat Guy." I'm sure if I socialized with a bunch of thin guys, I'd be much more self-conscious of my weight creeping up.

Anonymous said...

Paul, might those 30 pounds be the result of just getting older?

But I know what you mean. I think being around guys who respect their wives vs guys who don't can sometimes affect you one way or the other.

Chief Seattle said...

"After college I worked in an office full of people who drank way too much..."

I had a similar experience at age 25, working at a company with a bunch of overweight men, most in their early 30s to 40s. Eating huge lunches out was a daily occurrence, and I went from 160 to 180 (5'10") over the course of about a year - still feeling like the skinny guy. Gaining the weight didn't even feel strange at the time - just a normal part of growing up or something. It wasn't until I quit about a year and a half later that I realized how strange it was. So I'll vouch for this behavior first-hand.

Regarding spending time with kids - in a nuclear family, kids usually only have a real relationship wit mom and dad. If you take dad out of the equation because he's working, or drinking, or just plain left - well, you get screwed up kids. The company men of the 50s 60s got to the moon, but they also raised the baby boomers - without a doubt the greatest screwup of the greatest generation.

David said...

Dogs. Fleas.

Anonymous said...

Self-righteous SWPL'ers getting a taste of the raw African mentality which white South Africans have had to deal with for 300 years.

Hasnt Kanye West been giving you American chaps a taste of that in the last day or two?

Anonymous said...

I dunno why other people socialize with their kids in tow, but here's my tale of woe:

Based on pre-recentered SAT scores, I have an IQ of about 135 and my husband of about 160. I stay home with the children; my husband writes code with semi-austitics and Chinese immigrants. We had to move out the city I grew up in because of the social pathology extensively chronicled on this site and others like it.

I have little in common with two-career families who have the same cultural and educational background I do, and they tend to hold me in low esteem and assume I'm stupid because I stay home anyway.

Families I meet just living my life, on the other hand, tend to be, to be very blunt, a lot dumber than my 6yo. Socializing with them without the kids along is painful. If the kids are with us, we've all got something to talk about. And on the way there and on the way home, I can talk to my 6yo about actually interesting things, albeit on a 6yo level.

I don't know if this was true 50 years ago but the people available for me to socialize with don't talk about subjects, EVER. They talk about their relationships and their feelings and sometimes about crime, and sometimes about their aspirations. My 6yo will talk about bugs. It's preferable.

I am sure all you internet big shots will tear into this but do you even have children? Or any friends? I bet you don't.

I should be sharing a babysitter with the girls I went to high school with, but we're all scattered throughout the world. It's not my fault.

Truth said...

So basically you brag about your IQ, call your husbands "semi-autistics", complain about the "social pathology" of your neighbors, snidely deride others in your situation by saying that you "have little in common" and say that they are less intelligent than your 6 year old, speak about the pain you accrue in having conversations with these people, dismiss your neighbor's attempts to open up to you by saying that you would prefer to talk to a 1st grader about bugs...and then wonder why you don't have friends.

Did I get this correct?

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

I dunno why other people socialize with their kids in tow, but here's my tale of woe:.......

It's not my fault."

I understand what you mean, and liked your post. You can ignore the spiteful emanations from the ignorant blowhard who calls himself "Truth". He understands nothing, sympathises with no one, and knows nothing that is true.

oh dear said...

you spelled CANNOLI wrong.