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Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (Book Review)

By on April 28, 2010 – 10:00 am  7 Comments

Derrick Carpenter, MAPP '07, is a founder of Vive Training where he coaches individuals and corporate clients on creating high-engagement lifestyles through physical and psychological wellness. Full bio.

Derrick's articles are here.



Cover of ConnectedConnected, written by Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD and James Fowler, PhD, is a wonderfully engaging review of research and anecdotes that illuminate the incredible—and often overlooked—influence that our social networks have on our lives. A social network is any group of individuals who are connected to other individuals by a specific set of connections or ties across which influence or knowledge may be transmitted. Don’t worry. Much of the first chapter is dedicated to defining social networks and their properties.

Social networking websites such as Facebook are examples of social networks because people have “friends” or “connections” with whom they can share information (later chapters discuss these sites specifically). A corporate organizational chart and a diagram of mutual friends within a kindergarten class are other models of social networks. We form these networks because they help us manage our complex social world. Our social networks have extraordinary influence because we are not only affected by the people to whom we are directly connected, but also by the other people to whom our connections are connected.


RULES OF NETWORKS

Network

Network

Christakis and Fowler lay out five important rules of social networks that are threaded throughout the book. They are:

Rule 1: We shape our network.

Rule 2: Our network shapes us.

Rule 3: Our friends affect us.

Rule 4: Our friends’ friends’ friends affect us.

Rule 5: The network has a life of its own.

Personally, I found rule number 4 to be the most unique and compelling. The authors highlight a number of research findings showing that the behaviors of people three degrees of separation away in a network (i.e. your friends’ friends’ friends) have an affect on your behavior. They call this the Three Degrees of Influence Rule.

The effects of these five rules are discussed in content-focused chapters that tackle a myriad of network-relevant topics from politics and money to hysteria epidemics, meeting Mr. (or Ms.) Right, and World of Warcraft. By the end of the book, I struggled to find an aspect of my daily life that wasn’t related to my social networks.

RELATION TO POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

Connected is not, strictly speaking, a book solely about positive psychology topics, as the authors give fair play to both the positive and negative effects our social networks have on us. That said, I do highly recommend it as an addition to your positive psychology bookshelf for its valuable insights into the social aspects of emotional well-being, love, performance, and meaning (one chapter boasts the inspiring title “When You Smile, The World Smiles With You”).

The Three Degrees of Influence Rule has interesting implications on happiness. Being connected to a happy friend makes you 15 percent more likely to be happy yourself, while being connected at three degrees of separation makes you 6 percent more likely. Other research shows that an extra $10,000 makes people 2 percent more likely to be happy. So our friends’ friends’ friends have more impact on our well-being than a sizable amount of money.

SkatingThe authors show similar findings that an individual’s obesity or charitable giving is influenced by the behavior of people three degrees away. I find the inverse of these findings inspiring. If you begin increasing your fitness level by working out and eating well, not only are you helping yourself, but you may also be positively influencing a lot of people in your network up to three degrees away.

NETWORKS APPLIED

One great asset of the book is its presentation of examples that might readily lead to real-world change. For instance, a person’s position within a network has significance, as it denotes how connected or disconnected he is. While it may seem obvious, the authors show that loneliness correlates highly with people at the edge of network models. By directly targeting social engagement interventions at the people at a network’s outskirts, the deleterious effects of loneliness might be limited efficiently.

Inspiring stories abound. The book starts with a story about a recipient of an organ donation that saved his life who subsequently encouraged his children to sign up as organ donors. One of his sons was later killed in an accident and his organ donations helped eight other people in need. Social networks are the very mechanisms that allow people to find rare things, like organs, they need. In commentary on the Internet and the effects of large-scale networks, the authors point out that people are now able to find support groups and interest groups for uncommon topics, including organ transplants, which might have left them isolated in the past. And in the case of the organ donation recipient, good deeds can be spread through our networks helping even more people.

US AT OUR BEST

Early in the book the authors comment on the six degrees of separation in relation to their Three Degrees rule: “If we are connected to everyone else by six degrees and we can influence them up to three degrees, then one way to think about ourselves is that each of us can reach about halfway to everyone else on the planet.”

Smiling BoyI first read this and wrote “Inspiring!” in the margin. But as I continued through the book, I found that the real stories of the power of connection were more tangible.

In the best cases, our social connections represent us at our best, choosing meaningful bonds and loyalty over selfish alternatives. Christakis and Fowler tell the story of the 2001 season of the reality television show Survivor. As the season wound down, three contestants remained: Colby, Keith, and Tina. Colby, a young Texan, had just won immunity for the week and was allowed to decide who would face him in the final tribal meeting to decide the winner of the million dollar prize. All the previously banished contestants would be present and would vote for the winner. Keith, a chef from Detroit, had played the game a bit arrogantly and alienated several other players along the way. Tina, a nurse from Tennessee, on the other hand, was well liked by many of the other contestants. It seemed obvious that Colby should choose to face Keith, since the other contestants didn’t like him much and would declare Colby the winner. Instead, Colby chose Tina. Many viewers questioned Colby’s choice. During the episode in which the votes were cast, footage from the entire season played in which it became clear that Colby and Tina had both lasted so long due to a bond and alliance they had formed early on. Colby, it appeared, valued the connection and friendship over self-interest. Tina, as expected, won the million dollar prize.

 


 

Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Little Brown and Company.


Images
Spoke diagram courtesy of ilamont.com
Smiling boy courtesy of Sukanto Debnath

7 Comments »

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Derrick

    An excellent article – the links you’ve made to Positive Psychology are really interesting, especially the 3 Degrees of Influence rule, which suggests that one should create as big a network as possible in order to have the maximum impact on others!

    I don’t yet have ’Connected’, so I don’t know if they mention Granovetter’s Strength of Weak Ties theory, which I came across when I was researching “The Facebook Manager: the Psychology and Practice of Web-based Social Networks” (MB2000 Ltd, 2009). Even though it dates from the 1970s I think the SWT theory is also very relevant to Positive Psychology, insofar as it suggests that it is in fact our weak ties (i.e. our acquaintances) which benefit us more (e.g. in terms of providing additional resources) rather than our strong ties (i.e. our close friends and family). This also means that we’d be better off if we grow our social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc) rather than keep them small and select.

    The importance of social networks don’t yet feature highly in PP research (I’m sure partly due to the fact that they’re even newer, and the difficulty of carrying out research in an area which is so fast-moving) but it’s a subject which I hope we’ll see a lot more of in the next few years.

    Anyway on the basis of your recommendation, I’ve just ordered ‘Connected’.
    Many thanks!
    Bridget

  • Bridget,

    I am familiar with Granovetter’s publications and think it is great stuff. Although I don’t recall any specific mention of Granovetter in Connected, Christakis and Fowler are persistent in their arguments for weak ties having significant influence on our behaviors and decisions.

    I agree there is much room in positive psychology for the exploration of social networks, so long as we keep in mind the value of close relationships. While expanding our understanding of our social networks and their effects might help us structure institutions and communities in ways that foster greater well-being, we ought to be careful not to advocate weak ties in lieu of strong ties, which have been shown to have great positive outcomes. I think the balance comes in realizing that strong ties and weak ties are very different things and that we can focus on growing both simultaneously.

    Glad to hear you’ve ordered the book. You’ll surely enjoy it!

    -Derrick

  • Megan Zuniga says:

    Interesting article. I don’t know if I will believe this rule though. I mean I barely know all the friends of my friends. I find it hard to believe that they influence me on some level when I don’t even know their names. Though I believe in the other rules. Social networking has indeed taken a life of its own. It made the world seemed smaller and how we’re all connected (oooh heroes)
    Btw, that’s a very touching story about the Survivor ending. I don’t personally watch reality TV shows. I find them appalling and superficial (for additional read, you should know how reality TV affects our self-esteem). They vote each other out and then they cry when someone leaves. How superficial is that? That is so sweet though that colby chose friendship over personal interest. Now, that’s being real and friend like that is a true gem.

  • Kevin says:

    I have long been curious about the study of social networking; however, does social networking within “virtual” communities follow independent protocols? I believe the encouraging aspect to virtual communities isn’t their unique nature but rather their accessibility to both communities and social science. Additionally, I want to thank you for bringing my attention to this resource.

  • Gordon Skead says:

    Using positive psychology and social networking in a project involving youth and adults. Great capacity in young folks watching the miracle evolve in themselves moves the possibility fowrard in others who watch it happen. Will be interesting to see if the social network moves this and other concepts forward.

  • Jeremy McCarthy says:

    Great article Derrick. I have seen the research but haven’t read the book yet. It is sitting on my shelf in the “to be read” pile and your article motivated me to move it up to the top. I like the question about virtual networks. I think the idea of “online” relationships being virtual as opposed to real is going to fade away. I would imagine friends’ impact or influence on you is magnified when you know them in person but I think we are all learning that real connections with real communication are happening online.

  • Misha says:

    Nicholas Christakis recently gave a talk at TED on this very topic: The hidden influence of social networks. Definitely worth checking out!

    (Misha, I fixed your hyperlink for you. Editor KHB)

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