New research shows how our social ties can influence us for better—and worse: making us fatter, more likely to smoke, marry, divorce and even vote. Governments should take heedby James Crabtree / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Spamalot: successful musicals need the right mix of new and old teammates
If friends of your friends begin to put on weight, you are likely to do the same—even if you don’t know the people in question, and even if they live hundreds of miles away. Obesity spreads like a fad; it is contagious.
This striking finding about how obesity spreads through social networks was the result of a 30-year study in Massachussetts, as Nicholas A Christakis and James H Fowler note in their new book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (HarperPress). Research shows that the same is true for smoking, and a range of other behaviours and attitudes like drinking, depression, charitable giving, sexual practices—even the decisions to marry, divorce, reproduce, or vote.
Why is this important? Because from healthcare to climate change, governments today face a range of problems where they must persuade people to change their behaviour. But instead of relying on their powers of persuasion, politicians should consider taking a class in “network science.” True, many claims for the power of social networks are based on the hype surrounding websites like Facebook. But the basic idea is simple: people join together in groups with particular patterns of ties, and these patterns then have important effects on the way they behave.
The shape of these networks has surprising effects. Take an unlikely example: Broadway musicals. Brian Uzzi is a sociologist at Northwestern University in Chicago. He is also a big music hall fan. From Cats to Spamalot, musicals have been big business for decades, but investors have to guess which shows will be a hit. Bye Bye Birdie, a profitable 1960 production starring Dick van Dyke, ran for 607 nights. Bring Back Birdie, its 1981 sequel, was a flop and closed after just four.
Intrigued, Uzzi used network science to find out why. He put together a data set of the 321 musicals that launched on Broadway between 1945 and 1989, paying particular attention to whether the top team of producers, director, choreographers and writers had worked together before. After crunching the statistics, he discovered something remarkable. Teams who had never worked together, perhaps unsurprisingly, fared poorly: their “weak” networks meant a lack of creative vision, and lots of duds. And at the other extreme, teams that had worked together successfully also tended to produce flops. Sometimes, lacking outside creative input, the team just rehashed the same ideas that worked the last time; sometimes, lacking newcomers, they “developed” their vision in daft ways. Either way, lightning rarely struck twice.