Continuously Contagious

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite sayings is “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” In other words, “Choose your friends carefully” (although she also uses that phrase literally in enforcing the “no animals on beds” rule at her house…J).  Now it appears there is scientific research to back her up, as well as every wise parent and grandparent who’s given similar advice to their kids.


You may have heard of the researchers, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, or at least their work. They’ve been in the news this week, as their latest research proves the concept of “pay it forward”– in studying a large group of people, they found that good deeds really are contagious, and spread to hundreds of people.  In the March 8 news story, it also mentioned the pair’s previous work in studying groups and the influence of close friends, so I Googled it to learn more.  Seems these two were in the news last fall, even on Oprah, with their book Connections: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Their past studies showed that starting or stopping the habits of overeating and smoking was highly influenced by close friends and co-workers (especially those of the same sex) and that it was a “domino effect”.  If someone loses weight, that person positively influences her close friends to lose weight, and some do, and then their close friends lose weight, etc., etc.  If you work among a bunch of smokers, you’re much more likely to smoke, and then so will some of your friends. 


I couldn’t help but think of our former teen neighbor who once abhorred smoking but embraced it wholeheartedly once she became friends with a bunch of smokers.  I also thought of what these studies’ results meant to other youth behaviors, such as drinking and drug use…the results would probably be the same. 


Yes, there are people who defy the influence of others, kids who hang out with “unsavory” friends but don’t look or act like them, and these researchers aren’t saying it’s impossible, but what they’ve shown is that group influence really is “contagious”, and their statistics back them up. 


Fowler and Christakis have also done some fascinating research with happiness.  According to their 20-year study that ended in 2003, happiness is contagious.  “Surround Yourself With Positive People and Your Life Will Be Good” isn’t just a silly phrase inside a fortune cookie.  They’ve scientifically proven that if you’re happy, others around you are more likely to be happy and pass it on, and the lives eventually influenced are numerous.  This chain reaction effect is also true with bad moods, but luckily to a slightly lesser extent.


Parents can utilize Fowler and Christakis’ body of work in many ways.  Not only does it encourage us in advising our kids on friend selection, it’s a wake-up call to staying savvy (not helicopter) to who those friends are (for starters, get a Facebook page, parents!!!) It also underlines the importance of parental decisions when making choices about schools, activities, and other groups to which our kids belong. 


And, it’s also information that can help our kids.  I once asked my Girl Scout troop, at the time composed of 15 ten-year-olds, if they felt they had any power in their daily lives (we were studying leadership and community service, and we started out by learning about the “Power of One”.)  Not one girl said yes.  “No way!” said some of them, shaking their heads.  I explained to them how helping their parents make breakfast or doing good on a test was personal power, but I’m not sure they all “got” it.  I thought about showing them the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, but figured all the “building and loan stuff” would stump them…and I forgot about the movie “Pay It Forward”…but the Connected studies could have helped get the point across.  Kind of like a science fair experiment.  Because all of the people studied by Fowler and Christakis were not adults—kids and teens were involved, too.  Hidden among the formal, published “Conclusions” of their work is the unwritten notion that kids and teens are not as insignificant as they may think, and that their habits, their deeds, and their moods really do influence their friends and the people around them, plus a  whole lot more.  

One thought on “Continuously Contagious”

  1. Daniel Goleman’s book “Social Intelligence” talks about the neuro – biological basis of our need to connect with others, the influence we have on others & they have upon us. Thanks for introducing the topic…so much more than “positive peer pressue,” since the influences can be incredibly subtle.

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