We're More Connected Than We Think

Other cultures may value conformity, but Americans are rugged individualists. For better or for worse, we think and choose for ourselves—from which indie band we listen to on the subway to which brand of candy bar we pick out at the supermarket to whether we give change to the homeless guy down the block. Right? Well, maybe not. Emerging social science research suggests that our smallest actions are far more susceptible than previously suspected to trends passing through our social networks. Here to reveal the power of your friend's friend's friend is Harvard sociologist Nicholas Christakis, in today's Big Think interview.

Christakis (co-author of "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives") isn't here to flatter us—he compares the human "superorganism" to fungi—but he does bring some good news. Since the social networks we're part of "magnify whatever [effects] they're seeded with," positive or negative, understanding them better can inspire new ways to benefit from them. For example, if you're a startup business building a network of relationships from scratch, he suggests that you can optimize it by partnering with an even mix of similar and dissimilar companies, such that the network that forms is neither too rigid nor too diffuse.

Although the words "social network" in this day and age are likely to make us think of Twitter and Facebook, Christakis doesn't believe that the Web has fundamentally changed human interaction all that much. The number of friends and acquaintances (online or off) with whom we maintain steady interaction is about the same now as it was in our grandparents' era—to say nothing of our deep evolutionary past. As for contemporary fears that we're too immersed in our online networks, at the expense of healthy solitude, Christakis reminds us that the Victorians worried once about the threat to peace and quiet posed by ringing telephones.

Related Articles
Keep reading Show less

Five foods that increase your psychological well-being

These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.

Mind & Brain

We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.

Keep reading Show less

For the 99%, the lines are getting blurry

Infographics show the classes and anxieties in the supposedly classless U.S. economy.

What is the middle class now, anyway? (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs

For those of us who follow politics, we’re used to commentators referring to the President’s low approval rating as a surprise given the U.S.'s “booming” economy. This seeming disconnect, however, should really prompt us to reconsider the measurements by which we assess the health of an economy. With a robust U.S. stock market and GDP and low unemployment figures, it’s easy to see why some think all is well. But looking at real U.S. wages, which have remained stagnant—and have, thus, in effect gone down given rising costs from inflation—a very different picture emerges. For the 1%, the economy is booming. For the rest of us, it’s hard to even know where we stand. A recent study by Porch (a home-improvement company) of blue-collar vs. white-collar workers shows how traditional categories are becoming less distinct—the study references "new-collar" workers, who require technical certifications but not college degrees. And a set of recent infographics from CreditLoan capturing the thoughts of America’s middle class as defined by the Pew Research Center shows how confused we are.

Keep reading Show less