Social Connections Have Supernatural Power to Change Us

The Network Philosophy Your Mom Warned You About

"You become like the five people you spend the most time with." -- Jim Rohn

Jim Rohn was right, of course. But then again, so was your mom, which was why she likely told you to choose your friends wisely.

Standards slip fast.

The once focused athlete becomes a heavy drinker within a high school semester. All it takes is one friend to get him started. He meets a new ‘fun’ group of friends. Next thing you know, partying is top priority. Athletic pursuits are pushed to the margins.

Or the committed student’s parents get divorced. She moves to a new part of the city with one parent. Desiring social acceptance, she latches onto the first classmates that accept her. But these new kids don't value academic success. The educational drop-off is precipitous.

But these two examples only illustrate changes in behavior. Most often, underperforming and unfulfilled individuals are born into it. We inherit social groups through life circumstance and family connections. Whole communities of people share similar life experiences.

We know this to be true. Jim Rohn popularized the idea, and thus spawned a million copycats (and blog posts). So, many people 'prune' their 'group of five.'

But few are thinking beyond this. Which is a problem, because the science of social connection and contagion goes (far) beyond the group of five. Social contagion impacts us. And we impact others via social contagion.

What the Science Says

The group of five concept is easy to comprehend. As you're exposed to people, you see their behavior. It makes sense to mimic them at least some of the time. By mimicking others, we become like them.

Our minds don’t work well beyond this simplistic level of causal explanation.

But that's the beauty of science. By creating tools, following proven method, and compiling (and analyzing) data we see deeper. Whether by correlation or causation, great scientists detect patterns far more complex. Deep truths are revealed far beyond the simple causal explanations.

Enter Professor Nicholas Christakis

Christakis is a high level professor at Yale University... one of those guys who, if we wanted, we could share several pages of his achievements. But here’s not the place. If you want to learn more, check out his Wikipedia page.

Christakis and team are the world leaders in network science -- the study of how social connections affect us. Over long time frames, Christakis studied and analysed tens of thousands of participants. They found that connections matter up to three degrees away.

"Matter to what?" you might ask.

They studied, "phenomena from various domains, such as obesity, happiness, cooperation, and voting." And other researchers have studied phenomena like crime, social learning, and more.

In every domain studied, the network effect has proved to be true. Their findings led Christakis & Co. to formulate the 'three degrees of influence' theory.  This means we're affected by (and are affecting) our friends' friends' friends.

So, the general rule that, ‘we become like the five people we spend the most time with.’ still holds... for the most part. But it's not as simple as that.

It's easy to imagine a scenario where our group of five are good (or bad) role models. But it's not as easy to predict the effects of the next two degrees of connection.

How You Can Use This Information

Chrisakis's research is useful on several levels of analysis and personal decision-making. The sky's the limit on how you can use this research. Get creative.

For example, imagine you're deciding between two options when getting a new apartment.

In one neighborhood, your budget will get you a studio apartment. Meanwhile, in another neighborhood you could afford spacious 3-bedroom with pool and valet. On a basic level of analysis, many would choose spacious comfort over basic simplicity.

But what if, in the small apartment neighborhood, you're surrounded by fit, happy, and wealthy people? Meanwhile, in other neighborhood you'd be around bored, unfit, and financially sturggling people?

What if the small apartment also meant being surrounded by people (and being walking distance from) personal wellness options like floating, yoga, and group training? And what if, meanwhile, the other 'hood only had an uninspiring BigBox fitness gym 10-minutes away?

How would floating every week or month improve your life? How would getting to know the type of people who float change your perspective?

Knowing the three degrees of influence theory you'd likely make a different choice. A big apartment is nice, but is it worth sacrificing happiness, wealth, health, and meaning?

"But I'm the master of myself, others don't impact me."

This fiction is particularly seductive to the Western mind. We've consumed hero myths since before the West was even a thing.

There is real truth in heroic myths and real benefit in having a heroic mindset. But most people misunderstand this mindset. We assume we can adopt a heroic mindset and then achieve our goals by force of will.

But this is false. Even heroes arise from within the context of an existing community. They aren't separate and distinct from it. Instead, a hero is someone who rises to the challenge of a special, demanding occasion.

It's not an individual forever swimming against the tide of his or her culture's zeitgeist. Spartan Warriors didn’t arise from a tribe of accountants. They had a culture, which trained them to be heroic. They then rose to the occasion of battle.

Of course, there are different types of personalities. Some are more likely to be influenced. Others are less likely. The well-established research behind personality types shows this well.

(As a side note, if you want to understand yourself better take this personality test.)

'Agreeableness' is one aspect of the 'big 5' personality traits. Those with a high level of agreeableness are more likely to be influenced by others. While those low in agreeableness are less likely.

Darren Brown, a well-known British human-psychology experimenter, recently demonstrated the problems of influence and compliance. His recent TV special The Push first aired in the UK and is now on Netflix.

The entire show was set up like a psychological experiment into compliance. The hypothesis was that he'd be able to persuade people to commit murder. It was a shocking and horrifying practical application of persuasion.

Watch it for yourself. It will destroy any naive conception you have that we’re individuals freely choosing our actions.

We need to consider our surroundings, because the people in our network are more likely to impact us than anything else. They're especially more impactful than our own feeble willpower.

Christakis's three degrees of influence theory shows that we’re affected by the deep network, not just the immediate connections. To stack the deck in our favor when it comes to living a life of fitness, for example, we must be in a healthy network. Yes, our friends must be fit. But our friends' friends must be fit. And our friends' friends' friends must be fit.

Unless every layer of this network is fit, we're less likely to be fit.

Our Responsibility to the Network

This article has framed concerns about the network effect in terms of how it can benefit you. There is nothing wrong with this. Being 'selfish' in this way benefits the rest of society. Improve yourself and you improve the world.

But we don’t just benefit (or suffer) the network effect. We also contribute to it. How will our choices affect our kids, neighbors, parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers? If everyone is the effect of his or her networks, this also means that everyone is also the cause.

We have a responsibility to be the very best we can be. We must select our deep network as best we can. And we must then be the cause for others’ positive network effects. Literally everything we do matters, not only to ourselves but also to everyone else.