HOW TO WIN YOUR FRIENDS’ FRIENDS’ FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE THEM
You have a breathtaking amount of social influence without even realising.
Did you know that friends of your friends can make you fat? And depressed? And pregnant? And give up smoking? It seems ridiculous to suggest so but this is exactly what painstaking and unusual research in Harvard University over a period of thirty years has shown. The findings show how conditions spread like a contagion across a society, using the informal social networks that we live in.
This is difficult for us to grasp because we are in thrall to individualistic ways of thinking. We start - and often end - with the individual in life. This has empowered us in many ways, allowing us to express our personal freedom and ensuring that state power does not coerce us to do things we do not like. Yet the myth that has grown up alongside it is that we do not need others to create our own future, expressed by an older generation in the hubristic words of Frank Sinatra: ‘I did it my way’ and by a younger generation in the deceitful mantra that if you want something enough you will always get it. This culture is so deeply a part of our existence that we find it hard to imagine another way of living, like a fish trying to make sense of life on dry land.
The seeds of another way of living are embedded in the Gospel we believe. We are created relational beings who find their truest fulfilment in community. Yet the prevailing culture inhibits us from imagining how much of an impact we make on the dense and complicated networks that we live in. The Harvard research demonstrates the cascading effects just one person can have on the world around them. Our social influence can be bad: those who commit petty crimes are likely to influence the networks they live in to do the same (though this is less of true of more serious crimes) and knowing someone who cheats is more likely to make us cheat than observing a cheat we do not know. On the other hand we can exert a benevolent impact on our networks. One survey of seventy-five thousand employees in an American bank found that employees gave more when they worked next to generous colleagues.
The researchers have called their thesis the three degrees of influence rule (see Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, HarperPress 2010). We have a contagious effect on our friends’ friends’ friends but after this point, the contagiousness of our behaviour diminishes to almost nothing. So if a person has, say, twenty social contacts who are discrete from one another, and they have twenty friends who each have twenty friends, then the thesis suggests we can influence for good eight thousand people, most of whom we do not know.
The thesis is beginning to be used to develop policies in health and social welfare that focus on social networks as much as on socio-economic conditions in providing help.
When we speak of our witness to Jesus Christ in the world we think about the individual encounters we have each week without understanding how large an effect our conduct has on an enormous and largely hidden group of people to whom we are connected by social networks. Who knows what God has done through us to influence strangers for good? By the same token, who knows what malignant impact vindictive conversation has made on unknown numbers to discredit the truth?
Put this way, the opportunities and pitfalls of individual Christian witness are much greater than we have allowed for. Many of us have listened to Christian testimony that has suggested incredible links between individuals for good but we have usually put it down to the exceptional work of God rather than the mundane way he has caused us to be related to strangers.
When Jesus calls us to throw our nets over the side of our boat, we should think twice about telling him he is wasting our time. There are far more fish out there than we imagined.
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