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Three Degrees of Connection for Health, Values, etc.

Communities are built on relationships -- but which ones, and how many? Social networking has new tools, but does it have new purposes and new results?

"Sadness also spreads in a network, but not as quickly, the researchers found. Each happy friend increases your own chance of being happy by 9%, whereas each unhappy friend decreases it by 7%. This reflects the total effect of all social contacts."

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Is your dance card full?

You've heard of "three degrees of separation", no doubt, from the rash of viral marketing and social media discussions that have hit the online world over the past few years.

But this is different, it's really "three degrees of connection" and affects how we behave, what we eat, and what we value.

Meet "network man." He has basic desires of his own, but has many arbitrary preferences, such as in music or clothes, that have been influenced by the people he knows.

"Connected," is a new book by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, professor at Harvard University, and James Fowler, associate professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Their research shows that people have profound influences on each other's behavior within three degrees of separation.

That means that your friends, your friends' friends, and your friends' friends' friends may all affect your eating habits, voting preferences, happiness, and more. At the fourth degree, however, the influence substantially weakens.

Connected to Happiness

And did you know... happiness is contagious! (read about it)

New research shows that in a social network, happiness spreads among people up to three degrees removed from one another. That means when you feel happy, a friend of a friend of a friend has a slightly higher likelihood of feeling happy too.

The lesson is that taking control of your own happiness can positively affect others, says James Fowler, co-author of the study and professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego.

Connected to Obesity

These are not small effects. "If a mutual friend becomes obese, it nearly triples a person's risk of becoming obese," the book said. Even geography doesn't matter; you're still at risk for gaining weight if a friend 1,000 miles away gets bigger.

Obesity seems to spread in networks because of behavioral imitation -- you copy what people close to you are doing -- and shared expectations called "norms," the authors said. When you see people close to you gaining weight, that makes you readjust your own idea of what is an acceptable body size.

Connections at the Hub of Socially Active People

Finding the hubs of social networks can be invaluable from a public health point of view, the authors say. For example, instead of vaccinating everyone in a population against a disease, it may be just as effective to choose people at random and ask them to name their closest friends, then vaccinate those friends.

The idea is that if someone names you as a friend, you are likely to be more central to the network than a participant chosen at random. That means you're probably less socially isolated, and more likely to come into contact with a lot of people, than someone randomly selected.

Does Online Social Networking Work?

It turns out online social networks haven't necessarily expanded the number of friends the average person has. Christakis and Fowler looked at all of the Facebook pages of students at a particular unnamed university and tried to figure out who was close friends with whom based on "picture friends." Their reasoning: Two people who post and "tag" each other in photos on Facebook are likely to be more socially close than those who do not.

They found that, on average, students had between six and seven close friends on Facebook, which is not far from sociologists' estimate that most people have four to six close friends in real life.

Moreover, the expected size of social groups in humans, based on their large brain size and the behavior of other primates, should be about 150, according to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. At the time "Connected" was finalized, the average Facebook user had 110 registered friends on the site, Fowler said.

The "Three Degrees Rule" may have evolved with the human species, the authors argue. Having a social network in which influence spreads is useful, as is knowing who is a potential ally or enemy based on friends' associations. But humans evolved in small groups, not large collectives, so during early human history there may not have been people who were four degrees removed from anyone, they write.

An important caveat is that political organizing through social networks, just like choosing financial investments, depends on what you believe other people believe, he said. Bubbles in the stock market. for example, are created when a lot of people believe a lot of other people highly value a company's stock.

While social networking sites such as Friendster have risen and fallen, online social networking in general is here to stay.

"This is just yet another way through which humans exert their inherent natural tendency to try to connect to other people that they care about," he said.

REFERENCE: www.cnn.com">www.cnn.com



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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