Catching Happiness: Christakis and Fowler and the Social Contagion of Behaviors

Christakis & Fowler Obesity Network

Christakis & Fowler Obesity Network

“Is Happiness Catching?” is the feature article in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Clive Thompson writes about the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed 15,000 people starting back in 1948. Originally framed as a study of physical disease, the data are now being turned to social ends.

Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist and doctor at Harvard, and James Fowler, a political scientist at UC San Diego, have taken this data set to examine a question that dates back to Durkheim and his ideas about collective effervescence, anomie, and suicide – how do our social relationships affect what we experience and do? As Thompson frames it:

By analyzing the Framingham data, Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking. Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of your genes and your diet, it seems. Good health is also a product, in part, of your sheer proximity to other healthy people.

Their research shows that common explanations for problem behavior, such as individual being at fault or peer pressure, are inadequate. What we experience and how we act spreads further than we think. Take a major illness affecting a mother late in life, and the strain and stress her daughter experiences caring for her mother. That strain can affect the daughter’s husband, who in turn shapes his friend’s life.

Christakis saw this through his clinical experience, and with Fowler, decided to study the impact of social networks. One of their main findings is that in the Framinghamn study, “drinking spread socially, as did happiness and even loneliness. And in each case one’s individual influence stretched out three degrees before it faded out. They termed this the ‘three degrees of influence’ rule about human behavior: We are tied not just to those around us, but to others in a web that stretches farther than we know.”

When a Framingham resident became obese, his or her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese, too. Even more astonishing to Christakis and Fowler was the fact that the effect didn’t stop there. In fact, it appeared to skip links. A Framingham resident was roughly 20 percent more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese — even if the connecting friend didn’t put on a single pound. Indeed, a person’s risk of obesity went up about 10 percent even if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight.

Christakis and Fowler’s work provides an in-depth description of the functioning of social networks – not a examination of why loneliness spreads so much as an examination of how it does. In other words, there is not a theory of social contagion of behaviors, but an examination of the role of social networks in loneliness. As they write in an in-press paper co-authored with John Cacioppo:

Results indicated that loneliness occurs in clusters within social networks, extends up to three degrees of separation, and is disproportionately represented at the periphery of social networks. In addition, loneliness appears to spread through a contagious process even though lonely individuals are moved closer to the edge of social networks over time. The spread of loneliness was found to be stronger than the spread of perceived social connections, stronger for friends than family members, and stronger for women than for men.

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Neuroanthropology and the Contemporary Culture of Entertainment

Thriller Ipod
By Peter Stromberg

Over the last century, anthropologists have often chosen to study exotic symbolic systems — rituals, myth, art — and frequently managed to illuminate the cultural logic underlying what seem initially to be “irrational” practices.

So why haven’t anthropologists leapt to study one of the most exotic and powerful symbolic systems in human history? I’m talking about the Western (and predominantly American) system of “entertainment”. Not only is this system central to contemporary Western culture, it has arguably played a major role in the breakdown of the cultures of many indigenous communities.

Entertainment should be a significant focus of anthropological inquiry. Alas, it is not.

Admittedly, some interest in the topic has emerged in the last couple of decades. Much of this material is promising; often authors pursue the insight that in some ways entertainment activities are similar to rituals. This is not only an accurate observation, but it points to the possibility of beginning to map how entertainment works to establish some of the central meanings of contemporary life.

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Trance Captured on Video

A great discussion on the Medical Anthropology listserve focused on good films for trance. I’ve provided the list below, complete with links to the films, extra notes in brackets, and some YouTube clips.

Joshua Moses asked:

Dear colleagues, I was wondering if people could recommend film footage of trance states of various kinds–rituals, dance, shamanic, church based etc.
The geographical region is not important. I would be grateful for you assistance. Thank you.

The Replies:

Sheila Cosminsky (Rutgers): A classic film on trance is Margaret Mead’s Trance and Dance in Bali, which shows dancers with knives under trance [also recommended by Beverly Bennett of Cultural Ideas].
Also, Jero on Jero, a Balinese Trance Seance Observed [also Balinese Trance Seance, included in the DVD, was recommended by Geraldine Moreno at Oregon].
Other films are: N/um Tchai: the Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen, and Macumba, Trance, and Spirit Healing.

Michelle Ramirez (University of the Sciences in Philadelphia): There’s always the classic “Holy Ghost People” by Peter Adair, which shows folks in Appalachia (in what very much looks like trance-like states) handling snakes.
[You can also get this documentary in a series of six YouTube clips starting here; I’ve embedded below another clip that contains some of the most relevant footage]

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Gambling and Compulsion: Neurobiology Meets Casinos

Slot MachinesBy Jarred Carter, Andrew Cavanagh, Elizabeth Olveda, and Meredith Ragany

Vegas baby, Vegas!

So you’ve finally made it out to Sin City, setting aside a few hundreds dollars to gamble. Maybe even a thousand. You’re hoping to get lucky and have some fun. A few hours and a half-dozen drinks into your weekend, you find yourself at the craps table, dice in hand. You’re feeling good, ready to turn your recent down streak into big bucks. Where does that leave you?
Right where the casino wants you.

The game is rigged. Everyone loses money eventually, if not immediately. But just like gamblers grab hold of that lever and pull, society has stepped up to the gambling craze. And now gambling is pulling people for all they’re worth: emotionally, mentally and, most notably, financially.

This post will look more closely at casino’s techniques to draw gamblers back to the slot chairs and the tables, focusing on both physiological aspects and engaged decision making. Ultimately, these observations will demonstrate that casinos create more than entertainment; they develop an entire compulsive experience.

The Gambler’s Rush

The casino’s greatest asset might be the very personal, very intense rush that gamblers experience as they step up to the blackjack table or slot machine, hoping to strike it rich. This characteristic “rush” or “high” stems from the series of steps and actions that are involved in addictive behavior. Stimulation from the surrounding atmosphere and the thrill of a big risk drives the “high”. Ultimately, the “rush” from gambling can be as intense as a drug fix.

Dealing Emotions

Excitement, making a quick buck, or even the possibility of financial independence is enticing. From experience, most people know that emotions are difficult to control. From a neurological standpoint, the amygdala is situated in the limbic system and is one main centers of emotion (pdf) in the human brain. Other parts of the brain, like the prefontal cortex, display less activity (pdf) during the act of gambling.

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Triune Ethics: On Neurobiology and Multiple Moralities

Darcia Narvaez
Editor’s Note: The following essay by Darcia Narvaez is based on her paper Triune Ethics: The Neurobiological Roots of Our Multiple Moral Personalities, which was part of the Notre Dame Symposium on Character and Moral Personality. You can obtain all the conference papers online, including Daniel Cervone, Ross Thompson, Dan McAdams, and others.

Darcia Narvaez is associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame and executive director of the Notre Dame Collaboration for Ethical Education.

Triune Ethics: The Neurobiological Roots of Our Multiple Moral Personalities

By Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D.

Triune Ethics is an interdisciplinary theory whose goals are to link moral psychology to affective neuroscience, help explain individual differences in moral functioning, and suggest some initial conditions for moral development. It is also an approach that can be linked to social relationships, conditions and situations, thus providing a biosocial view of moral action.

Three types of ethics can drive human morality, as I outline in this 2008 paper on neurobiology and our multiple moralities (pdf). These are based on different affectively-based moral stances that persons can take: one oriented to security (the Ethic of Security) and focused on self-preservation through safety, and personal and ingroup dominance. Another is oriented to emotional engagement with others (the Ethic of Engagement), particularly through caring relationships and social bonds. The third I call the Ethic of Imagination, which is focused on creative ways to think and act socially. While these labels are not all inclusive, they do seem to capture three different ways of co-existing with others in the social landscape.

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Fear of Twitter: technophobia part 2

When I was a lifeguard in high school, two of my fellow lifeguards — Steve and Pete — sought to converse as much as possible quoting directly lines from the Chevy Chase movie, Fletch. This is what qualified as comedy. Steve was apparently the ‘more clever’ of the two as he probably achieved Fletch Quotation Ratios as high as 20%; Pete, though quite well tanned, likely only managed 10% FQR at best. I hadn’t seen the movie, and I was never much for quoting film scripts (not even Monty Python), so I assumed that Steve’s high FQR was either a symptom of premature senility or a sign of the impending collapse of Western civilization.

Recent fears about the negative cognitive consequences of the social networking site Twitter, which I mentioned in an earlier post, Is Facebook rotting our children’s brains?, led me to recall Steve and Pete’s battle for high FQR. In both cases, concerned observers might wonder whether patterns of mental activity can lead to long-term neural degeneration; I haven’t checked in on Steve or Pete in more than 20 years, but I suspect they’re both locked in institutions living out a cruel Chevy Chase imitation from which they can no longer escape.

Twitter, even more than other Internet-based social networking applications, seems to provoke apocalyptic fears of mass mental degradation. Over at Alternet, for example, Alexander Zaitchik asked Twitter Nation Has Arrived: How Scared Should We Be? In the piece, Zaitchik wonders whether what was ‘once an easily avoided subculture of needy and annoying online souls’ was bringing about the apotheosis of all that is loathsome in American pop culture: ‘look-at-me adolescent neediness, constant-contact media addiction, birdlike attention-span compression and vapidity to the point of depravity.’ Rob Horning of Pop Matters warns about ‘Twitterification’ in a piece titled, Foucault’s Facebook. Keith Olbermann named Twitter ‘worst person in the world,’ …for the one episode at least (see video at You Tube); Olbermann found someone already Twittering in his name, even using his email address. And if you’re not already convinced that Twitter is the unmentioned fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, John Mayer’s Twitter obsession is blamed for Jennifer Aniston pulling the pin on their relationship.

Fortunately, even if we are on the non-stop plane to cognitive Armageddon, Web 2.0 assures us that we will have clever guerilla videos about our own immanent destruction as our in-flight entertainment. From SuperNews, we have a helpful cartoon, ‘The Twouble with Twitters’, to explain to us ‘the latest socially networking micro-bloggy thingy,’ especially if you’re a slow-on-the-uptake parent not sufficiently worried about adolescent technology use (are there any?).

More after the jump…
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