The Power of Social Networks to Change Health Behavior

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, co-authors of Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Think, Feel and Do, have been studying the power and influence of social networks for a large portion of their careers. The concept of ‘six degrees of separation’ took on a whole new meaning thanks to Kevin Bacon, but Christakis and Fowler turned this party game into a science and have shown through peer-reviewed research that social networks can also influence the health status and behavior of the group.

Using the Framingham Heart Study data set, Christakis and Fowler found health and related behavior reflects ‘three degrees of influence,’ meaning your health behavior can indeed be influenced by a friend of a friend. As Christakis puts it in the following TED talk, “If a friend says, ‘let’s go have muffins and beer,’ and you do…and more friends join you, a new norm of what an acceptable body type begins to look like within your social network spreads–literally and figuratively. See Christakis’ Ted Talk below:

Wired Magazine interviewed the researchers in a 2009 article, The Buddy System: How Medical Data Revealed Secret to Health and Happiness, and the New England Journal of Medicine published the duo’s work in 2007, in the journal’s first piece on social media in medicine, The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 YearsWhile this may be old news, it is once again gaining momentum as thought leaders in healthcare become increasingly aware of the need to target disease interventions at populations versus individuals alone.

Healthcare as an industry is becoming more and more social media savvy, as the fear of the unknown is overcome by a little education and the knowledge that crowdsourcing almost anything can provide the needed push for a new idea or intervention to take hold. Social networks not only influence health, but are now also being used to find patients for clinical trials–often a rate limiting and time-consuming step to study completion (see Health Data Management, Putting Social Networks On Trial). PatientsLikeMe, out of Boston, MA and led by Jamie Heywood, has built an entire business model around bringing groups of patients together, in their own disease-based social networks in order to share what works and what doesn’t related to treatments, and life in general. The team collects meaningful data to move research forward faster, and now has the ability to match participants to clinical trials they may never have never considered because they were unaware a trial was even being conducted.

By tapping into your own social networks, health or otherwise, you can expand your reach and exposure to more and more information. Knowledge truly is power–it opens doors and provides options that may not have existed before a new discovery is made. But choose those social networks wisely–just like Mom, and now Christakis and Fowler have said–especially when it comes to making health decisions. You are not only what you eat, but what your friends eat!

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4 Comments on “The Power of Social Networks to Change Health Behavior”

  1. @Stuartberry1 says:

    Thanks for bringing these threads together. Communities & networks are massively important already & I think health & local government are just now starting to realise what benefits they could uncover if these are nurtured.
    What can organisations do to support the development of networks – face to face & online? Social media is one piece in the jigsaw.
    Can you recommend any podcasts or audiobooks that help to give some background about why networks are important ?

    • Tracy Granzyk MS says:

      Hi Stuart–
      Thanks so much for the comment, and for finding our blog. I can’t say enough about the work James Fowler (UCSD) and Nicholas Christakis (Harvard) are doing to put science behind the idea of social networks. Social media is only the surface, catch-all term in my mind–one that has been promised by many marketers to be the answer to all marketing woes. Behavior change is much more complex, and a nut medicine has not cracked, nor put the effort into figuring out why people continue to make poor health choices. Our social networks, per Fowler and Christakis’ research, have the power to influence the behavior change that could generate real prevention solutions. Would love to learn more about what you have done/found!

  2. […] other words, if you take the example of obesity, you are not only what you eat, but you are also what your friend eats and what your friend’s frien….  What we are seeing is that people with similar health behaviours tend to cluster together and […]


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