Connected

One of my goals for this year is to read ten books – including at least seven I already own but have yet to read. The danger with books is that they are so easy to obtain, during January alone I bought four more at the Dymocks sale, and have had three given to me.

Fortunately, I have also managed to read three books in the last month and a half.

Most recently, I’ve just finished reading Connected – How your friends’ friends’ affect everything you feel, think and do by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. This book is a really fascinating insight into social networks from how we form friendships and relationships, through to how happiness and depression flow through friends of friends, and even how our genes influence our personalities.

Although a lot of the book covers issues in relationships that we naturally take for granted, it also shows fascinating social experiments and statistics that confirm six degrees of separation, and how we have three degrees of influence over others.

Below are a few extracts that I found particularly interesting.

On violence and revenge:

“Notions of collective guilt and collective revenge that underlie cascades
of violence seem strange only when we regard responsibility as a personal attribute. Yet, in many settings, morality resides in groups rather than individuals.”

“In trying to explain violence, it is myopic to focus solely on the perpetrator – frame or mind, his finger on the trigger – because murder is rarely a random act between strangers. In the United States, 75 percent of all homicides involve people who knew each other, often intimately, prior to the murder. If you want to know who might take your life, just look at the people around you.”

On how we chose the members of our social networks:

“Humans deliberately make and remake their social networks all the time. The primary example of this is homophony, the conscious or unconscious tendency to associate with people who resemble us (the word literally means ‘love being alike’). Where it’s Hells Angels or Jehovah’s Witnesses, drug addicts or coffee drinkers, Democrats or Republicans, stamp collectors or bungee jumpers, the truth is that we seek out those people who share our interests, histories and dreams. Birds of a feather flock together.”

On friends in common:

“If you know Alexi, and Alexi knows Lucas, and Lucas knows you, we say this relationship is transitive – the three people involved form a triangle. Some people live in the thick of many transitive relationships, while others have friends who do not know each other. Those with high transitivity are usually deeply embedded within a single group, while those with low transitivity tend to make contact with people from several different groups who do not know one another, making them more likely to act as a bridge between different groups. Overall, we found that if you are a typical American, the probability that any two of your social contacts know each other is about 52 percent.”

On loneliness:

“At the periphery, people have fewer friends; this makes them lonely but this also tends to drive them to cut the few ties that they have left. But before they do, they may infect their friends with the same feeling of loneliness, starting the cycle anew. These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a strand of yarn that comes loose from the sleeve of a sweater. If we are concerned about combating the feeling of loneliness in our society, we should aggressively target the people at the periphery with inventions to repair their social networks. By helping them, we can create a protective barrier against loneliness that will keep the whole network from unravelling.”

On the longevity of social networks:

“Networks are also self-replicating in the sense that they outlast their members: the network can endure even if the people within it change, just as cells replace themselves in our skin, computers are swapped out in a server farm, and new buyers and sellers come to a market that has been located in the same place for centuries. In one study of a network of four million people connected by their phone calls, researchers showed that, paradoxically, groups with more than fifteen endured the longest. Large social networks may in fact require such turnover to survive, just as cell renewal is required for our bodies to survive.”

On social disparities:

“To address social disparities, then, we must recognise that our connections matter much more than the colour of our skin or the size of our wallets. To address differences in education, health, or income, we must also address the personal connections of the people we are trying to help. To reduce crime, we need to optimise the kinds of connections potential criminals have – a challenging proposition since we sometimes need to detain criminals. To make smoking-cessation and weight-loss interventions more effective we need to involve family, friends and even friends of friends. To reduce poverty, we should focus not merely on monetary transfers or even technical training; we should help the poor form new relationships with other members of society. When we target the periphery of a network to help people reconnect, we help the whole fabric of society, not just any disadvantaged individuals at the fringe.”

Overall Connected is a great read, it is slow going at times because it is has so much depth in its insights, but overall will give readers a new perspective on their everyday interactions with everyone they meet.