Friends Key to Health Behavior

Manila Bulletin, September 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Friends Key to Health Behavior


CHICAGO, (Reuters) - When it comes to changing health behavior, it takes more than a far-flung network of friends on Facebook egging you on. It takes a jostling herd, US researchers said on Thursday.

Social scientists have assumed that changing behavior would spread like the flu, which transmits best via individuals with lots of long-distance contacts. But to change behavior, you need to be surrounded by the message - with neighbors, family, and members in the community all reinforcing the same idea.

"For about 35 years, wisdom in the social sciences has been that the more long ties there are in a network, the faster a thing will spread,'' Damon Centola of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose study appears in the journal Science, said in a statement. "It's startling to see that this is not always the case.''

Knowing how best to influence health behavior is important to health reform as the United States turns its focus to preventing disease, rather than treating it.

Researchers have already shown that networks of friends can have a powerful impact on health behavior, influencing smoking, obesity, and even happiness. But it is not clear which type of network is best.

Centola set up two different types of social networks within an online community of about 1,500 people. "I had to create a little social petri dish,'' Centola said in a telephone interview.

One group consisted of individuals with far-flung ties, and the other involved clusters of people who interacted with each other. …

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