Wisdom Of The Crowd – Socializing Wellness

You probably caught the articles last year about how obesity seemed to spread throughout social networks. Now, in an article in the Washington Post (5/27/08), they talk about another example of research showing that smoking is similarly affected by social networks. Theoretically, this research could have significant implications for using social media (i.e., Facebook, MySpace, SecondLife). I can easily imagine blogs out there following people’s efforts to lose weight or quit smoking. I can see a Facebook “badge” or “sticker” congratulating someone for not smoking.

In a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, the team [Nicholas A. Christakis, a medical sociologist at the Harvard Medical School, and James H. Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego] found that a person’s decision to kick the habit is strongly affected by whether other people in their social network quit — even people they do not know. And, surprisingly, entire networks of smokers appear to quit virtually simultaneously.

Some of the observations that they found which seem interesting included the way non-smoking spread throughout a interrelated but not always directly related group. I don’t find that too surprising. If everyone quits and it is no longer “cool” or accepted you are marginalized and likely to feel pressure to quit. This was a concern that they noted which might lead to other negative health outcomes for the group that doesn’t change.

In a small group of my friends, I have seen one person’s efforts to lose weight (which included drinking less) impact the broader group. Others lost weight. Less beer is consumed when we get together. And, there is more discussion about the gym and running and other activities. For those who aren’t interested in those topics, they miss out on part of that dynamic.

  • A person whose spouse quit was 67 percent more likely to kick the habit.
  • If a friend gave it up, a person was 36 percent more likely to do so.
  • If a sibling quit, the chances increased by 25 percent.
  • A co-worker had an influence — 34 percent — only if the smoker worked at a small firm.

“It could be your co-worker’s spouse’s friend or your brother’s spouse’s co-worker or a friend of a friend of a friend. The point is, your behavior depends on people you don’t even know,” Christakis said. “Your actions are partially affected by the actions of people who are beyond your social horizon” — but in the broader network.

“People quit in droves — whole groups of people quit together at roughly the same time,” Christakis said. “You can see it ripple through a network. It’s sort of like an ant colony or a flock of birds. A single bird doesn’t decide to turn to the right or the left; the whole flock has mind of its own.”

From a employer, health plan, or even individual perspective, the question is how do we capitalize on this? How can we create wellness programs that leverage this “viral marketing” approach to drive behavior across the “colony or flock” to quickly and efficiently drive change. Certainly, this is where I see an opportunity for some of the Health 2.0 type of companies to play a role in creating communities and enhancing dialogues on key topics to enable this process faster and make the reach broader.

One Response to “Wisdom Of The Crowd – Socializing Wellness”

  1. I will look for a study last year about patients that were more compliant with medications and had better healthcare outcomes if they had a strong social network – offline though. Employers can use the flock behavior in an office setting for wellness policies – think weight loss, smoking cessation – but for health plans it would have to be online within a disease/case specific group. I think one plan is launching a social network aspect or has it in BETA – I will look in my notes.

    Isn’t this also one of the founding principle of AA and NA? You can’t do it alone, it is through the wisdom and support of the group you can make a change?

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