The current April issues of both Time and Wired magazines report new research that further supports the Christakis Lab’s pioneering discoveries about the power of social networks. Nicholas Christakis is the Scientific Founder of MedNetworks, as well as Professor of Medicine, Sociology and Health Care Policy at Harvard University, and founder of its Christakis Lab.

The new experiments, carried out by Margaret C. Campbell and Gina S. Mohr of the University of Colorado at Boulder, expose randomly selected students, for example, to photos of fat people before offering them a ‘taste test’ of cookies on a plate. In this experiment, those who shown a photo of a fat person were more likely to help themselves to several cookies than were students shown a photo of a normal-weight person or a photo of a lamp.

The Time “Healthland” article of April 19th quotes the researchers’ report:

“‘The findings of our research are consistent with the spread of overweight through social networks,’ concluded the researchers, whose study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. ‘People see, both in person and in photos, the people with whom they have close social ties. When close others are overweight, our research suggests that stereotype activation could lead to increased food consumption relative to when close others are healthy weight since merely seeing someone overweight can increase eating’.”

The article adds: “Incidentally, the contagion effect also works with weight loss, quitting smoking and happiness, Christakis and Fowler found.” Christakis’s major studies in these areas, as well as other healthcare concerns, are available in his popular book, coauthored with Professor James Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

The Wired article (April 20th) also reports on this new research on obesity, adding as background:

“A few years ago, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler made a striking discovery about obesity: it spreads from person to person, much like a contagious virus. They were able to demonstrate this by mining the data sets of the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), a longitudinal survey that has revealed many of the risk factors underlying cardiovascular disease. Because the FHS noted each participant’s close friends, colleagues, and family members, Christakis and Fowler were able to recreate the social network of the town, to understand how everyone was connected to everyone else. And this is when they made their remarkable discovery about weight gain.”

The article concludes, “It turns out that the habits and hungers of others shape our own.”

In a separate [Daily] Telegraph (UK) article dated April 20th, a columnist proposes that, to encourage marriage, the government should “treat it like obesity.” Citing Christakis’s research on “social contagion,” the columnist notes, “Perhaps we don’t want to seem judgmental; but in dealing with broken families, just like dealing with obesity or suicide, we should take into account the socially contagious effects of behaviour.”

Dr. Christakis has helped create MedNetworks to harness the shaping power of this “social contagion” in order to promote the distribution and adoption of the healthcare sector’s better-health messages.

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