Social contagion theory: examining dynamic social networks and human behavior


  • Nicholas A. Christakis,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Medicine and Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, U.S.A
    2. Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A
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  • James H. Fowler

    1. Division of Medical Genetics, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, U.S.A
    2. Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, U.S.A
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Here, we review the research we have conducted on social contagion. We describe the methods we have employed (and the assumptions they have entailed) to examine several datasets with complementary strengths and weaknesses, including the Framingham Heart Study, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and other observational and experimental datasets that we and others have collected. We describe the regularities that led us to propose that human social networks may exhibit a ‘three degrees of influence’ property, and we review statistical approaches we have used to characterize interpersonal influence with respect to phenomena as diverse as obesity, smoking, cooperation, and happiness. We do not claim that this work is the final word, but we do believe that it provides some novel, informative, and stimulating evidence regarding social contagion in longitudinally followed networks. Along with other scholars, we are working to develop new methods for identifying causal effects using social network data, and we believe that this area is ripe for statistical development as current methods have known and often unavoidable limitations. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.