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Communities, Memes, and Influence
Something beautiful is occurring in laboratories, classrooms, conferences halls and basements across the globe: people are coming together to around subjects that excite them. You can hear it in their voices. True passion pulls people together, strengthens our beliefs, and impacts us in ways we wouldn't typically imagine.
Circles of friends
We like out friends. They're the ones that meet us for a beer after a hard day, share their favorite movies, and help us move apartments (unless we have stairs....) They're good people, and it's no surprise that the people we consider friends influence us heavily. What is surprising is how much the behaviors of our friend's friend's friends impact us.
Since 2003, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have been looking at the influence of communities on our behaviors, beliefs and actions. What they've demonstrated through papers on the spread of obesity, smoking cessation, and how happiness spreads, is that our behaviors influence others separated from us but up to 3 degrees. In other words, if Hollywood were real life: Robert Dean, played by Will Smith in Enemy of the State, is probably influenced by Captain Jack Ross from A Few Good Men. The were both lawyers, after all.
[Will Smith was in Enemy of the State with John Voight, who was in Deliverance with Burt Reynolds, who was in Striptease with Demi Moore, who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon.]
The data collected was initially part of the Farmington Heart Study. The ideas was to trace developments in cardiovascular disease within the population of Farmington, Massachusetts. Over 5,000 people supplied data beginning in 1948 that just happened to keep track of who each of a participant's friends were (in cases someone moved away and the researches needed to get in touch with them.)
When Christakis and Fowler got a hold of the data, they realized that there was much more to it than tracking a person's rate of heart disease they were able to see how wellness - healthy beliefs and actions spread throughout the town.
In 1976, Richard Dawkins introduced the term meme with the publication of The Selfish Gene. A meme (short for Ancient Greek mimētḗs, meaning "imitator, pretender") is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. With memes, Dawkins was attempting to explain how Darwin-style survival translated to ideas, not just genetic expression. But in the same way that genes mutate and evolve with time, so do memes. Today, memetics looks at the success of an idea's ability to survive and replicate.
The meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as a "unit of culture" (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.) which is "hosted" in one or more individual minds, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind. Thus what would otherwise be regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a belief is seen—when adopting the intentional stance—as an idea-replicator reproducing itself in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under a Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme's success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host.
Although the word "meme" fails to appear in any of the papers from Christakis and Fowler, what they've obviously done is create a mimetic diffusion map.
Nodes in the map represent the Body Mass Index of participants, with size correlating to individual BMI, green dots representing a healthy weight, and yellow denoting obesity. You can see how clusters of obesity form. The behaviors that lead to obesity spread within the network, and the obesity meme flourishes. But what interest me most is an idea I haven't seen explored in great detail - the ability for memes to transmitted by a host where the meme does not take root.
In a manner similar to a blonde mother giving birth to a redheaded daughter, it appears that memes can also have recessive expression. If the nodes in a communal network are viewed in terms of a meme's "lifespan" in the same way that generations represent the spreading of genes, we can see that there are meme 'carriers'; people who spreads a meme but are themselves unaffected by it.
I can only find 3 instances of "recessive meme" in publication since 1984. With any luck, Christakis and Fowler's work will inspire further study into this idea.
What does this mean for you?
Any negative habits you have aren't just hurting you, they're impacting everyone who cares about you, and everyone else through all 3 degrees. But, when you make a change in your life like taking up jogging, eating healthier, or drinking less, realize that your actions can help people you've never even met.
When you make your life better, you're actually making the lives of your friends and family better as well. - James Fowler
Make yourself the best that you can be. Society is counting on you.
- To learn more about about how humans evolved to be easily influenced, read: Why We're Susceptible to Influence: History and Hormones.
- To discover how to set achievable goals, read: How to Set Goals You'll Stick to.
Lead-in photo credit: Sue Langford