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Power of Social Connections

Posted on November 8, 2013

We have been discussing how our society is structured on the false assumption that we are all making free choices in isolation from larger societal influences.  Author Jim Rohn stated “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  While this seems to oversimplify the power of social networks…new findings are proving that Jim is on to something very important. Until our interventions come in line with scientific truth, we will only have limited impact on our clients and communities.
There are two pieces of research that I want to present to help us understand the new foundation of our work with clients and our work to eliminate the pain caused by the social errors we discussed in previous posts. The first is the power of social networks that Christakis and Fowlers’ present in their great book Connected. This book uses research to show the influence of the community and relationships.   
While the percentage can vary slightly depending on what you are measuring, there has emerged a strong correlation between the characteristics of your social network and your life.  Research shows three level of influences from our social networks.  Whether you measure chances for heart disease, smoking or happiness those who we have direct contact with will increase our chances for that we will also have that characteristic by around 15%.
So let’s say that you have a close friend from college move to your town.  You might have kept in touch with this person over Facebook or with Holiday cards, but you haven’t spent much time with them outside a few weddings and a class reunion or two.  You and this friend click, just like during college.  All of a sudden you start seeing her weekly if not more often, in other words, she becomes an immediate relation in your network.  If this friend smokes, your chances of smoking increases around 15%, if she has behaviors that led her to have diabetes, you have a 15% increased chance of starting these behaviors.  On the other hand, if she loves to take long bike rides on weekends or enjoy massages you increase your chances of picking up these behaviors as well. 
Think about your immediate relations…do they have similar interests, loves and bad habits? Just like emotions, behaviors and habits are also contagious.  Now this is where things get cool and maybe a little scary depending on your network.  Researchers also found that we are influenced by our immediate relationships, friends and family by 10% and their friends and family by 7%.  That is right, people you have never even met are influencing you in powerful ways.  You might have caught the running bug or love of sushi virus from your roommate, but it is likely they caught it from one of their friends who was introduced to it by still another friend.  Here is a slide I created to help demonstrate their research.
At first I was a little taken aback by this conclusion.  I want to think that we all have a range of free will to choose independently and define ourselves as people.  In reality choice just shifts from isolated decisions to one of larger social context.  We have the choice of who we surround ourselves with and what influences we bring into our lives. 
The analogy I’ve been playing with to explain this is that we are actors in a play.  The stage and the lines we say are written by those in our network. While we have the power to interpret our role we are playing the part we signed up for my being part of our social network. We have choice in how to interpret our role in the play.  If you put Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks or George Clooney in the same role, you have a very different production.  In the analogy we still have power to choose the play and how we play our role within its context.
The next piece of research comes from the evolving field of epigenetics.  My introduction to this research was in Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us.  Connecting epigenetics with the power of social networks gives us a new understanding of ourselves and our clients.
The basics of epigenetics is that in the womb genetics does most of the work constructing the brain.  We are born with more brain cells than we’ll ever have in our lives.  It is as if we are born with nearly unlimited potential.  Then the environment starts to have its influence.  There are many things in the environment that influence brain development, none are more powerful than the relationships we have with others. Here is another slide I use often in trainings when talking about how relationship structure the physical structure of our brains.

Relationships shape us by activating certain genes in our DNA.  The expression of these genes release proteins that create cells and ultimately create the traits that influence the development of our personality.  In the brain this is realized by the rapid “pruning” of brain cells early in our development.  The environment determines which brain cells are strengthen and which ones die off.  This process goes on until our mid-twenties with rapid pruning happening in our early years and then another period in our early and mid-teens.
Even outside these formative periods of development, our environment and relationships continue to impact and change the physical structure of our brain.  From early attachment to our parents, to our later friendships and romantic relationships, the brains of those around us imprint their structure on our own.  Emotions, behaviors and traits are spread throughout our social networks like viruses impacting us on multiple levels.
Let’s think about what this means for a moment.  The errors we have been discussing in past posts (trauma, addiction, mental illness, domestic violence etc.) are phenomenon passed between people through social networks and early attachment patterns.  When we start to understand the impact of social networks on our clients, we begin to understand the importance of focusing interventions that connect our clients to healthy people and social networks that include healers like ourselves.
This paradigm challenges our current system.  How do prisons, homeless shelters or residential care settings make sense in light of this new science?  Science tells us that putting clients with others that are struggling should only increase the pain and hurt of our clients and may reinforce negative behaviors, physical illness and emotional distress.  We won’t be able to change our systems overnight.  I believe it is important to examine the ground on which we are currently standing and ask ourselves how we change the foundation on which we do our work as healers. 

2 responses to “Power of Social Connections”

  1. Matt, I love this post. I am currently learning about the brain and how it is impacted by environment. Research shows that a child experiencing severe neglect actually develops a smaller brain than that of a child who is highly engaged in activities and talked to regularly.

    The good news is that they are finding the brain’s plasticity is endless, and even as adults, neurons will migrate to areas that begin to be used again. What this means for us is that if our clients make the conscious effort to change their immediate environments (for example, no longer engage in high-risk behaviors), their brains will actually adjust and start to accommodate the new behaviors. Starting to read even in later years (although it can be harder to learn) will regenerate neurons that make reading a habit. Pretty cool stuff!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post. The brain stuff is cool isn’t it? We are learning what the brain (and our clients) really need to heal. Now all we need to do is evolve our organizations, systems and society to match this knowledge. Might take a while, but the more people we arm with this paradigm the quicker this transformation can happen.

      Is anything more fun than changing the World to promote the healing of pain!

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