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How Our Social Nature Makes Everything Contagious

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How Our Social Nature Makes Everything Contagious

10 Blocks podcast June 10, 2020
The Social Order

Kay Hymowitz joins Brian Anderson to discuss how our social instincts, and especially our social networks, affect our behavior and choices, in areas as wide-ranging as divorce, obesity—and even rioting.

Humans are social animals, as the saying goes. Our social nature, Hymowitz writes in her new story, “The Human Network,” makes nearly everything contagious, from viruses to behaviors. For example, new research suggests that people can, in effect, “catch” divorce from their friends or extended family. But while network science can be a useful tool for understanding human action, it cannot explain why some are more susceptible to social pressure than others.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Kay Hymowitz. Kay is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She's a longtime contributing editor at City Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @KayHymowitz and her latest story for City Journal, which appeared in our Spring 2020 Issue is called "The Human Network" with a subtitle, "Our social nature makes nearly everything—from behavior to viruses—contagious." It's a very timely story. And if I might add, and I think Kay would agree this social contagion also extends to the kind of protests and rioting and looting that we've seen all over the country over the last two weeks. We'll be sure to get her to talk about those events a little later in the interview. Kay, thanks very much for joining us.

Kay Hymowitz: My pleasure, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Your essay is a very rich and comprehensive look at what you might call human social networks, families, neighborhoods, schools, friends, friends of friends, workplaces. What isn't widely understood as you point out is how these networks affect behavior of human beings. For example, while the parents of teenagers struggle to help their kids navigate peer pressure, adults aren't free from such kind of peer pressure or social contagion as you call it themselves.

So this phenomenon as you open your essay is quite evident when it comes to divorce. So how does network behavior influence divorce? And maybe you could just describe a little bit more about what you mean by and what researchers mean by network behavior.

Kay Hymowitz: Well, I think the best way to start is to think about the way microbes go viral. That is they get spread and something similar can happen with social phenomenon as well. Social phenomenon, everything from emotions. Now think of if you go to a, let's say a Rolling Stones concert, and I'm dating myself here, think of the euphoria and thrill, the yelling and the singing and the dancing. That is contagious. I mean, you do it. People will like to go to those concerts exactly because it is so euphoric to be in a crowd that is sharing that same experience together and many emotions are contagious. You think of laughing. If you go to a comedy club, you'll often find that comics will laugh at their own jokes because they know that laughter can be contagious.

Crying. If a friend is crying or just somebody you see on TV that moves you, that could be-

Brian Anderson: Or yawning.

Kay Hymowitz: Or yawning. Absolutely. Yeah. And anger, I think can be contagious too. And maybe we can get back to that a little bit later. And it's also obvious, I think to anybody, even those who have not studied social networks, that fads spread. Something like the keto diet, I still don't quite entirely understand what it is, but I know it's spread from nothing several years ago to being very, very popular.

So what I tried to show it on the piece is that even a lot of behaviors that seem highly personal and deliberative actually turn out to have a social dimension. You mentioned divorce. And I start the piece with this story of divorce precisely because it does seem so personal. People spend the nights tossing and turning, talking to friends about their decision, going to priests, or rabbis, or ministers to discuss what to do. It seems like a wrenching personal decision. But what social network researchers have found is that it actually spreads divorce. What they did was they looked at a huge dataset from something called the Framingham Heart Study and looked at people over time. And they were able to see that people who divorced had this effect on other people. That if your friend's divorce, you were 75% more likely to divorce yourself. I mean, that's a big number.

If friends of friends divorced, it was about 33%. Beyond that there didn't seem to be that much of an effect, but the point is that this is a social phenomenon you never would have thought of as something that you would imitate or learn from somebody else. You would make the decision on your own. It seems that what happens is that people's perceptions of what's normal behavior or acceptable behavior begins to change according to their social networks. And that is certainly something that happened with divorce by the 1970s and has continued since then.

Brian Anderson: Well, you talk about in this context to teen suicides, which is a more disturbing example of this kind of social networking effect. Perhaps you could elaborate a little bit on the story you tell in your piece about that.

Kay Hymowitz: Right. Well, one of the things that I think is interesting about this social network theory, which can get rather technical, is that all parents know about social networking. When we're worrying about who our kid's friends are who their peers are. When we talk about peer influence or peer effects or bad influences, we're talking about social networks and social networks, particularly for adolescents can be an amazingly strong force. And I'll give you the really alarming story you alluded to first, but there are some better stories, some more positive stories. There wasn't a community in the Midwest some years ago had a cluster, what the network scientist called cluster of suicides among high school students. And people, especially scientists had sort of suspected that suicide occurred in clusters, but they didn't really have a theory for it.

So these researchers went into the community and what they found was that the kids there had, after there were a few suicides, the kids in the community more broadly came up with the idea that what was causing it was academic pressure and that became the sort of narrative for understanding teen suicide. And they expect-

Brian Anderson: In the sense of pressure for good grades, you mean?

Kay Hymowitz: For good grades, yes, this was a wealthy community and with a lot of aspirational kids and families, and that meme, that idea, that academic pressure could make you consider or actually commit suicide, sort of became part of a narrative that got passed on to kids and this went on for some years in this community, that instead of the meaning making in this case, that it was academic pressure helping to solve the problem. It actually reinforced the problem by telling kids this was "normal". I don't mean to say that everybody wanted you to do it, but simply that this is something that could happen to you too,

Brian Anderson: In the sense that it created a kind of narrative, which gave people a justification for acting in this way?

Kay Hymowitz: Well, I think more than that, let's say you did feel upset about your grades. You could then magnify your feelings by thinking about your friend. And by the way it was often popular kids who were... There were several popular kids who did this and those popular kids have more impact on the social network than most of us regular folks. And you then might experience not just that you're upset about your grade, but that this is really a tragedy and something that would be worth considering suicide for.

Brian Anderson: You've talked here about divorce and teen suicide, very troubling aspects of this kind of social contagion, but the more we discover about social network effects, the more I guess it raises the possibility that they could be manipulated or encouraged to move in a more positive direction. That can happen too, right?

Kay Hymowitz: Absolutely. Social networks are actually, I'm making it sound with those examples like it's just a negative thing, but it's not. It's an essential part of our social nature and we develop these networks. It not only creates social cohesion, but it adopts norms which you can adapt to. Some of those norms, in fact, I would say most of them are pro-social.

So for instance, going back to the high schoolers again. If you were in the right social network, if your kid is in the right social network their desire for higher grades, which maybe you have communicated to them could be reinforced rather than destroyed by bad influences.

So, one reason I think so many parents spent so much time and energy and money on ensuring that their kids live in a wealthy neighborhood or at least a relatively affluent neighborhood is not just because they're snobs and not because they're racist, but because they know that they need their kids to be around kids who are going to reinforce the goals and values that they have and they feel that that is more likely to happen in a wealthier and neighborhood with strong schools.

Brian Anderson: You wrote your story really against the backdrop of the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States. Certainly what you're describing in this article applies to regular old viral transmission. Right?

Kay Hymowitz: Right. One of the things I've found fascinating about the epidemic is that people very quickly began to understand the impact that their behavior had on other people. So if they went outside without a mask or didn't wash their hands after being outside, or if they didn't cover their cough or something like that, they could actually really harm other people. And it's much harder to understand, I think, how social behaviors might harm, transmit, and harm other people, but that is the case as well.

So with the COVID people began to see, "Well, if I do this, if I go out with my friends, I could actually harm my parents when I come home by getting the disease." So it's a very powerful illustration of just how tied together we are as social creatures,

Brian Anderson: We've had the pandemic, and now we've had this a period of very troubling urban unrest. And it certainly seems that there's been a kind of social contagion at work here too, wouldn't you say?

Kay Hymowitz: Absolutely. I think as I mentioned before, emotions are contagious and emotions ran very, very high after the murder of George Floyd and that anger gets reinforced. You feel it, the people around you feel it, you come together in big demonstrations, which are characterized by social contagion, how it doesn't have to be anger. It can be very controlled. It's a sense of injustice, but you can also see how it could easily degenerate into angry and even violent behavior. And I think that the looting and some of the more violent behavior by some of the protesters can really be seen as a loosening of certain kinds of norms that you generally experience in life. It seemed like, well, other people are going into that sneaker store and taking all those sneakers and you don't have the police around to stop you, so you go in too. Same thing with throwing rocks at the police. It may be that you are a kid who never would've thought of doing such a thing on your own, but you see other people around you doing it, and it makes it seem the more you see the more normal, right? it begins to seem and so that I think is how the contagion-

Brian Anderson: Right. It can create mobs very easily.

Kay Hymowitz: Right, right. It's one reason you want to keep emotions very under control when there are crowds.

Brian Anderson: How big a role do you think the media transformations of recent years, especially the emergence of ubiquitous social media have played in encouraging kind of contagious behavior in this sense?

Kay Hymowitz: Oh, remarkably in ways that really have been, I think mostly destructive, not only, but mostly destructive. When teenagers, adolescents, now I talked a little bit about how susceptible they are to peer influence. What do they see when they go on their friend's social media sites? They're not seeing their friends studying, or doing something constructive. They'll see their friends partying. You wouldn't take a picture of yourself reading a book, but you would take a picture of yourself with a cigarette in your hand and a beer, a bottle of beer in the other hand, and that can have the effect, especially if it's a popular person posting those pictures of, again, changing norms, affecting the way kids think of themselves.

We've all talked about this fear of missing out, FOMO that happens with social media. It's just, it's similar to that and you see everybody behaving a certain way, going to certain parties, and you're not part of that social network and that is a painful thing. And can change your behavior in order to fit in with the crowd.

Brian Anderson: It's fascinating material and incredibly relevant to what we're experiencing in 2020. Thanks very much, Kay.

Don't forget to check out Kay Hymowitz's latest essay for City Journal. It's called "The Human Network." You can find it on our website and we'll also link to it as we always do with these discussions in the show description. Kay's on Twitter @KayHymowitz. You can follow City Journal on Twitter as well @CityJournal, and on Instagram at @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Thanks very much, Kay, for joining us.

Kay Hymowitz: Thank you.

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