Groups of friends key to changing health behaviors

Sat Sep 4, 2010 1:48am EDT
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - When it comes to changing health behaviors, it takes more than a far-flung network of friends on Facebook egging you on. It takes a jostling herd, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

Social scientists have assumed that changing behavior would spread like the flu, which transmits best via individuals with lots of long-distance contacts.

But to change behavior, you need to be surrounded by the message -- with neighbors, family and members in the community all reinforcing the same idea.

"For about 35 years, wisdom in the social sciences has been that the more long ties there are in a network, the faster a thing will spread," Damon Centola of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose study appears in the journal Science, said in a statement.

"It's startling to see that this is not always the case."

Knowing how best to influence health behavior is important to health reform as the United States turns its focus to preventing disease, rather than treating it.

Researchers have already shown that networks of friends can have a powerful impact on health behavior, influencing smoking, obesity and even happiness.

But it is not clear which type of network is best.   Continued...