Popularity can come at a price: getting flu first

Tue Sep 14, 2010 5:11pm EDT
 
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By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Think you're popular? Well, name a friend. It turns out that this person is probably more popular than you, a tendency that scientists might be able to use to predict the spread of disease.

But the popular pay a price: they get flu first, on average two weeks sooner than most others, two experts report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

"Being at the center of the network tends to make you happy but it also exposes you to disease," James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, who worked on the study, said in a telephone interview.

Fowler and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University in Massachusetts said the so-called friendship paradox could be important to working out how a flu pandemic or some other nasty virus is likely to behave.

"This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response," Christakis said in a statement.

This is how the friendship paradox works. If a person is asked to name a friend, that friend is statistically likely to be more popular than the original individual.

That is because if people are asked to name a friend or two, they are more likely to choose someone who connects them to others, Fowler says. An example is a party, where most guests would name the host as a friend as opposed to the wallflowers at the fringes of the gathering.

Fowler and Christakis are experts on social networks and have used their methodology to show that obesity, smoking and other behaviors are directly related to a person's friends, and the friends of their friends.   Continued...