Social Contagion Theory

If you haven’t yet encountered the social contagion work by Nicholas Christakis & James Fowler, I highly recommend it, especially in Connected:  The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Their research focuses on social networks and the impact of your friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees of separation!) on dimensions of your life: from health to finance, from smoking to violence.

Then, it challenges you to question your impact on your connections–how do my exercise habits make it more likely that my friend Mike’s wife, Sarah’s mother will have healthier exercise habits?

Their research handily disrupts binary thinking; especially questioning the dichotomy between individual and collective responsibility.

Faith & Social Networks

They also have some provocative insights into the link between faith and social network connectivity.  According to Christakis & Fowler, some people anthropomorphize God, which allows them to understand God to be part of their social networks (even to the point of drawing their relationship with God on their social network diagrams.)

This can create a phenomenon where everyone in the social network feels closer to each other, because they are all only one degree removed from each other; all connected through the network node of their deity.  As they put it:  “A key function of religion, in other words, is to stabilize social connections.”

The Brain & Religious Experience:  Hard Wired for Connectivity?

This is further supported by evidence obtained through study of the brain–linking religious experience with particular brain phenomenon.  See Chapter 7 of Connected for more on faith, human nature & connectivity:

For example, functional MRI studies show that during religious feelings and altered states of consciousness, the parts of the brain that regulate the sense of self in time and space actually stop functioning.  This contributes to the sensation that ‘all are one’ and may help us overcome a built-in rigidity in the way we perceive our position with respect to others.  In essence, the brain is fooled into believing that social boundaries do not exist or, equivalently, that everyone is connected to everyone else….In this way, a religious movement can bring together disparate groups of people to achieve a common goal, from caring for the poor to building great structures to, alas, launching wars on rival groups.

This interesting clip overviews key concepts from Connected (though isn’t about faith specifically):