We practice generosity with others and with ourselves,
over and over again,
and the power of it begins to grow
until it becomes almost like a waterfall, a flow.
- Sharon Salzberg
How altruistic is your social network? In their experiments, Christakis and Fowler have found that when people in their studies were on the receiving end of a generous exchange, they were likely to become more generous to the next people they were paired with — until their larger study group was “infected” with altruistic behavior. This might help explain why altruists are able to continue being generous without constantly being taken advantage of my other community members, possibly leading to more subdued altruistic behavior. It also might point ways to increase generosity in our communities. According to Christakis and Fowler’s work, we can improve our world by both acting in pro-social ways and networking to other people who are living well and doing good works. How are you choosing to grow your actions and influence your network?
James H. Fowler is an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Nicholas A. Christakis is a physician and a professor in both the sociology department and school of medicine at Harvard University. They have based their recent co-authored book Connected on The Framingham Heart Study data. The famous Framingham Study is a cardiovascular study that has been running since 1948 (now on its third generation of participants) with over 5,000 adult subjects from Framingham, Massachusetts. As part of the collected materials, the study regularly asks the subjects for the names of family members and one friend – although people often list more than one friend. This rich mine of data historical has allowed Christakis and Fowler to chart the social networks of a whole community and track their behavior on a range of variables. You can read more about their work in the recent New York Times article by Clive Thompson (source for the quotes in this posting).
Christakis and Fowler have found that we can affect people three degrees away from us - that is your friend’s friend’s friend (or brother’s friend’s sister), so we actually may have a lot more indirect influence than we think:
…they conducted a laboratory experiment in which participants played a “cooperation game.” Each participant was asked to share a sum of money with a small group and could choose to be either generous or selfish. Christakis and Fowler found that if someone was on the receiving end of a generous exchange, that person would become more generous to the next set of partners — until the entire larger group was infected, as it were, with altruistic behavior, which meant the altruist would benefit indirectly.
Statistics show that most of us are connected to more than 1,000 people (within three degrees of separation). This is the pool of people whom we can theoretically help make healthier, fitter, happier, and possibly more altruistic and generous - just by our contagious example. So what can you do, among your network to be generous and grow generosity? Studies show it will make a big difference.
If someone tells you that you can influence 1,000 people,
it changes your way of seeing the world.
- James Fowler