From Yale University, Nicholas Christakis is infectiously excited about his upcoming trip to Sydney for Ko Awatea’s 2016 APAC Forum.
The Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, and Professor of Medicine, Sociology, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology will no doubt inspire delegates as a keynote speaker with his discoveries regarding the power and potential of human social networks.
Once named to Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World, his work is deeply significant in population health and he hopes delegates will leave his presentation with an understanding of the extent to which social networks can be targeted to improve human welfare.
So many ideas
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“We’ve done many experiments, with both online and face-to-face communities, to explore how to create artificial tipping points in order to change behaviour in groups of people for the better,” he says, “and we can target and strategically influence people’s health behaviour.”
Such “social contagion” is a powerful tool for wide-reaching health promotion, for patients and practitioners alike. GPs can be influenced to write fewer prescriptions for antibiotics, while smokers can be persuaded to quit, for example.
Some of Professor Christakis’s recent work, published in The Lancet in 2015, illustrates this.
He and colleagues researched the effectiveness of social network targeting with a multivitamin and water purification programme in villages in Honduras. The researchers used three methods to select initial targets for the programmes: randomly selected villagers, villagers with the most social ties, and one nominated friend for each of a set of random villagers. Each of these three groups was given vouchers for healthcare products to distribute to their contacts. The researchers found that the villagers with the most influence were nominated friends, rather than the most connected people in the network or than randomly selected individuals.
In addition to the Time accolade, Professor Christakis has twice been named among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top Global Thinkers, in 2009 and 2010, and he is a member of the National Academy of Medicine (USA). He has appeared in several TED talks and hundreds of academic talks, and has been extensively published.
He has famously demonstrated how the structure of the human social network can influence obesity and smoking – if your friends’ friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 25 per cent higher than if your friends are normal weight, for example. Similar phenomena are observed for smoking, drinking, drug use, sleeping and other health-relevant behaviours.
Speaking generally about human social networks, Professor Christakis says they are not without their risks – they affect the risk of exposure to violence and infection, for example. On the other hand, they also expose people to happiness and ideas.
“I would endorse the idea that human social interaction is generally beneficial.”
Professor Jonathon Gray, Director of Ko Awatea (the organisation responsible for APAC Forum 2016) is thrilled to have Professor Christakis speaking at APAC Forum 2016.
Professor Gray describes Professor Christakis as a pioneer for his work in identifying people and pathways to achieve massive change.