Yale’s Nicholas Christakis on the Power of Social Networks

Convening Yale

We all have social networks—webs of connections to friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors—and these networks, whether we interact with them online or off, can be a key conduit in influencing our behavior for the better, according to Nicholas Christakis YC ’84, the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University.

“Networks magnify whatever they are seeded with,” Christakis told students at the Yale School of Management on November 8. “People’s attitudes and behaviors depend in quantifiable ways on the attitudes and behaviors of people they’re connected to.”

A sociologist and physician who conducts research in computational and biosocial science, Christakis spoke at Yale SOM as part of the Convening Yale lecture series, which brings scholars from throughout the university to Evans Hall to share their research with SOM students. Shyam Sunder, the James L. Frank Professor of Accounting, Economics, and Finance, moderated the discussion, which was the last of four Convening Yale discussions focusing on current events this year.

Christakis directs Yale’s Human Nature Lab and he is co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science. His current research focuses on the relationship between social networks and well-being. Ongoing investigations explore the genetic bases for human social behaviors and the application of social network principles on a population scale, in order to change behavior related to health, cooperation, and economic development.

Christakis said that human beings have been creating social networks for thousands of years and are hardwired by evolution to do so. Discernable aspects of these networks, such as members’ ability to influence each other, are consistent across time and cultures.

Clusters of similar behaviors or attitudes occur in social networks, Christakis said, and occurrences are influenced by factors including induction or the “social domino effect;” homophily, or the tendency of people to gravitate towards others like them; and the environment in which people are interacting.

Among the topics that Christakis’ lab has explored are the ability of networks to influence rates of obesity, altruism, happiness, product adoption, and cascades of everything from germs to ideas. “We can use a deep understanding of social networks to make the world a better place,” Christakis said. “We can make groups more cooperative, more innovative, more productive, more healthy—by exploiting a thoughtful understanding of how and why people affect each other.”

About the Event

Nicholas Christakis YC ’84 speaks Convening Yale event on November 8 entitled “Fixing Problems in Groups Using Social Network Analysis.” Professor Christakis is a social scientist and physician who conducts research in the area of biosocial science.

Convening Yale presents talks by faculty and leaders from throughout Yale University, who share their research and expertise and help students broaden their understanding of an increasingly complex world. The Convening Yale series is made possible through the generous support of the Robert J. Silver ’50 Fund for Innovation in Management Education.

This event is open to the Yale Community.

 

Biography

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is a social scientist and physician who conducts research in the area of biosocial science, investigating the biological predicates and consequences of social phenomena. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is appointed as the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science, with appointments in the Departments of Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Biomedical Engineering. He is the co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science.