How your friends can make you fat, happy and smoke-free!

New Scientist‘s cover story this week looks at some fascinating social research under way that suggests moods, attitudes, behaviours can spread through social networks influencing people you may not even know directly but through other friends.

Some groundbreaking research has been done in this area by Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School whose research on the infectious nature of happiness make headlines around the world last month.

Previously Christakis had found through tracking members of the Framingham Heart Study, that people’s risk of gaining weight increased significantly when their friends gained weight and as people on the periphery of their social network (virtual strangers) did too.

Other research has also looked at the impact of social networks on smoking habits and even suicide. Christakis and others are also extending their studies to cyberspace, the ultimate platform for social networks, to see if social forces have the same influencing power online.

As Social Capital explains: “While [Christakis and company] think that face-to-face connection is important in spreading happiness (hence the decline of these effects with distance), they did a separate study of 1,700 Facebook profiles, where they found that people smiling in their photographs had more Facebook friends and that more of those friends were smiling.

“While the Facebook study is just an initial foray into the online word, Christakis thinks that it shows that some of these happiness findings might extend on social networking as well.  And it would take longitudinal studies to determine whether our online activities are gradually eroding our need for face-to-face communication to spread happiness.”

All of this may give you pause for thought if you are a member of social networks such as Facebook, where the status line of online profiles often indicates what exactly is going on in the lives of your friends and your friends’ friends. Certainly, this time of year, there seems to be a level of infectious happiness eminating from Facebook as people post updates from the bach and the beach as well as photos of themselves enjoying the sun and time off work.

But what about the gloom that seems to be spreading through society, driven by the economic crisis? As happiness is infectious, is sadness and pessimism likely to be too? It’s that self-perpetuating downward spiral economists talk about. The gloomy sentiment certainly feels infectious at the moment – especially in journalism circles!

But the research also seems to shake up existing theories of how ideas are disseminated and catch hold in society. As New Scientist explains:

“Duncan Watts at Columbia University has shown that seeding localised social groups with certain ideas or behaviours can lead to the ideas cascading across entire global networks. This contradicts the notion – promoted by the author Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, and others – that social epidemics depend on a few key influential individuals from whom everyone else takes their cue.”

The “key influencers” approach to communications is all the rage at the moment. Marketers and PR experts will target people it wants to get onboard with their product, movement or ideology. It’s hoped that these respected figures will then convince others to join the revolution as well.

On the flip-side, many of the public service advertisements we are being bombarded with at the moment target certain social or ethnic groups – possibly in the hope that the message will catch on in society in general.