How Behavior Spreads | Damon Centola

Summary of: How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions (Princeton Analytical Sociology Series, 3)
By: Damon Centola


Embark on an illuminating exploration of the fascinating world of social contagions with Damon Centola’s ‘How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions’. This eye-opening book challenges conventional wisdom about how ideas and innovations spread through social networks, allowing you to delve into the surprising complexity of human behavior. Discover the crucial role of strong, close ties, and the unique dynamics of networks, as you uncover the secret to effectively spreading innovative behaviors that can benefit society. Ultimately, this engaging summary will change the way you think about social influence and the diffusion of ideas, behaviors, and technological breakthroughs in our interconnected world.

The Power of Social Networks

Social contagions spread through close ties within social networks, contrary to the conventional wisdom that they spread through weak ties. The Korean government’s approach to slowing population growth in 1960s Korea through social influence via peer networks is a testament to the effectiveness of such an approach. The spread of new social norms occurs primarily through social networks rather than weak ties. While weak ties work for simple ideas, information, and highly transmissible diseases, they are not nearly as effective for complex ideas, new technologies, or substantive behavior change.

Spreading Change

The spread of harmful diseases often outruns efforts to contain them, while the adoption of beneficial practices lags behind their potential impact. The AIDS virus, one of the worst epidemics in history, rapidly infected individuals despite attempts to prevent it. Conversely, encouraging positive lifestyle changes often faces significant resistance. People find it challenging to alter beliefs and behaviors. Strong ties with peers reinforce social norms, which play a crucial role in the adoption or rejection of innovations. Weak ties, on the other hand, impede the spread of such trends through a network.

The Power of Networks

Networks play a vital role in the spread of ideas and information. In closely-knit networks, information spreads slowly and redundantly. On the other hand, weak and long ties are more efficient in disseminating information. The concept of “six degrees of separation” is crucial in this aspect, as it enables people in social circles to connect with six bridging people. However, when it comes to complex situations, tightly clustered networks are more successful in mobilizing people. The difference lies in the level of risk and cost involved in the event. Ultimately, the power of networks can impact the success of innovations and social movements alike.

The Power of Close Ties

In the book, “The Tipping Point,” it is explained that ideas, behaviors, or innovations spread differently depending on their complexity. Complex contagions, for instance, require social confirmation for people to adopt them. The more people adopt them, the more exciting they become, and the more significant the social contagion. However, the larger the consequences of adopting a new technology or behavior, the more the need for peer reinforcement. The book states that if the decision to adopt depends on social confirmation, then the behavior is more complex, and wide bridges are required for it to spread efficiently. In contrast, simple contagions spread quickly when bridges are long. Research has shown that even in minimally complex cases, clustered networks of close ties result in 40% greater adoption than random networks of loose ties. This finding applies to promoting behavior change in populations, such as encouraging vaccination or quitting smoking. The more challenging the behavior change, the stronger the influence of peers. Therefore, encouraging close networks and continuous reinforcement from friends, co-workers or family members can lead to sticky, long-term behavior change.

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