Nick Christakis and James Fowler made headlines recently for their study on obesity contagion (See Can your friends affect your weight?).
Now they’re back with analogous research that shows that you are far more likely to be able to quit smoking if you do it in groups (where those around you are also quitting). It’s scientifically-proven, but something that practitioners have known for a while: why do you think Jenny Craig has dieters work in groups, or why all the self-help groups (Alcoholics Anonymous and others of that ilk) use group norms to reinforce changes in behavior.
Study co-author Fowler notes that in tracking individuals and social groups (through the Framingham Heart Study) over 30-years, the average size of each cluster of smokers was of similar size, but Fowler notes: “It’s just that there are fewer and fewer of these clusters as time goes on.”
The social contagion of quitting smoking can extend to people that the quitter didn’t know. For example if Anne quits smoking, and Anne is friends with Barb and Barb is friends with Clarissa, Clarissa’s chance of quitting increases by 30%, even if Anne and Clarissa don’t know each other.
Christakis notes that smokers have moved more to the periphery of social networks, where they often were more at the center of these social networks several decades ago. While this doesn’t say that teen non-smokers will necessarily be more popular, it does suggest over their lifespan that non-smoking is more likely to be associated with popularity than smoking.
The obesity study appears in the May 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
See also, Clive Thompson, “Is Happiness Catching?” (NYT Sunday Magazine, 9/13/09)