Communication Channels & Messaging Distribution

As a social species we are constantly seeking out ways to connect and relate to each other.  Emerging studies indicate that our mental and physical health rely heavily on the social interactions we have with each other.  Take the following examples from Gallup[1]:


Gallup found that social activity increases your chances of having a good day.
Image: Gallup, Inc.

  • People with fewer social ties have nearly twice the risk of dying from heart disease and are twice as likely to catch colds even though they are less likely to have the exposure to germs that comes from frequent social contact.
  • The memories of people who are socially active decline at less than half the rate of those who are not.
Through our interactions, we develop social networks that transmit ideas, behaviors, and social norms. As our identities are formed by these interactions, our own actions, moods, and belief systems are in turn transmitted to hundreds if not thousands of people we won’t ever know through these social networks at play around us.

According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine (Christakis & Fowler, 2007)[2], social behavior is a significant factor contributing to the spread of obesity and that it’s spread can be quantified in patterns based on the nature of social interaction.

The study defined obesity as having a body-mass index (weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) of 30 or more, and that it is the product of voluntary choices or behaviors. Monitoring a total of 12,067 participants over the span of 32 years, between 1971 and 2003 in the city of Framingham, Massachusetts[3], the study found that social contagion increased an adult’s chance of becoming obese by:

  • 57% if he or she had a mutual friend who was obese;
  • 40% if he or she had a sibling who was obese; and
  • 37% if he or she’s spouse was obese.

Gender and social distance also contributed to the spread of obesity. People of the same gender had a greater influence on each other than people of different genders. In the same way, people who had a closer social relationship had a greater influence on each other than people who simply lived near each other. This last point is important because it shows that environmental factors play less of a role in the spread of obesity than the amount and quality of social interactions.

After their study outlining the social spread of obesity, Christakis & Fowler continued their analysis of social networks with Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives (2009)[4], suggesting that both our behaviors and perception of the behaviors of others are interconnected through a series of subtle communication channels that affect our emotional states and personal belief systems.  Anyone who has been to an NFL tailgate or Holiday party can confirm experiencing a ‘culture’ of unhealthy behaviors that are difficult to overcome. This is especially true when we are with people who are significant to us; people we know and trust versus people in a commercial[5].

The Framingham study concluded that the social spread of obesity was not entirely due to an imitation of behaviors. This was determined in part because there was no correlation in the spread of specific behaviors such as smoking cessation or overeating and obesity. Instead, obesity is primarily spread through a slow social exchange: by changing people’s perception of social norms regarding acceptability of obesity and their own risk of illness.

Finally, the study argues that like the spread of obesity, social norms can be changed to promote the contagion of healthy behaviors. Approaching obesity as a public health problem instead of a clinical problem, creating wellness programs that encourage positive social interaction and quantifying the patterns of successful engagement are crucial to the social contagion of health.

I applied the role of social engagement and contagion to the Ballarat Wellness Study through program’s content concerning the “Engage It” Booster, overall content distribution, and an analysis of how participants used social engagement throughout the program. Because most of the study subjects were not overweight, I choose to focus engagement on creating positive relationships and healthy behaviors instead of weight loss specifically.