Updated: Dec 30, 2020
We are influenced by the behaviors of others. We might not like to admit it, and the reality is we aren’t even aware of how much our connections affect every aspect of our lives.
We can be positively influenced by others. If you have happy friends, you are more likely to be happy. If your friends vote, you are more likely to vote. But we can also be negatively influenced by others. If your friends smoke, you are more likely to be a smoker. If your friends gains weight, your risk of gaining weight goes up.
If your network exhibits a specific behavior, that changes your perception of typical behavior and your behavior changes accordingly.*
I recently wrote about how emotions are contagious, but so are attitudes, feelings, and behaviors. The people and ideas we surround ourselves with have implications for everyone at all stages of our personal and professional lives.
When trying to learn a new skills, who you surround yourself with really matters. I have seen this first hand during my time teaching in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.
Students whose aim is to have a career in the hospitality industry benefit from learning alongside students with similar goals in the world’s leading hospitality-management school. Engaged faculty, industry guests, and alumni speakers shape the normative attitudes about what each student expects to accomplish professionally. Even within a highly selective cohort, the effort of my students is influenced by their friend group. In fact, a Dartmouth study found, if your freshman-year college roommate earns a high GPA, you are more likely to earn a high GPA.
Where in the world you work, who you work for, and what projects you are assigned to can all influence your career. Some cities are associated with specific industries - San Francisco for technology, Los Angeles for entertainment, and New York City for finance - but it’s not the physical location that makes these places unique; it’s the prevailing mindset of the people.
Similarly, when trying to help my students decide which job offer to accept, I often ask if they have a sense of the organizational culture and what their relationship with their direct supervisor will be like. Working for a company and manager who helps you grow, provides you opportunities to test your abilities, and gives you rich feedback can influence your career success (and even life satisfaction).
Who you surround yourself with impacts your health. For example, if your social group prioritizes an active lifestyle, you are more likely to be active yourself. If your social group prioritizes binge drinking, the chances of you engaging in similar behavior will increase. Not surprisingly, teenage girls who see other teenagers having children are more likely to become pregnant.
If people you surround yourself with prioritize a certain behavior, eventually your perception of that behavior changes and your behavior will reflect the norm of the group. Let’s explore three steps we can take if we want to change an existing pattern of behavior or establish a new pattern.
1. Assess your environment
Consider the normative attitudes, feelings, and behaviors of the people you spend most of your time with (i.e., family, friends, coworkers, neighbors). Assessing your environment can be challenging because you can mistakenly think the behaviors of those closest to you are “normal.” Challenge yourself to define your preferred attitudes, feelings, and behaviors - the ones you strive for.
2. Choose your environment carefully
If you find your current attitudes, feelings, and behaviors are not aligned with your desired attitudes, feelings, and behaviors, then figure out a way to change your environment. Group norms are powerful. Be sure you are spending time around people you admire rather than people who bring you down.
A wholesale change is often unrealistic. Try to begin with one thing.
If you find yourself complaining about everything in life that happens to you, start surrounding yourself with people who believe they have the ability to make things happen in their life.
If you are surrounded by people who talk about other people and you decide gossiping isn’t aligned with who you want to be, start spending time with people who talk about ideas.
If you feel apathetic about what’s going on in the world and decide you want to start making a difference, pick an issue and join people who are already working toward positive change.
3. Find an accountability partner
Once you identify a preferred behavior, find someone who consistently exhibits that behavior and ask them if they will help support you as you strive to accomplish your defined goal.
My wife is an excellent accountability partner when it comes to my exercise goals. She encourages me on days when my motivation is low and provides positive feedback when she sees me taking steps toward my goal. She would be a terrible accountability partner if I was trying to avoid sweets (she loves ice cream). Telling someone your goals is an effective way to accomplish them, but asking someone to regularly check in with you on your progress increases your chances of success even more.
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Understanding your network can help you understand yourself. Research suggests you are likely connected to people similar to you; this gives you comfort. However, if you aspire for something different, surround yourself with people and ideas aligned with your preferred attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.
Akerlof, G. A., Yellen, J. L., & Katz, M. L. (1996). An analysis of out-of-wedlock childbearing in the United States. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 111(2), 277-317.
Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown Spark.
Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2007). The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England journal of medicine, 357(4), 370-379.
Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2008). The collective dynamics of smoking in a large social network. New England journal of medicine, 358(21), 2249-2258.
Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. Bmj, 337, a2338.
Sacerdote, B. (2001). Peer effects with random assignment: Results for Dartmouth roommates. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(2), 681-704.
Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.
*I’ve drastically understated the power of our network. The work of Christakis and Fowler documents how we are even influenced by friends of friends of friends.