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Monday, November 9, 2009

Why You Should Care About What Other People Think

I had the opportunity today to listen to a presentation by James Fowler, co-author of Connected, at the iDiplomacy Symposium taking place at our headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Fowler and his co-author Nicholas A. Christakis examine how social networks form, evolve, and influence us. According to their research, we all operate in social clusters, which strongly influence our attitudes and behaviors. They have found that we are most strongly influenced by the people with whom we have strong, real relationships, as well as by the people who strongly influence those people. We are not as influenced by our more peripheral or loose connections.

From the lens of a person focused on reporting the attitudes and behaviors of people far beyond any of our own personal networks -- i.e., the views of all citizens in the U.S. and around the world -- I left with two main takeaways.

First, social networks have the opportunity to influence public opinion, in some ways even more so than politicians or advocates of a particular issue or action. This is because we're more likely to emulate the attitudes and behaviors of a person who is close to us than a person who is far from us. Further, it's important to understand how many people hold a certain viewpoint, because each of those people is a potential advocate or "influencer" for that viewpoint. The more people who hold a certain viewpoint, the more potential influencers you have, and the more networks to be influenced.

Second, because socially-connected people influence each other and because like-minded people tend to associate with one another, our own personal networks are rarely going to provide an accurate gauge of the bigger picture out there. The nationally representative data we collect at Gallup in many ways serve as a check on our own perceptions, which are likely affected by the attitudes and behaviors of the people closest to us and not necessarily reflective of what people think more broadly.

So, it turns out we absolutely should care, or at least be aware, about what other people think -- both those closest to us, and those far away. And we're best off if we acknowledge and understand why there's often a difference between the two.

2 comments:

warren wright said...
November 10, 2009 at 8:53 AM  

Suoper insight! I agree.

Paul Marsolek said...
November 23, 2009 at 9:01 PM  

Morales makes a good point that those we associate or partner with will provide a limited insight. Knowing and understanding what others think, whether we agree or not, is the first step into deeper understanding, and successul relationships and business ventures.

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