Prof. Fowler’s Take on Your Friends, Their Friends, and Their Friend’s Friends

Who you have around you matters, and you matter to them. In fact, you matter to people you don’t even know, and you don’t even know how much they matter to you — at least according to Dr. Fowler and his research.

What everyone you interact with thinks, feels, and does impacts you, and everything you feel, think, and do, impacts them. All of these interactions over time form who we are and shape our lives. Nobody could tell you that with more confidence than Dr. James H. Fowler, a professor of political science and medicine at UC San Diego who has not only studied such phenomena extensively, but also lives taking from, and feeding into, his own network.

Growing up, Dr. Fowler always thought he’d been influenced enough by professors after having two of them for parents. But after returning from his experience volunteering for the Peace Corps in Ecuador from 1992 to 1994, the thought of becoming a professor suddenly seemed like a pretty good deal to him.

“When I decided to apply to graduate school,” Dr. Fowler said, “I thought I would study Latin American issues. But then when I went to graduate school, I started taking these classes — these basic classes — in research methodology. And then I got really interested in math, which I hadn’t been interested in a long time.”

Due to Dr. Fowler’s newfound love for statistics and math, his early work mostly focused on voting behavior because “that’s where the data was,” Dr. Fowler explained. “It was before the internet had taken off and become mainstream, around the beginning of the dot-com upswing. So, if you were studying Latin America then you would be studying ten countries over the course of ten years then you would have maybe 100 observations you could work with.”

Naturally, Dr. Fowler was interested in finding more information and expanding his knowledge beyond what was presented to him. His search eventually led him to “social networks.” A social network is a group of interconnected people’s social interactions and personal relationships,  which at the time was being driven to popularity due to the emergence of the internet. Due to the complexity of such networks, scientists oftentimes struggle to recreate successful representations for analysis. Platforms like Facebook provide a great starting point for developing current models used to represent social networks, because of their representation of people through their profiles, the connections between people as friendships, and statuses that can update over time. However, modern social media platforms were still under development during the time of Dr. Fowler’s early work.

To learn more about how to develop these early models, Dr. Fowler visited the Santa Fe Institute, a well-respected think-tank equipped with the tools and minds to study the complex and sometimes-unintuitive part-to-whole relationship that each individual’s behavior has on the collective behavior of the social network. 

After his trip, Dr. Fowler eagerly applied his new knowledge on voting datasets.

“Because of this interest in math and methods, and this growing interest in social networks, and all the work all these physicists and computer scientists were doing, that was the begining of me doing something that was novel,” Dr. Fowler said.   

The work Dr. Fowler started on social networks was entirely new to the field of political science because, though the idea of a social network was well-known, the amount of people studied and the amount of information about those people in the networks for his studies were orders of magnitude higher than what had been done before.

Work on social networks started off small and extremely simplified, using roughly 20 children in a classroom as all the individuals in the network. As time progressed, though, the networks got larger and began to include communities of about 100 people. Now, Dr. Fowler uses networks that account for millions of people and the traits associated with each individual too.

Because of this shift in scale, scientists were able to study things they didn’t even know they could. This increase in scale allowed scientists to go from figuring out what social networks even were, to answering questions like how do selected traits, such as obesity, voting behavior, happiness, and smoking cessation, pass through these groups, or how much influence each person actually has.

Dr. Fowler found that everyone has three degrees of influence, meaning that everything that a single person feels, thinks, and does, in their respective social network, impacts — and is impacted by — the actions of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. This means that if one person has five close friends whom they interact with everyday, who then have five close friends with whom they interact with everyday, who then have five other close friends whom they interact with everyday, then that first person impacts and is impacted by 125 people a day just by interacting with the first five people.

“If I don’t know anything about you, but I know something that your friend’s friend’s friend is doing, I know something about you. That’s extraordinary!” Dr. Fowler exclaimed.

And Dr. Fowler admits his work isn’t flawless. “Human networks aren’t always like computer networks,” he said.“All these network models were generated based on an interest in networks of things, but my interest has always been networks between people.”

Over the years, Dr. Fowler’s admission that his work is incomplete has allowed him to receive input from and provide advice for newer studies that advance his work and his models of human networks.

On top of the constant updates that his work needs, his information also isn’t always received in a positive light. To some, Dr. Fowler’s research makes them feel helpless and like they have no control over their choices and actions.

“You have to turn that on its head,” Dr. Fowler explained. “We sometimes get depressed and feel like we don’t have an impact on other people, but we don’t see that impact and that impact spreads … You have the capacity to increase happiness, to increase cooperativeness, to increase altruism, in your local network.You, yourself are exerting some of this influence. You have a bigger influence than you think you do, so when you’re deciding what to do, instead of being depressed by the responsibility, get excited by the opportunity!” 

Photo courtesy of  Dr. James H. Fowler.