Connections

Jackie Gingrich Cushman

10/2/2009 12:01:00 AM - Jackie Gingrich Cushman

What if your actions affected 1,000 other people? Would your behavior change? What if you did not even know the people affected — would that make a difference?

Floodwaters in Atlanta wreaked havoc last week. Schools closed, Interstates closed, cars were abandoned after stalling in water, and people died from being washed away or drowning in rising waters. Bass boats motored over streets and parks covered with water. A friend paddled his Ganoe boat to rescue neighbors and their pets, paddling into the living room of one neighbor's home to help a family.

Homes were destroyed, and lives were lost.

Arguing with Idiots By Glenn Beck

After the destruction came the response of a network of friends, acquaintances and even strangers.

Last Friday, my family and I planned on eating dinner at home to save money. But late in the afternoon, I received an email and learned about the plight of a nearby family whose home had flooded. It outlined ways to help, one of which was to patronize their restaurants (they own two). I forwarded the email to my husband, and we decided to join our neighbors for dinner at one of their restaurants, "Key West Seafood."

When we got to the restaurant at 6:30, business was slow. An hour later, the restaurant was packed by customers, most of whom were there as a result of the email. There was a line out the door, our order took over an hour to fill, and the waitress was doing her best to serve the meals as they became ready. Friends pitched in to help at the register, and a judge ran to a nearby liquor store to purchase more inventory.

The next morning, I received a second email, forwarded from my neighbor. The owner had sent out a note of thanks. The family was overwhelmed with gratitude for friends, neighbors and, in our case, even strangers helping them in their time of need.

We did not know the family, but had friends who did. Our actions were the result of information coming from our network of neighbors. This is often how activity and action spread, but the question is: How does it work?

A new book, "Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives," by Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D. and James Fowler, Ph.D. (Little, Brown and Co., 2009) explains how social networks form and operate. It provides scientific studies and theories in areas of health, finance and social interaction.

According to Christakis and Fowler, the average person influences more than 1,000 people through his or her various networks. The authors conclude that good and bad behaviors spread up to three degrees, so not only do you influence your daughter, but also your daughter's best friend and her mother.

Behaviors they note as contagious include good ones such as quitting smoking, staying slender and being happy; as well as bad ones, including gaining weight, being unhappy and smoking.

The authors theorize that behaviors can be passed along by people who act as a link, but don't change their behavior. Instead, they simply serve as a conduit. "As part of a social network, we transcend ourselves," write Christakis and Fowler, "for good or ill, and become a part of something much larger. We are connected."

Advocates of personal responsibility and individual action might wonder how much of our behavior is based on individual choice and how much is a reflection of our networks. This focus on networks reinforces the belief that the power comes from individuals — albeit connected individuals — rather than governmental groups or other mass entities.

In the end, perhaps the determining factor is whether we, individually and as networks of individuals, are going to be makers or takers — providing value to the networks we belong in, or taking value out.

It might help for each one of us to think of ourselves as a link between our nation's wonderful history and its bright future. Our job is to connect the two. This understanding of our importance in the context of life's wider patterns provides us with a sense of belonging and purpose.

I hope this new view of connectivity will inspire each of us to strive to be a little better — if not for our own sake, for the sake of the 1,000 people connected to us.