Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

1.03.2010

I Resolve to Be a More Positive Influence on my Networks

One of my core beliefs is that we are social creatures. We learn socially, are shaped and defined by our social interactions from the earliest moments of our lives, and our identities can't be understood by only thinking of ourselves as isolated individuals without context.

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They have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking. . . .

The prestigious journal published a study of how social networks affect health. Or as Christakis and Fowler put it in “Connected,” their coming book on their findings: “You may not know him personally, but your friend’s husband’s co-worker can make you fat. And your sister’s friend’s boyfriend can make you thin.” . . . Smoking, they discovered, also appeared to spread socially . . . Drinking spread socially, as did happiness and even loneliness. And in each case one’s individual influence stretched out three degrees before it faded out. They termed this the “three degrees of influence” rule about human behavior: We are tied not just to those around us, but to others in a web that stretches farther than we know. . . .

Christakis and Fowler hypothesize that these behaviors spread partly through the subconscious social signals that we pick up from those around us, which serve as cues to what is considered normal behavior. . . .

Christakis and Fowler found that the happiest people in Framingham were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren’t necessarily deep ones.

The reason these people were the happiest, the duo theorize, is that happiness doesn’t come only from having deep, heart-to-heart talks. It also comes from having daily exposure to many small moments of contagious happiness. When you frequently see other people smile — at home, in the street, at your local bar — your spirits are repeatedly affected by your mirroring of their emotional state. Of course, the danger of being highly connected to lots of people is that you’re at risk of encountering many people when they are in bad moods. But Christakis and Fowler say their findings show that the gamble of increased sociability pays off, for a surprising reason: Happiness is more contagious than unhappiness. According to their statistical analysis, each additional happy friend boosts your good cheer by 9 percent, while each additional unhappy friend drags you down by only 7 percent. So by this logic, adding more links to your network should — mathematically — add to your store of happiness. . . .

When it comes to body image, we compare ourselves primarily to people of the same sex (and in the Framingham study, all spouses were of the opposite sex). In fact, different-sexed friends didn’t transmit any obesity to one another at all. If a man became fat, his female friends were completely unaffected, and vice versa. Similarly, siblings of the same sex had a bigger impact on one another’s weight than siblings of the opposite sex. . . .

Christakis and Fowler’s strangest finding is the idea that a behavior can skip links — spreading to a friend of a friend without affecting the person who connects them. . . . they theorize that people may be able to pass along a social signal without themselves acting on it. If your friends at work become obese, even if you don’t gain weight yourself, you might become more accepting of obesity as a normal state — and unconsciously transmit that signal to your family members, who would then feel a sort of permission to gain weight themselves, knowing they wouldn’t face any sort of censure from you. . . .

In the Framingham study, people were asked to name a close friend. But the friendships weren’t always symmetrical. Though Steven might designate Peter as his friend, Peter might not think of Steven the same way; he might never designate Steven as a friend. Christakis and Fowler found that this “directionality” mattered greatly. According to their data, if Steven becomes obese, it has no effect on Peter at all, because he doesn’t think of Steven as a close friend. In contrast, if Peter gains weight, then Steven’s risk of obesity rises by almost 100 percent. And if the two men regard each other as mutual friends, the effect is huge — either one gaining weight almost triples the other’s risk. . . .

In theory, the best way to fight obesity, the model predicted, isn’t to urge people to diet with a cluster of close friends. It is to encourage them to skip a link and to diet with friends of friends. That way, in your immediate social network, everyone would be surrounded on at least one side by people who are actively losing weight, and this would in turn influence those other links to begin losing weight themselves. . . .


Are Your Friends Making You Fat?

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These families volunteered knowing full well it was a study of children's racial attitudes. Yet once they were aware that the study required talking openly about race, they started dropping out. . . . every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup's entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. . . . They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup's first test of the kids revealed they weren't colorblind at all. . . .

Her reasoning is that kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they're going to form these preferences on their own. Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. . . .

We might imagine we're creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they're plainly visible. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors. Bigler contends that children extend their shared appearances much further—believing that those who look similar to them enjoy the same things they do. Anything a child doesn't like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism. . . .

The point Katz emphasizes is that this period of our children's lives, when we imagine it's most important to not talk about race, is the very developmental period when children's minds are forming their first conclusions about race. . . .

Moody found that the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down. . . .

What jumped out at Phyllis Katz, in her study of 200 black and white children, was that parents are very comfortable talking to their children about gender, and they work very hard to counterprogram against boy-girl stereotypes. That ought to be our model for talking about race. . . .

To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand. . . .

If "black pride" is good for African-American children, where does that leave white children? It's horrifying to imagine kids being "proud to be white." Yet many scholars argue that's exactly what children's brains are already computing. Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence. . . .


See Baby Discriminate

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