Everyone else should change, right?

Why is it that even though we know how difficult it is for us to change ourselves, we still think we will be successful in getting other people to change their behaviors? So we knock our heads against the wall trying to persuade, cajole, bribe, or strong-arm someone else into changing. It doesn’t usually work.

I read some advice once that the only influence parents can really have with children once they hit their late teens is by being a good listener and being a role model.  Doesn’t that apply to anyone in our lives whose behavior we’d like to influence? The idea of living by example is common to many religious practices and moral choices, from Christianity to veganism. Letting your actions speak for you, practicing instead of preaching is a mindset that is difficult to embrace, but perhaps more powerful in the long run.

Sometimes when we adopt positive changes in our own lives, the first thing we want to do is tell everyone else about them and then urge them to do the same. What we don’t realize is that usually the people we are telling don’t want to hear it.  But we’re too impatient to wait for them to come to their own realizations about changing. Perhaps we also doubt our own ability to influence others strictly by our actions; we seem to believe that we can only convince someone by overtly teaching and badgering. We need to learn to trust our power to influence by action.

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are social scientists who have studied “network phenomena”, and how they relate to things like smoking cessation, the spread of epidemics, the spread of innovation, and even the incidence of loneliness. Their work shows that social networks (not online social networks, but all the interconnections people have with each other in families, workplaces, schools and other groups) are powerful entities. People at the center of a network, those with the most interconnections, have the ability to influence and predict the spread of ideas, disease, and behaviors throughout the network.

For instance, Christakis and Fowler demonstrated that groups of interconnected people in a network tend to stop smoking at the same time, whether their social ties are close or distant. Another study they conducted showed that if one person in a network feels lonely on one additional day per week, then the incidence of loneliness increases among others in the network that month. They have written about the application of the research to other emotions and behaviors as well, both positive and negative.

The power of a social network is pretty awesome, and holds a lot of promise for being able to disseminate change. Another, related method that shows promise is what is called the “social norms” approach. The philosophy behind it is that since humans are group-oriented, and since social norms guide group behavior, it is important that people know what the norm is. Often, people have erroneous opinions about the norms, especially young people.

We’ve all heard teenagers say, “But everybody is doing [fill in the blank], right? Research has shown, though, that just by spreading the word of what the majority behavior really is, risky behaviors can be reduced.  So telling kids that the majority of young people do not engage in binge drinking, do not think smoking is cool, and do report bullying to teachers can reduce all of those behaviors in the group – better than the scare tactics that have traditionally been used.

We’ve all heard that “actions speak louder than words”. The bottom line is that people want to belong to the group, and they want to be like people they admire. Live by your values and do the right thing. It will have an effect on those around you.

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