Nicholas Christakis (@NAChristakis) is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale, a physician, and author. His latest book is Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.
What We Discuss with Nicholas Christakis:
- What social science tells us about our best shot (pun moderately intended) at achieving herd immunity from COVID-19.
- How social networks allowed the virus to spread and reinforced mistrust of well-known science among certain politically oriented segments of the populace.
- What the lessons of past disasters can teach us about the road ahead.
- Why the bad (and good) habits of our friends’ friends can have an impact on our own behavior from across vast social networks.
- What we can do to best defend ourselves against the unwanted influence of these unseen members of our network.
- And much more…
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The COVID-19 pandemic has been an ordeal never before experienced by the generations alive today, but it’s important to remember it’s just one of many such disasters our species has endured over the course of human history. Warnings from the past have been plentiful, and society’s reactions have been predictable, but it still caught us largely off guard. Luckily, the map that guides us forward doesn’t have to be drawn from scratch if we heed the landmarks our ancestors left behind.
In this episode, we talk to Nicholas Christakis — author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, and Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live — about the lessons we can learn from the pandemic, what past disasters tell us to expect on the road ahead, how social networks allowed the virus to spread and reinforced mistrust of well-known science, and how these same social networks amplify our very behavior to become as contagious as any pathogen. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Thanks, Nicholas Christakis!
If you enjoyed this session with Nicholas Christakis, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
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Resources from This Episode:
- Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis | Amazon
- Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nicholas Christakis | Amazon
- Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler | Amazon
- Nicholas A. Christakis | Human Nature Lab at Yale
- Nicholas A. Christakis | Twitter
- Dennis Carroll | Planning an End to the Pandemic Era | Jordan Harbinger
- How the US Pandemic Response Went Wrong — and What Went Right — during a Year of COVID | Scientific American
- COVID Vaccine: 10 Reasons Why Young, Healthy People Need to Get Vaccinated | CNN
- How the Friendship Paradox Makes Your Friends Better Than You Are | MIT Technology Review
- How Did Face Masks Become a Political Issue in America? | The Guardian
- New York Yankees Breakthrough COVID Cases in Vaccinated Team Members | CNBC
- The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 | National Archives
- 20 of the Worst Epidemics and Pandemics in History | Live Science
- A Year of COVID: Making Sense of an ‘Alien and Unnatural’ Time | YaleNews
- What Rome Learned From the Deadly Antonine Plague of 165 AD | Smithsonian Magazine
- A Timeline of How Trump Failed to Respond to the Coronavirus | Vox
- What a WoW Virtual Outbreak Taught Us about How Humans Behave in Epidemics | Ars Technica
- Risk of COVID-19 among Front-Line Health-Care Workers and the General Community: A Prospective Cohort Study | The Lancet Public Health
- Century-Old ‘Tsunami Stones’ Saved Lives in the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 | My Droll
- As Collective Memory Fades, So Will Our Ability to Prepare for the Next Pandemic | The Conversation
- Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory | Simply Psychology
- How to Do the Macarena | WikiHow
- Why Modern Mortar Crumbles, but Roman Concrete Lasts Millennia | Science
- 15 Intriguing Facts About the Antikythera Mechanism | Mental Floss
- Passion for Purple Revives Ancient Dye in Tunisia | Hürriyet Daily News
- 20 Years Later, the Y2k Bug Seems like a Joke — Because Those behind the Scenes Took It Seriously | Time
- After Handshakes, We Sniff People’s Scent on Our Hand | New Scientist
- Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman | Amazon
- Rutger Bregman | Humankind: A Hopeful History | Jordan Harbinger
- The Street Corner Experiment | Business Storytelling Podcast Episode 5
- Nicholas Christakis: The Hidden Influence of Social Networks | TED2010
- A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization | Nature
- Jim Rohn: You’re the Average of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With | Business Insider
- Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study | British Medical Journal
- The Obesity Epidemic | CDC-TV
- Body Composition and Physical Performance: Applications for the Military Services | National Academies Press (US)
- A Randomised Controlled Trial of Social Network Targeting to Maximise Population Behaviour Change | The Lancet
- Yale-Led Project Connects Social Networks and the Microbiome | Yale Institute for Network Science
- Culture-Bound Syndrome | Wikipedia
- Are Mental Illnesses Such As PMS and Depression Culturally Determined? | The Guardian
- Suicide Contagion & Suicide Clusters | Centre for Suicide Prevention
- Crypto Mania Will Remain a Force to Be Reckoned with after the Coinbase Frenzy Subsides, This Asset Manager Says | Marketwatch
- On Liberty by John Stuart Mill | Amazon
Nicholas Christakis | Pandemic Impacts and Contagious Behavior (Episode 524)
Jordan Harbinger: Special thanks to Hyundai for sponsoring this episode.
[00:00:02] Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:06] Nicholas Christakis: Most people understand it's not very controversial or even unexpected to just say, "Look, you're affected by your friends." But the point is that the influence doesn't stop at one degree of separation. You can have a sequence of social interactions, such that you come to be affected, not just by your friends, but by your friends' friends' friends, your friends' friends, or your friends' friends' friends, or perhaps even your friends' friends' friends' friends, people you don't even know can affect you. Now, as soon as I say that, you think, "Well, yeah, I can kind of see that with respect to germs." Like right now, you're not sick and your friends aren't sick, but your friends' friends' friends are sick. The germ is going to wind its way through the network and affect you. But it also then happens with other things like emotions and ideas or behaviors.
[00:00:51] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We've got in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts, entrepreneurs, spies, and psychologists, even the occasional four-star general, former cult member, or a drug trafficker. Each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:18] If you're new to the show, or you just want to tell your friends about it, which I always appreciate, I've got episode starter packs on the website for you. These are collections of your favorite episodes organized by popular topics. This will help new listeners get a taste of everything we do here on the show. So if you don't know where to begin, this is where you begin. Just go to jordanharbinger.com/start to get started or to help somebody else get started.
[00:01:40] Today on the show, I've been wanting to do this one for a while as with many folks that have been on my list for a few years, I often get overly ambitious on what I want to cover. So we start with COVID and vaccines and the pandemic, but then we move on to social science. Stick with us, even if you're angry about my pro-vax and COVID chatter at the top of the show, or you're sick of hearing about COVID, which look I feel you. There's a lot more that follows. Our guest's latest book describes the progress of COVID-19, how it originated, and yes, it holds up overtime.
[00:02:09] And we hear on The Jordan Harbinger Show, we did a big show, a big episode about pandemics before the pandemic kicked off, this was like February 2020. It was fascinating how pandemics have been predicted for decades now, but Dr. Dennis Carroll, who we interviewed in February 2020, he thought it would be the flu that ended up being a pandemic. Nobody saw a novel Coronavirus coming into play, of course. And when I say nobody, I mean, the majority of people thought it's going to be the flu, but hey, we had SARS.
[00:02:36] Anyway, today, we'll discuss herd immunity, how it works, why we might not hit it. We'll also touch on some of these new and terrifying variants of diseases that are combining in our bodies and becoming something new and spreading, kind of like a pandemic smoothie. I wanted to go beyond the science of the virus and get into the science of belief around the virus and about some of the social networks that allow them to spread. As you've heard on this show before people tend to trust science until it contradicts their political or religious beliefs, which is always fascinating, endlessly fascinating for me. And just as cakes taste different than their individual ingredients, social networks are also greater than the sum of their parts.
[00:03:14] And later in the show, we do a deep dive on social networks and network effects, which lead us to some pretty shocking conclusions, frankly, such as the idea that if your friend's friend's friend is a smoker or is overweight or both, you are even more likely to smoke and be overweight, even if you don't even know that person. So that was a little bit disappointing for me, endlessly interesting, and frankly, the kind of social science that gets me up in the morning. So it's a bit of a misfit show, but sometimes those are the best in my opinion, I hope you're going to dig it. I think you will.
[00:03:44] Also some small audio issues during the show, which forced us to degrade the audio quality a bit. You have our apologies for that. What can we say? Modern technology now the audio quality of this show is a mere five times better than most shows instead of 10 times because of producer Jason's amazing technical skills.
[00:04:00] And if you're wondering how I managed to book all these great authors, thinkers, and creators every single week, it's because of my network, my social network, the one we're talking about here on the show. I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And I don't need your credit card or any of that crap. I just want you to learn the skills and dig the well before you get thirsty. By the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribed to the course. So they contribute to the course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong. Now, here's Dr. Nicholas Christakis.
[00:04:30] Just bluntly, how have we done with this pandemic? Because it looks to me like Americans, we're so resistant to containment measures and it's frustrating to me. And I know you share that.
[00:04:41] Nicholas Christakis: Yeah. I mean, I think from the moment — you know, this is quite a serious germ. It could have been much worse, but it's not a trivial germ. It had these intrinsic properties when it leaped from bats to humans. And from the moment it was loose in our species, it was ultimately going to become what is known as endemic. The virus will circulate among us forever. It will become just one of those sort of background pathogens that we have to face. And from the moment it reached our shores in the United States, surely, it was going to kill 100, 200, 300 thousand people just by spreading and killing people. But we have as a nation in my judgment done abysmally badly. If we had acted with more maturity, if we had acted with more alacrity, if we had acted with more probity, we could have mounted a defense that befits a great nation like ours and limited the deaths that have befallen us.
[00:05:36] When I wrote the book of Apollo's Arrow — I finished it last August of 2020, and at the time, we had about 130,000 Americans dead and I thought we would lose between half a million and a million. And we've already blown by the bottom of that. And I'm pretty sure we will bump up against the top that before this pandemic is over, as many as a million excess deaths will have occurred. So I think there's no way to portray that as a victory. I think we have just done awfully and there are many, many mistakes as a nation that we've made.
[00:06:09] Jordan Harbinger: Tying some of your work together, I sort of pulled this one from the new book and the old book, one of the older books, Connected. I found it really interesting and very important because this point was lost on me and many people, my age and younger, that we actually need to target socially active people and young people for immunization, which to me was counterintuitive because a lot of my friends are saying, "Nah, I'm young. I'm 21. I'm 31. I don't really need this. I'm super healthy. If I get COVID, I'm probably going to shake it off. Yes, there's exceptions, but it's a new vaccine." All those counter-arguments aside, it's very surprising to me — you know, I kind of just said, "Okay, you know, that's a "you" thing," but now it's like, "Wait a minute. No, we need to target those people. The people who go out every single weekend and talk with others." That's an interesting point. Tell me about this and why.
[00:06:56] Nicholas Christakis: Yeah. So actually this is a very subtle idea about human social networks that can play out in all kinds of interesting ways, including as you're suggesting, how to vaccinate people, how to choose people for vaccination. So let's say you have a population in a city of various age people, and you have a finite amount of vaccines. You know, you have a thousand vaccine doses you're going to administer. And in this particular disease, the so-called shape of the mortality curve, if you put people's age on the X axis and their probability of dying, if they get the germ on the Y axis, it has this backward L shape. If you're young and you get the disease, you're not likely to die. In fact, if you're under 25, you have maybe one in 10,000 chances of dying if you get the disease somewhere in that neighborhood. And then if you're in your 50s and you have maybe one in 100 chances of dying if you get the disease. And by the time you're 70s or 80s, you've got one in five chances of getting the disease.
[00:07:48] So it has this backward L-shaped mortality curve. And so you have a thousand doses of the vaccine to administer and you're quite rationally going to give those doses to elderly people to prevent deaths. It makes perfect sense. But the thing is the elderly people are already, typically not as socially active on average, as young people, working age adults out and about. And it is a standard understanding of infectious diseases that the various young and the very old are at the so-called end of the transmission chain. In other words, the germ is brought home to them by people who are out and about.
[00:08:22] So if you have these thousand doses, you might actually say more lives if you vaccinate a thousand young people, because when you vaccinate them and you interrupt the transmission of the germ, because now they're immunized, you might save 5,000 lives instead of a thousand lives because you're preventing them from spreading it. So this is an old and well understood idea in public health and in a network science.
[00:08:44] But if I can let me just play it out a couple of steps further, because there's some cool wrinkles here. So it turns out that there's this phenomenon called the friendship paradox and the friendship paradox is an intrinsic property of human social networks that your friends have more friends than you. Actually, your sexual partners have more sexual partners than you do too. And if you're a scientist, your co-authors have more co-authors than you do. This is really irritating.
[00:09:10] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Like promiscuous writers.
[00:09:12] Nicholas Christakis: Yes, exactly, like promiscuous writers, exactly. So that's exactly right, promiscuous writers. And the reason for this is that if you can imagine a social network and you have this dense interconnection of nodes, which are the people and ties, which are connections between the people, you should have this image in your mind's eye, that in the middle, you have all these people that are in the thick of it, these little jumbled networks. So people in the center of the very popular people might have 10 friends, and each of their friends might have 10 friends, for example. And on the very edge of the network will be the sort of socially isolated people who might have one friend.
[00:09:44] And so you should have the intuition that at least for all of the people on the edge of the network, all of those socially isolated people, their friends will have more friends than they do by construction. I mean, that's why they're on the periphery. They have one friend because they're on the edge. That's the only person they know And their friend has at least two friends, them plus the next person over, closer to the center of the network. And it turns out that this is true for everyone in the network. That on average everyone's friends have more friends than they do, now on average.
[00:10:14] And another way to think about this is to imagine a cocktail party where there's a very popular party host who invites a hundred wallflowers to his or her party. And they only know one person, which is the party host. So 101 people in this party, if you go and you ask, pick these people at random and you ask them, who's your friend, a hundred of them will say the party host who has 100. Only if by chance you pick the party host well that person's friends have fewer friends than they do.
[00:10:40] These are some intuitive, there's a mathematical explanation of the friendship paradox as well. But anyway, that's the basic point, but here's the kicker. It turns out that if you have, let's say, enough vaccine to vaccinate 5 percent of the population, what you really should do is pick 5 percent of the population at random. Ask them who their friends are and give the vaccines to their friends rather than to them, because their friends will be more popular and have more connections than they do.
[00:11:07] Now, in my laboratory, we've exploited this idea, believe it or not, to deliberately foster cascades of innovation in developing world villages. If we have a group of people in a village and you're trying to get them to switch their behavior, to breastfeed their children, or adopt vaccination or increased latrine usage or some other global public health objectives, turns out you can use this trick to artificially create tipping points and we've done this.
[00:11:31] So this is the same idea behind vaccinating, the young, you want to vaccinate popular people. If you use young people as a proxy for being popular, then you might in fact, not vaccinate the elderly and vaccinate the young. Now, I'm going to say one more thing and then I'll shut up because it's a very long winded answer. People have analyzed in the case of COVID, whether in fact it would've made sense to do this. Many people, myself included, suggested we should consider this idea of preferentially allocating vaccines, not to the elderly, but to let's say, popular people or people with many social interactions. Actually people have done the mathematical modeling in the case of COVID that would not have been wise. The brief reason is that this disease is particularly infectious. And furthermore that this disease has a very steep mortality gradient. In other words, it is so much more deadly for the elderly that, you know, it's still wiser in the end to vaccinate them. And that's a very long meandering answer, but it's not a crazy idea that you asked.
[00:12:25] Jordan Harbinger: Right. It makes sense. And it did originally changed my mind, like the mortality curve, okay, we did the right thing at the end of the day, but the mortality curve, if that weren't the case, if it was sort of like, let's say, more or less, even 50 percent of people die and it's plus 10 percent, either way old or young, then it would make sense. And it did change my mind on some of the people I know. I live here in California, so people were saying, "Oh, you know, if you just tell them you're a busboy or they don't even ask, just go in and they'll assume you're a food worker." And I thought, "You a-hole, you're cutting in line, you know, for vaccine, what are you doing?"
[00:12:56] And then I read your work and I thought, "You know, actually let them do it because they're going to go snowboarding. Then they're going to go play in an escape room and then they're going out to dinner. And they don't like wearing masks because they want to grind up on each other at parties." I'm like fine cut in line because the person you're cutting in front of is working at home from Zoom and hasn't seen a new face in 18 months like me, right?
[00:13:17] Nicholas Christakis: Yes. And also, I mean, now you're highlighting yet another reason that these types of strategies can be difficult to implement. I was one of those people that was advocating for a very strict — in the end, I was advocating for a very strict age-based thing. I did not think that we should have to complicate it, you know, by your zip code or by your race or ethnicity or by your occupation or by your — we were asking people to go through 60-step procedures and upload their health records to justify giving some people a vaccine earlier than the next person. And although all of those might've been rational things to do, I'm not saying they were crazy, in the end, the benefits of those things were outweighed by the delay and the complexity.
[00:13:55] So I thought of a very rational strategy just to do it by age, everyone, most people in the country have an ID card or can produce some kind of a birth certificate or some document that has their age on. And you just work your way down. So this week we're doing 85 to 90-year-olds. Next week, we're doing 80 to 85-year olds. Very simple, everyone can understand it. You work your way down. And I think the states that did that had a much more rapid and effective and publicly accepted procedure for distributing the vaccines.
[00:14:24] Hey, listen, this is one of the things that's so difficult and why I think what — earlier, when I said our nation needed maturity, alacrity, and probity and public health by its very nature is utilitarian. You know, you have to make sacrifices. You are trying to do what's best for the greater good. And there are always trade offs. Like, do I do this or do I do that? And you're trying to pick the strategy that minimizes the loss of life. And sometimes that strategy, you know, it takes somebody or it leaves somebody off. It's unavoidable.
[00:14:50] Jordan Harbinger: I can imagine you making that argument. And it's like, "Oh, this just in. Breaking — Dr. Nicholas Christakis thinks Greek people should get vaccinated first. And that like Hispanic people should be after other — what's going on here?" You're suddenly, you know...you're losing your tenure and you're a racist or something like that.
[00:15:08] Nicholas Christakis: I know you're joking, I think, but I certainly made no such arguments, but you're right. I mean, when you are making recommendations from a public health point of view, even if you're doing it in a very technocratic way, people will always be prone to be suspicious. You know, do you have some political agenda? And this happened, because unfortunately, we politicized the public health response in this country to such a great extent. You know, our nation came to see mask wearing as a political act.
[00:15:34] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:15:34] Nicholas Christakis: Which is nuts. You know, other nations did not politicize mask wearing. Masks are neither a signal of your independence and fearlessness, nor are they a signal of your virtue and neighborliness. They are just a barrier for droplets. And I think everyone should be wearing them. And I said so back in April of 2020, they are very effective tool for limiting the spread of respiratory pandemics. And the evidence for this is really very compelling. But then other people would say, "Well, you shouldn't wear the mask because there somehow interfering with economic productivity and you have some kind of agenda against," I don't know what, "Restaurants or something." I have no antipathy to restaurants. I love restaurants.
[00:16:11] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:16:11] Nicholas Christakis: But restaurants are not a safe place where there's a respiratory pandemic and, you know, neither are churches for that matter. There are lots of places that are not safe, relatively speaking.
[00:16:20] Oh, one other thing, just so I clear for your listeners, it's very important understanding. Well, pandemic is not a binary situation. It's not like things are either okay or not okay. Or either they're safe or they're not as safe. During the time of a serious epidemic of any kind, there's no life without risks. Everything you choose to do has some risk associated with it. It's a shade of gray.
[00:16:40] And so, for example, even now that I'm vaccinated, if you asked me, would I wear a mask if I had a dinner party with a bunch of my other vaccinated friends? The answer is no, but we get together indoors with ten people. That would totally be fine. The risk is not zero. Like we just saw with that baseball team where they have an outbreak. They're all vaccinated. There's an outbreak of nine COVID cases in this baseball team right now. It's not a hundred percent safe, but it's more than safe enough. But if you asked me if I'm vaccinated, would I go to my local grocery store and be endorsed with strangers for 20 minutes while I shop? The answer is no. Put on a mask. It's a simple, easy thing to do. It further reduces my risk. Why would you do it?
[00:17:18] Jordan Harbinger: You wrote about the 1918 flu pandemic and how people wanted to keep schools open. And that turned out to be a good decision for various reasons. New York City staggered business hours. There was an anti-spitting campaign, which is very 1918 somehow, but also the more I read about the 1918 flu pandemic, especially in your work, the more, it seems like we're about five minutes from that time in terms of the societal response, like the science is far advanced. Our knowledge is well advanced, but some people—
[00:17:45] Nicholas Christakis: Yeah.
[00:17:47] Jordan Harbinger: It's like we haven't learned anything, even though we've advanced a century in terms of the science.
[00:17:50] Nicholas Christakis: It's worse than that. In some ways, it's millennia. I mean, one of the themes, one of the ideas that I try to advance is this notion that this way we've come to live right now, it feels so alien and unnatural, but plagues are not new to our species. They're just new to us. We think this is crazy. That we're being forced to live this way. But people have been confronting plagues for thousands of years. They're in the Bible. They're in Homer. I mean, one of the canonical works of Western fiction, the Iliad begins with a plague. They're in Shakespeare. They're in Cervantes. Our ancestors have been coping with this threat for millennia. And furthermore, they have been trying to warn us. Plagues are in our religious traditions. They're in our literature, like I just mentioned.
[00:18:36] We also in our society have experts in scientific knowledge, and we have medical historians. We have epidemiologists, there was knowledge and collective wisdom about this threat, which for various reasons, we tended to ignore. My Jewish friends last year during Passover said, you know, for their whole lives, they've been doing the Passover Seder and had been talking about plagues, but in 2020, they really understood what it meant to be confronting a plague.
[00:19:01] But see, here's the thing, as you mentioned, our social responses to play are so typical. You know, for example, during times of plague, it's very standard to blame others, right? During medieval times, during the bubonic plague, it was the Jews, you know, so anti-Semitism spikes. During HIV, homosexuals needed to be blamed or Haitians needed to be blamed or IV-drug users needed to be blamed. During COVID, immigrants are blamed or Asians are blamed. Always there's this desire, this awful sad desire by human beings to blame others for the calamity.
[00:19:37] And that's not the only social response, which has been apparent since time immemorial. For example, one of the other things that's very typical about plagues is that it is a time of sadness. Marcus Aurelius was talking about a plague that afflicted Rome 2000 years ago. He talked about how in some ways the mental health impact of the plague was worse than the physical impact, that a kind of miasma settled down onto the city, a mental miasma. And we see that now with Coronavirus. It plagues our time of grief. We lose our lives, we lose our livelihoods, and we lose our way of life. People are suffering loss, right? So this is also very typical. Also plagues are a time of lies.
[00:20:17] During a pandemic, it's very typical for leaders and for people to engage in a kind of denial and pretend nothing is happening. You know, we saw that President Trump, for example, was making preposterous statements about nothing's going to happen. Everything's going to get better for months, months even if tens of thousands of Americans had died and were continuing to die, he was still pretending like nothing was happening, which is absurd. And the person on the street, you know, people were engaging in all kinds of superstitious behavior. All of these social responses are typical of our species and human beings have been acting this way for thousands of years. So you're right, it's sad that we aren't capable of doing better in the 21st century.
[00:20:58] Jordan Harbinger: It reminds me of the virtual plague and World of Warcraft, the video game that you talked about during the book. It showed us human elements of pandemic behavior. You want to take us through that? That was fascinating.
[00:21:11] Nicholas Christakis: Yeah. That's a story I haven't told in a while. I'll try to, you can correct me if I get the details wrong, but there was a massive multiplayer online game. I can't remember if it was World of Warcraft or another one. The designers of the game decided that it would be nice to endow some individuals with the power to infect others or in any case to add the existence of an epidemic disease in the game. What they found was that actually they created an epidemic situation in the virtual world in which all of the players were dying. And in this game, also, there were some players who had healing powers and there were groups that were fighting each other. And, you know, it was a — I don't play these massively multiplayer games, but people who are listening, who played these games know sort of what I'm talking about and what they found was that this so-called corrupted blood epidemic — and oh, and when people got this disease, they had this very gross death, you know, where they would break out in blood. And that collapsed into like a little limp body onto the ground. And what they found was that all of the human responses that are typical of human beings confronting a real plague were manifested in this virtual world. So some of the healers at great risk to themselves try to treat people who were sick in this virtual world. And incidentally, the death of healthcare workers is another feature that goes back thousands of years.
[00:22:28] And during the plague of Athens, Thucydides talked about how all the doctors were dying and they didn't know how to treat the condition. Of course, because the doctors were going to care for the sick, they were contracting the disease and dying. During the bubonic plague in the 14th century, Pope Clement, I think, I can't remember if it was the fifth or the sixth or the seventh. I think it was Clement VI. But Pope Clement talked about how all the nurses were dying, caring for people who are sick.
[00:22:52] And now during coronavirus, you've seen thousands of healthcare workers around the world, and even in our own country, in the richest country on earth, we lost doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers because we didn't have enough PPE for them. What a shocking embarrassment to our country.
[00:23:07] So in the game, in the corrupted blood pandemic in this World of Warcraft game healthcare workers were dying. We also saw people acting altruistically, people trying to very sick people back to their Homeland. We also saw sort of sociopathic behavior where some people would infect themselves and then leap to their enemy or to other people just for fun to see if they could kill them.
[00:23:28] So all of these human behaviors were manifest and to make a long story short, the game designers were unable to stop the epidemic. So they had to basically reboot the entire world, pull the plug on the server and start from scratch. Wouldn't it be great if we could do that when we're fighting Coronavirus?
[00:23:45] Jordan Harbinger: It's a little scary that that was the solution, isn't it? Like, "Oh yeah, what we had to do is we had to figure out this patch — no, we just had to rip the cord out and start again." And it's like, that's not really the answer that humanity is looking for. I don't think so.
[00:24:01] Nicholas Christakis: Yes. Yes. I think that's right. The story as you say is very captivating. And I used to know the story in detail, but it's been over 10 years since I read the original papers about it.
[00:24:13] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Nicholas Christakis. We'll be right back.
[00:24:19] This episode is sponsored in part by Babbel. This summer, get the most out of your travels abroad — oh man, traveling abroad is going to be so much fun. Learn the language of your destination with Babbel, the number one selling language learning app from ordering in restaurants, to asking for directions, to getting a deeper understanding of the culture. You got to learn those languages, folks. Babbel makes the whole process of learning a new language addictively fun and easy. What I like about Babbel is they have these five-minute lessons, 15-minute lessons. You can actually use this stuff in the real world. It's not like those crappy courses you learned in middle school where you're like conjugating verbs in a table. And learning a language can be daunting, but Babbel breaks things down. It's not oversimplified, but it's also not over complicated. I tend to get bored easily. So I love how Babbel just kind of keeps the topics engaging. And as you progress through the lessons, you'll spell, you match, you speak your new language. It's very creative. You get shown photos, listened to dialogues, type in words to fill in the blank. So it kind of keeps my brain going.
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[00:26:27] Now back to Nicholas Christakis on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:26:32] The tsunami stones were an interesting factoid as well. So do you remember these as well? This is something you wrote about a while ago.
[00:26:40] Nicholas Christakis: The tsunami stones are in Apollo's Arrow and I just thought that a year ago. So even though I'm 58, I can remember things from a year ago. From 10 years ago is a bit of a challenge. So the tsunami stones are another interesting phenomenon. These are these large stone markers in Japan, which warn people about the dangers of tsunamis and might carry messages like, "Do not build your dwelling below this line."
[00:27:03] For example, a hundred years ago, there was a tsunami that washed many, many miles inland and destroyed everything in its path. And then the high water mark is at a certain spot for the ancestors of modern Japanese living in this location, erected stones and said, "This is how far the tsunami came. Don't build your houses below this stone." And this knowledge is transmitted also by oral tradition. Little children in these communities were taught about these stones, were taught about how their ancestors had died, were taught about how their ancestors have left this message to them. So they know about it.
[00:27:36] And when the tsunami came about 10 years ago, again, during the Fukushima disaster, the people who built their houses above those markers, none of them died and all of their houses were spared. And in fact, there's these oral traditions about this. You see events outside of living memory, you know, that occur more or less often than once every a hundred year require the transmission. We were talking earlier about the transmission of warnings in religious, texts, or in literature about what it means to confront plagues with respect to tsunamis, they are similar things.
[00:28:09] And so, for example, there are these islands in the Indian Ocean, the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, where these are some of the last untouched people on the planet. They are a protected group. They have no contact with the outside world. They live in a basically, almost stone-age way. They have very, very limited technology. They fire arrows at the helicopters that are occasionally seen above them.
[00:28:31] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, like the Sentinel islands, right? Where they kill everyone who gets on the island.
[00:28:35] Nicholas Christakis: That's right. They don't like strangers. If on occasion a journalist or a drunk tourist will attempt to go there and then they're killed. But anthropologists who study these groups report that they have oral traditions that say when the oceans suddenly recedes, like it does before a tsunami or a trough before the great wave, the water gets pulled back from the shore. Like a tide that's going out but an odd time for a tide and much more than a tide that oral tradition says, "When you see this, go to this temple and pray." There is a stone temple that's inland up on a mountain and they all survive. In India with its modern technology and buoys offshore and its radio and television communications and everything else was devastated but you know, on these islands they survived because they had this oral tradition.
[00:29:25] So yeah, these are warnings that we try to transmit. This is sort of a tangent on a tangent, but it's actually a set of ideas that I explored in yet another book called Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society which came out again more recently. So I remember that one easier, which is that our capacity to teach each other things, which many listeners probably take for granted is actually exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom and this capacity for teaching and learning from each other is at the fundamental root of our capacity for culture, which is in fact, and it's our ability to be a cultural animal, to transmit knowledge across time and space that has made us one of the ascendance species on the planet.
[00:30:06] So just to illustrate this point, many or most animals can learn independently. You know, a little fish in the sea can learn that if it swims up to the light, it will find food there. That's independent learning. A single organism, probing its environment and learning by stimulus response, you know, what's happening. Some animals can learn socially. That means by observation of other animals. For example, you put your hand in the fire, you learn that in burns. So if you've acquired some knowledge, fire burns, but you paid a price, you burnt your hand. Or I can watch you put your hand to the fire and I gain almost as much knowledge, but I pay none of the price. My hand isn't burned. Or to pick a more extreme example. You and I go into the forest and you eat red berries and die. You've learned that red berries are deadly at great price. And I watch you eat red berries and I said, I better not eat red berries. So that's incredibly efficient. That's called social learning where you learn by mimicry or imitation or observation of other members of your own species, and many animals do that.
[00:31:05] But we do something even more remarkable. If we teach each other things, we set out to transmit knowledge from one person to another, in particular between genetically unrelated individuals. And this is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom. We do it. Certain other primates do it. Elephants do it. Certain cetacean species do it. And a smattering of others, not to exaggerate, smattering of other animals do it too. And this capacity for teaching, which many listeners probably take for granted, but it's actually quite distinctive feature of our species is in fact, one of the ways we've survived.
[00:31:41] So the tsunami stones are kind of our ancestors teaching us, right? The existence of oral traditions or the existence of scientific knowledge, which is accumulated in written texts or transmitted through schools or other means, this is one of the fundamental qualities we have as human beings and is essential to our capacity to survive, including when faced with pandemics.
[00:32:04] Jordan Harbinger: It seems like there's less danger now of losing knowledge. Everything's on the internet forever. God forbid I should forget how to do the Macarena or whatever, but it seems more likely we will lose our sense of reason.
[00:32:15] Nicholas Christakis: I'd like to see you do the Macarena. I have to say.
[00:32:17] Jordan Harbinger: You know what? I'm pretty sure it's out, out, over, over, cross, cross, hip, hip, shake your heads, right? I'll have to Google it, but I can Google it. It's still there somewhere.
[00:32:29] We're more likely to lose our sense of reason, right? Because of misinformation or disinformation plus poor education. And that's kind of my worry less so with the new dark ages where — and correct me if I'm wrong here, but like the Romans were living in concrete dwellings, they themselves couldn't build for like 700 more years because—
[00:32:46] Nicholas Christakis: Europeans. That's right. There's some knowledge that's lost. The Roman recipe for concrete, that was incredibly strong. They even had concrete that could solidify under water. They built these offshore piers with specialized concrete. And Europeans were living in Roman houses for 700 years, made out of materials and with techniques that they themselves did not know. They had been lost.
[00:33:04] There is knowledge that's lost. My very favorite is the Antikythera mechanism. This clock-like device that was built by ancient Greeks over 2000 years ago, using complex metal gears. The likes of which were not seen again for a thousand years.
[00:33:19] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:33:19] Nicholas Christakis: So there's specialized knowledge. Another famous example of this is the purple dye. The technique for extracting purple dye from a certain kind of shellfish that was available in North Africa. Again, someone recently was able after many years of effort to reconstruct the recipe for making this purple dye. It was a very elaborate process. So knowledge is sometimes lost and you're right to suggest that now in the modern era, it might be harder to lose knowledge, but not necessarily, not for everyone and not always.
[00:33:48] For example, just think about the Y2K problem.
[00:33:50] Jordan Harbinger: Oh right.
[00:33:51] Nicholas Christakis: When we were all struggling with Y2K, all of a sudden, all this stuff, Fortran programmers, the knowledge was lost that we couldn't find. These guys were brought out of retirement, paid huge wages to deal with this code. Code base that had been written decades earlier, and the knowledge was almost lost on how to deal with that code. That was the basis of many machines.
[00:34:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, it's a programming language called COBOL or something like that I think.
[00:34:15] Nicholas Christakis: COBOL, I'm sorry, not Fortran. Yeah.
[00:34:16] Jordan Harbinger: Well, you could be right. I'm not sure. I'm not super confident on that bet.
[00:34:21] Nicholas Christakis: Yeah.
[00:34:21] Jordan Harbinger: I was reading, in Apollo's Arrows, I think that when we shake hands, we often sniff our hand and we don't notice it. And that might come from pre-humans and using smell to evaluate. And I noticed, well, I didn't notice, somebody told me. An ex-girlfriend told me that after I shake hands, I often touch my nose and I try not to now, but she noticed that. She goes, "You always do that. You shake hands, and then you do that, like one finger on the nose."
[00:34:45] Nicholas Christakis: She noticed this before you read about it in the book.
[00:34:48] Jordan Harbinger: Oh yeah. This is like 15 years ago she noticed this habit.
[00:34:51] Nicholas Christakis: So I've indicated your former girlfriend in other words.
[00:34:53] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. She thought I had like a nervous tick and I thought, "Nah, maybe, but I'm not nervous. I don't really understand what it's for." So I didn't know it was a primal thing that a lot of people do.
[00:35:03] Nicholas Christakis: Yes. Apparently, according, at least in some studies, chimpanzees do something similar. So there is a sense in which human beings, culturally, we don't sniff each other. In other words, it would not be considered normal behavior when you encounter a stranger, just sniff them. You know like dogs do, for example. That would be odd, but a certain other, chimpanzees do that. And apparently, it is claimed through this surreptitious observation of human beings done by these other scientists that we smell our hands after we shake hands with other people. And that's a way of assessing and sampling the olfactory signals of other people.
[00:35:39] Jordan Harbinger: Switching gears a little bit, go into a little bit of the knowledge from Connected, as well. You make an interesting point that humans have only been able to choose where they live and not actually modify their environment up until the last few thousand years, speaking of like piers and aqueducts and things like that. What we can modify are our social groups and connections. So genetically, we in the past had been rewarded for things like kindness, the ability to connect well with others. And I'm wondering, have you read Rutger Bregman's work, Humankind?
[00:36:09] Nicholas Christakis: Yes. I couldn't recollect it, but in fact, it's right over there. I can look over and see his book, but yes,
[00:36:14] Jordan Harbinger: He was on episode 494 and his point was the same. Yes, it looks like psychopaths and sociopaths, whatever are rewarded in society, but much more so do we reward people who are kind and connect well with others? And it's quote-unquote always been that way because of the way we evolved to live in groups.
[00:36:33] I want to talk a little bit about how behaviors spread, because this is fascinating and it's different than, let's say, like habits spreading through a network. And this is the Milgram sidewalk experiment for example. Do you want to take us through a brief example of what this might be? Because I think we all know we pick up habits from friends, but we don't know that we pick up mindsets and habits and behaviors of all kinds from people we don't even know.
[00:36:58] Nicholas Christakis: Yes, that's right. I mean, in a way it's just the claim that all kinds of phenomena spread the networks, not just germs, for example, that we've been discussing but also ideas spread through networks. Norms spread through networks. Behaviors like smoking cigarettes or marijuana spread through networks. People come to be affected by other people to whom they're socially connected.
[00:37:17] Now, most people understand this is not very controversial or even unexpected to just say, look, you're affected by your friends. But the point is that the influence doesn't stop at one degree of separation. You can have a sequence of social interactions, such that you come to be affected, not just by your friends, but by your friends' friends' friends, your friends' friends, or your friends' friends' friends, or perhaps even your friends' friends' friends' friends, people you don't even know can affect. Now, as soon as I say that, you think, "Well, okay, I can kind of see that with respect to germs."
[00:37:47] Like right now you're not sick and your friends aren't sick, but your friend's friend's friends are sick. The germ is going to wind its way through the network and affect you. But it also happens with other things like emotions and ideas or behaviors. So right now, for example, if you're not acting in a corrupt fashion, you're not avoiding, you don't cheat on your taxes and nor do your friends, but your friends, friends, friends started to cheat on their taxes and that behavior winds its way towards you. Or they start recycling or smoking or engaging in all kinds of activities.
[00:38:17] We've done, in my laboratory, many experiments to show that this happens and we've actually used this in effect to change public health behavior in developing world settings. For example, we can go into villages or places in India and Honduras and elsewhere around the world. And by using some of these ideas about how networks function create artificial tipping points, where we change the behavior of the whole village by fostering a cascade of desirable properties.
[00:38:43] So the basic idea here is that a diverse sort of phenomenon can spread through networks. And as a result of that, you know, individuals can be affected by unseen other people who are beyond their social horizon. And some people have read our work in this regard and looked at our experiments in this regard and said that what we have done is depressing. That we are kind of delivering a whack to free will, right? What I'm saying is basically that you might think that who you vote for or what your body size is, or whether you are kind to others depends on your own choices and actions, your volition. But in fact, it's greatly affected by the choices and actions on people you don't even know.
[00:39:24] So on the one hand, it's true that our experiments in this regard, and just to be clear, the voting experiment was just done by my former colleague, James Fowler, and involved, you know, 61 million people were randomly assigned to a social network intervention on Facebook. And he was able to document along with his colleagues that voting can either spread two or three degrees of separation.
[00:39:46] And we've done experiments, looking at cooperation and timeless, and we've shown experiment in the laboratory that if I treat you nicely, you treat someone — so Tom treats Dick nicely. Dick treats Harry nicely. Harry treats Betty nicely. Betty treats Susan nicely. How Betty treats Susan, dependent on how Tom treated Dick even though neither Betty nor Susan ever saw Tom or Dick, never interacted with them, but how they're treating each other, depends on how these other two people, somewhere else are treating each other. We've shown that experimentally in the laboratory.
[00:40:17] So on the one hand, the existence of those phenomena which seems to subwork with free will but on the other, it elevates the importance of freewill because now it suggests that when you take a positive choice, when you lose weight, or improve your mood, or to be kind to others, it can ripple through the network and affect dozens or hundreds of other people. And so actually free will is quite important, you know?
[00:40:38] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:40:39] Nicholas Christakis: Making the choice to do the right thing is good.
[00:40:41] Jordan Harbinger: Incredible how that works, but you're right. I also see the other side of it, how it could be a little bit depressing, right? Because people are going, "Oh my gosh, how do I—?" Well, I'll get to that in a second, but there's a lot of people doing some bad stuff out there that we would want to avoid. I'm sure you've heard this sort of self-help trope that you're the sum of the people with whom you surround yourself the most, right?
[00:40:59] Nicholas Christakis: I think there's a lot of truth to that, honestly.
[00:41:01] Jordan Harbinger: Well, it sounds like you proved a lot of that. And I'm wondering if surrounding ourselves with people virtually is the same or similar as like, can Tom treat Dick poorly or positively via Zoom and via social media or on the phone, or is it through a podcast that they're listening to or is it only in person?
[00:41:20]Nicholas Christakis: The way I would emphasize it is it's not the medium that matters. It's not the means by which I communicate with you that matters. It's the intrinsic nature of our relationship. Actually, there's some wrinkles to this idea, which we can explore if you want, but the gist of it is it doesn't matter whether I'm communicating with you by Zoom or Facebook or Twitter or whatever if you are in fact, the real friend of mine.
[00:41:41] So I could have, like, for example, we did an experiment in which, not experimental, a study in which we looked at movie tastes by people on Facebook. And we saw that if one of your Facebook friends posted that they liked a particular movie, it had no effect on a year later, whether you also expressed an interest in that movie. But if one of your real — you have hundreds of Facebook friends, but if one of your real friends among those Facebook friends expressed an interest in that movie, then it did affect her probability of being interested a year later. So it's not that you are using online means of communication that was relevant, it was with whom were you interacting. Was it an actually materially relevant person? So, yeah, so that's how I would answer your question.
[00:42:20] Now, there's some wrinkles to that, which is that these tenuous online connections can actually potentially be influential even amongst strangers if something is at stake. For example, let's say you have a community of online people with diabetes or some kind of cancer that are sharing health information online, even strangers. Like I'm there to manage my diabetes and here's another person who I don't know who has diabetes and they are making recommendations to me. I could be affected by that person because we have a common interest, something that's at stake, you see? Or dating apps where everyone's trying to find a date, so you can be affected by other people. So that's a little wrinkle to what I just said.
[00:43:01] Jordan Harbinger: Who's contagion wins? So if I'm depressed and you're excited and positive, just as a general rule, will I make you feel more depressed or will you make me feel more positive or is it both directions?
[00:43:12] Nicholas Christakis: It's bi-directional and it depends on the intrinsic nature of the thing itself in parts. So when we look at this, for example, in one experiment we did with respect to happiness and unhappiness. There were waves of happiness and waves of unhappiness spreading within the social network. And we found that unbalanced happiness spread more robustly than unhappiness. So both spread and you're buffeted by waves of both. You know, you're surrounded by people who are happy and unhappy, but happiness tends to win out in that particular case.
[00:43:43] Now, the weight gain and weight loss is a bit more complicated. Weight gain tends to win out. So weight loss or weight gain, both spread in the network. And part of the reason, probably too tangential for us right now, but part of it has to do with whether an external force is driving the epidemic. So for example, what you have to understand about networks is that networks magnify whatever they are seeded with their agnostic. They will magnify the hatred and violence and fascism and germs and sadness, but equally they will magnify love and kindness and ideas and happiness, but they must be seeded. An external force has to impinge on the network to get the epidemic going.
[00:44:24] And so, for example, but then the networks will just take over and give you more of that. When you introduced Coronavirus into our midst, the fact that we're a social network creature, that we form friendships and we don't live as isolated. If you think about it, if we lived atomistically, if we each lived independently, we didn't live socially, then infecting one of us with Coronavirus, you'd get no pandemic. But the fact that we form social networks magnifies, gives you more Coronavirus.
[00:44:47] So on the obesity example what's happening is that other forces in our society are getting the obesity epidemic started. For example, the decline in the real price of food. You know, it's cheaper and cheaper over the last hundred years to put food on the table, as we've gotten more efficient at producing food, or they move to sedentary lifestyles or the design of our cities or the marketing of food products by big food companies. All of those things could make me gain weight. But the fact that we're in social networks means that once I gained weight, it affects your probability of gaining weight. And so you get a multiplicative effect because of the social network.
[00:45:29] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Nicholas Christakis. We'll be right back.
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[00:48:37] And now for the conclusion of my conversation with Nicholas Christakis.
[00:48:42] So this isn't, it doesn't sound like it's a ripple effect from one person. It sounds like it has to do with all of the nodes, all of the people being nodes and kind of radiating, I don't think that's the right term, but like in all directions in their network.
[00:48:57] Nicholas Christakis: Yes, that's right. That's exactly right. And everyone is doing this because everyone is acting this way within the network. And this is, of course, why some people are more structurally influential than others. So for example, one intuitive understanding of this is if you were a bioterrorist and you had to infect one person in San Francisco with a germ, who would you infect? I mean, you're not going to infect some monk that's by himself, you know, often at some monastery because that person is not interacting with anyone else. You have the intuitive understanding that some people are going to spread the germ more and that's the person you really want to infect to get it going. So the capacity to induce ripples varies from person to person.
[00:49:35] Jordan Harbinger: How conscious is this process, right? So am I sort of out loud thinking, "Eeh my friends are all a bit overweight. It's just the way guys are these days. It's not a big deal," or is it very unconscious, like imitation, proliferation of unhealthy habits, and diets and exercise patterns and acceptable body size, but it never quite leaps into my consciousness, it just happens.
[00:49:54] Nicholas Christakis: No, it can be both. So one of the things that's happened is if you look at those old photographs of young men listed in the Second World War, they all look like tiny guys, right? But if you looked at the analogous recruits today, they would be much bigger. And what happens is that there's a kind of spread in norms about acceptable body size. So you're surrounded by other people who get bigger and bigger, and it sort of changes your expectations about what a normal body size is. And then you sort of gain weight and we pass it on to the next person.
[00:50:23] We've been able in some work we've done to provide evidence for this normative effect. In other words, it's not just behavioral, it's not just that your friends say, "Let's have muffins and beer." And you're like, that's not like a yucky combination, but you know, my friend is suggesting muffins and beer, so let's do that. And of course, then you adopt the muffins and beer diet and you gain weight. Yes, that does happen. But it's not just that it's that there's a spread of norms as well, not just the spread of behavior. So by seeing your friends who are overweight, let's say you change your ideas about what an acceptable body size is. Then you can gain weight.
[00:50:54] Or here's the tricky part, you could even be an asymptomatic carrier. Just like for example, I could be infected with a germ, have symptoms, give it to you. You have the germ, but you don't have symptoms. And then you transmit it to your wife who gets the germ and symptoms. So you function as an asymptomatic carrier, just like in the case of Coronavirus. The virus can spread and some people are asymptomatic.
[00:51:18] Well, the same can happen with norms, for example, like obesity. So for example, I have the norm, I adopt the norm, but it's okay to be bigger. I've gained weight. You see me that has gained weight, you don't gain weight. But now your ideas about what an acceptable body size are have changed through exposure to me. Now, you will encounter a new friend of yours who has started to gain weight. And if you hadn't interacted with me, you might've said to that friend, "You know, let's go to the gym." You might have kind of given them a gentle correction, but now having seen me, you're like, "Well, actually he's not as bad as Christakis. So I'm not going to see anything." You see, you then have become an asymptomatic carrier of a norm, even though it has not affected your body size for example.
[00:51:58] Jordan Harbinger: Right. So I'm sitting there going, "Well, I'm just abnormally fit and trim. Everyone else is—"
[00:52:03] Nicholas Christakis: Yeah, compared to my friend.
[00:52:04] Jordan Harbinger: I'm not going to interrupt their lifestyle to impose my norms of working out all the time and watching what I eat.
[00:52:12] Nicholas Christakis: Yes.
[00:52:12] Jordan Harbinger: That's ridiculous. Can we use these powers for good? Because that seems very useful, right? Like I'm imagining companies organizing so that they're using the influential people to improve the health and fitness and work habits of others. And also I want to know how to increase my own influence so that I have a positive effect on others. Like how do I get my virtues to spread versus being spread upon?
[00:52:31] Nicholas Christakis: Well, I mean, the answer to that question is yes, and my lab has been doing for over 10 years now, many experiments showing how you can foster desirable cascades of behaviors. Earlier, I alluded to developing world settings where we've shown for instance, that you can foster the spread of anti-diarrheal practices to reduce diarrhea in developing world villages. And diarrhea is a leading killer of young kids and it must've developed.
[00:52:56] Or we have a big trial which we've just finished recently with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in Honduras, where we've been able to show that we can improve maternal and child health behaviors in thousands of people by fostering these kinds of behavioral cascades and many other experiments we've done online. We've also worked with companies, for example, companies that are trying to increase or decrease the prescribing behavior of physicians. You know, how do we get doctors to change what medications they prescribed to patients? Or what tests they order? We want to reduce needless test ordering by physicians.
[00:53:28] We want to foster the diffusion of innovation through networks of doctors, of these desirable prescribing test ordering practices. We have done many, many applications like this. And so many commercial firms, of course, are interested in these ideas. We're interested in improving the health of the public because they want to sell widgets. But you know, our technology can be used to sell widgets as well. Incidentally, it can also be used for ill. Like any technology, you know, you can invent a gun for hunting and then you can use it to murder people. And, you know, it's a dual-use technology, our technology and the ideas that my lab and many other similar labs advanced can be used for good or for ill, frankly. You know, that is something we are mindful of and we're certainly also discussing various things we've written.
[00:54:12] Jordan Harbinger: Social networks can seemingly spread good ideas, bad ideas, political ideas, smoking, right back pain, suicide clusters, or something you mentioned in the book. The back pain thing was interesting though. Tell us about that. That was kind of out of — I didn't see that one coming.
[00:54:27] Nicholas Christakis: Well, I mean, the thing is there are these diseases which are called culture bound syndromes, which are our diseases, which are very typical of a particular cultural group in which so far as we can tell, have no physiologic basis. Now, when we look at other cultural groups, we can think, oh, those people are nuts.
[00:54:43] For example, there's this illness in certain countries in Asia, where a man becomes convinced that his penis is disappearing and it's being drawn up into his body. And there is no physiologic basis for this belief. And the penis is not in fact disappearing, but the treatment for this condition is to have a trusted family member hold the penis 24 hours a day to make sure that it doesn't recede. It's a sort of psychological kind of belief system. And you can have outbreaks of this condition. Like you have epidemics of this condition, right? Now, we look at that and we think—
[00:55:14] Jordan Harbinger: Have they never heard of duct tape over there?
[00:55:17] Nicholas Christakis: We look at that and we think that's nuts, but you know, they might look at us and think that's nuts. For example, we have epidemics of anorexia in our country, and this is seen in very distinctive subgroups in our population. Often, upper-middle-class white girls are particularly afflicted by this condition. It's not, of course, restricted to that group. You rarely see anorexia in very poor countries where food is scarce, and it's a bit of an odd kind of a condition. So from an outsider's perspective that might look to them, it looks like the penis disappearing story, for example. And back pain, which typically afflicts middle-aged men. And often there's no physiologic basis that we can ascertain for this condition, also might be in this category where it is a kind of a social contagion.
[00:56:00] And there was a very interesting sort of study that was done. I think that this is what you are alluding to and what got us onto this tangent is that in east and west Germany, after the reunification of Germany, I can't remember right now, which side has the lower incidence of back pain? I think east Germany—
[00:56:14] Jordan Harbinger: It was east Germany.
[00:56:15] Nicholas Christakis: —had very low levels of back pain in middle-aged men, in west Germans had high levels, a very similar population of human beings. And then after the reunification, suddenly east German back pain levels came into approximate west German levels. The author speculated a process of social contagion and the change in norms about back pain, you know, which if you have back pain, you're excused from your obligation.
[00:56:37] Now, I need to be very clear when I'm talking about anorexia and back pain and all of these things. I am not saying that anyone who suffers from these conditions has a mental illness. I'm not saying that there's nothing wrong with them. I'm not saying they're making it up. I'm saying none of those things, all I'm saying is that there is a social contagion component to these conditions. That's easier to see when it afflicts other groups and when it afflicts our own.
[00:57:00] Another example of this is in Latin America, there's a condition called susto, which means sort of spirit loss. It's a kind of quasi-religious belief that someone is just losing their spirit and can die from this condition. And you can have epidemics of susto, as well. And from our perspective, that doesn't make much sense, but of course, they might look at us and think analogously.
[00:57:20] Jordan Harbinger: It does make sense that these things are socially contagious, but of course it also makes sense that it is a real mental illness or a real physical or physiological or psychological condition. I mean, when you're talking about suicide clusters, where teenagers, just for example, teenagers hear about somebody committing suicide, and then there's a rash of these same types of incidences. It's not that they're not really depressed. It's just that depression or that condition that causes them to do that is contagious.
[00:57:47] Nicholas Christakis: Well, it's complicated. The suicide cluster is one of the things that's felt, that happens in suicide clusters is what's spreading, there is a lowering of the threshold for taking your life. So, you know, there was some threshold. Now, some person takes their own life and it lowers your threshold for doing so. And that's what's causing the cascades. It's not that people think that — or suicidal ideation that thinking about suicide. Every human being has contemplated from time to time taking their own life. I think that's not abnormal. Many listeners will have had an odd thought when driving late at night. You know, "What happens if I just drove off this bridge or drove into oncoming traffic?" Or will have had a kind of intrusive thought like, while walking across a high place, you know, "What happens if I slip or maybe I should jump, what would it be like to jump?" and so on.
[00:58:29] It's not uncommon for human beings to have this, but when you, when you start getting these cascades, people might be more likely to say, to act on these kinds of thoughts. So there's like some baseline level of depression. There's some baseline level of these types of intrusive thoughts. Now, when you begin to have the kind of change in the environment, you can get these sorts of outbreaks. And suicide clusters have been known for hundreds of years. I mean, it's not a novel observation.
[00:58:53] You know, we are psychological animals. We're influenced by each other. Our emotional state depends on the emotional state of those around us. Our beliefs and ideas depend on the beliefs, ideas of those around us. And so we copy each other. We do. We were talking earlier about how this copying is really good because it's efficient. It's a kind of social learning, but it can also have a downside.
[00:59:15] Jordan Harbinger: What was that experiment — I can't remember if you wrote about this or I read about it somewhere else, but essentially there was an experiment where they had a bunch of people look up at the sky. I don't know if they were pointing.
[00:59:25] Nicholas Christakis: Milgram.
[00:59:26] Jordan Harbinger: Also Milgram, of course, why not? Right.
[00:59:27] Nicholas Christakis: Of course, of course, Milgram was a genius, just an absolute genius. Backstory on him is amazing. He left Yale and went to the University of New York. He has no research budget and he proceeds to conduct a series of landmark experiments, which we're still talking about decades later on a shoestring. The experiment you were alluding to is the Milgram sidewalk experiment.
[00:59:47] And what he did is he arranged to have some confederates on a block segment in Manhattan. And he has a guy sitting in a window up on the sixth floor of a building, let's say, and then he has other confederates that are stopped in the middle of the block and look up at the guy across the street, up in this window. And when he experimentally varies, it varies the number of people that have stopped to look up at the window. So for example, if one person stops and looks up at the other passers-by who are normal people, they're not part of Milgram's experiment, they're the subjects of his research. The other passers-by just walked by this one person and completely ignored him.
[01:00:27] I mean, if you're walking down the sidewalk and you saw one guy looking up somewhere, you wouldn't might not even notice this person, you probably wouldn't do anything. Then Milgram has two people stand and look up and now some passers-by glance up, you know, what are those two guys looking at? But they keep walking. Then Milgram goes three, four, five, six people. When you get to six people stop and look up, everyone else stops and looks up at the thing. So Milgram was able to show that there's a kind of nucleation process for social movements, like crystals forming. You know, you need to have a critical mass at a certain amount. Then, the crystal grows and grows and he was able to do this experiment. And then he had people hiding and observing what do the passers-by do when he varied the size of the set looking up at the individuals — a brilliant experiment.
[01:01:11] Jordan Harbinger: Do you think at all about like cryptocurrency or markets and seeing, "Oh, my friend bought this," and I mean, you have to have some thoughts on this craziness as well, right?
[01:01:20] Nicholas Christakis: Yes. I mean, I've been watching Bitcoin go up for, I don't know, however many years now.
[01:01:24] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:01:25] Nicholas Christakis: I'm not a sophisticated investor and I am not sophisticated about these types of money-making, you know, farsighted schemes. But I remember looking at it and thinking, you know, I wonder if I should just put a little money and literally if I had invested a thousand dollars back, then it'd be worth, I don't know how many millions today. I mean, it just kills me that I didn't just pay attention to do it, but yes. I mean, there's a lot of subtlety about cryptocurrency and a lot of serious conversation that could be had about cryptocurrencies and about what they represent for our society, what they represent for the future of money, which ones are likely to be successful, in what ways are they the same or different than the hard assets like gold and so on and Fiat currencies, but they absolutely have a social component as well. You know, that this sort of faddishness of a buying and the same steep rise, of course, will be followed by his steep fall if they crash. Just like the tulip mania of 400 or 500 years ago.
[01:02:19] Jordan Harbinger: In closing here, is there anything we can do to defend ourselves against this type of influence? I mean, it seems impossible to avoid. On the one hand, we kind of don't want to insulate ourselves, right? We want to get good habits and we want to get good thoughts and feelings and contagious emotions from friends and family. But also I don't want to get wrapped up in buying tons of different cryptocurrencies and losing money or gambling or eating too much or smoking. I don't want those things to be contagious. How do we block out the negative influences or is it just not that possible?
[01:02:54] Nicholas Christakis: Well, I
[01:02:54] think there's no way to stop being — we are social animals. I mean, there's no way to completely insulate yourself from this, but there are habits of mind you can cultivate and practice. You can cultivate, which reduces the likelihood you will just engage in copycat behavior. The first is to surround yourself with a variety of people with different views. Certainly, politically, I think that's very wise. Like my friends run the gamut in the political spectrum. I enjoy arguing with the ones I disagree with. I like having people I do agree with. It's gratifying and nice to see that my opinions about things are shared by some people whose judgment I value and whose intelligence I respect.
[01:03:30] But I think if you're only interacting with people who agree with you about something, whether incidentally it is a political topic or a scientific matter, right? The way scientists advance and understand the world is through the debate of ideas, right? They fight with each other. They don't literally fight, or at least we hope they don't. Scientists through sequential experimentation, under a set of rules, are trying to understand the world. And you've learned from disagreement, whether it's a scientist or a political idea or whatever.
[01:03:58] J.S. Mill famously said, "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of it." So one of the things you can do as a smart person is to surround yourself with people who have a range of uses, including people who disagree with you. Incidentally, I used to do martial arts for many, many years, Shotokan, a very traditional Japanese karate style. And you bow to your opponents. You thank your opponent. This is the whole principle, you are learning from your opponent, right? And you respect your opponent. I mean, this is true sparring with a willing opponent that you grow. And so the same holds for intellectual and political and scientific and other pursuits. I think we should respect people with whom we disagree. So that's one thing you can do.
[01:04:38] And the other thing you can do is you can cultivate habits of mind where you ask, you interrogate yourself. Why do I believe this? I believe something. What is the evidence for my belief? How did I come to believe? And you're entitled to have things that you have no good reason for, right? I'm not telling you that you should live your life obsessing about every detail. You know, I just like, I like collarless shirts. Why do I like collarless shirts? I don't know. I fell in love with them when I was a young man. And I've been wearing collarless shirts ever since. I can't really give you a rational reason why I like collarless shirts. I think they look good. You know, that's fine.
[01:05:08] I don't have to provide an explanation for everything, but I think for other things, I think it is good to discipline yourself, to interrogate where your beliefs come from. And in any case, I think it makes for a more interesting life.
[01:05:19] Jordan Harbinger: Thank you so much for your time. I know we had some technical difficulties. I appreciate you sticking through. This has been fascinating. All of your books that I've read so far are fascinating and you definitely have to come back when you plow out the next one.
[01:05:30] Nicholas Christakis: Jordan, I'd be more than happy to do so. And thank you for a really, just a wide range and — I mean, what a meandering conversation we had. Thank you so much.
[01:05:40] Jordan Harbinger: Here's a preview of my conversation with a former Homeland security agent who reluctantly got involved in chasing down global child trafficking. Did you know that there are more people enslaved right now than there ever were before in history? Here's a quick listen.
[01:05:56] 30 million slaves in the world. Is that correct? I mean, that's—
[01:05:59] Tim Ballard: That's insane. It is correct. 10 million of those are children who are either in slave labor, organ harvesting, or sex trafficking. The traffickers are trying to get these kids into our country and into our black sex market, because that's where you can make the most money. Again, we are the demand. We drive this. It's a $150 billion a year business by most estimates, the amount of money made every year selling children. With that money, you could buy every single Starbucks franchise in the world, every single NBA franchise every team, and still have enough money leftover to send every child in America to college for four years. That's per year selling human beings. We go online in the dark net and honestly, Jordan, it was about 10 times worse than my mind could have conceived. The things that people do due to children I could not comprehend.
[01:06:50] We helped to rescue a little girl who was smuggled in from Mexico, taken to New York City, between the ages of 12 and 17 years old. In New York City, she was raped over 60,000 times. They bring her here and they just have these clients lined up and they drive her to this house, this hotel, this bar. And she's raped, I mean, easily 15, 20 times within a 24-hour period. I mean, and this is the life of thousands, tens of thousands of children in the United States right now.
[01:07:19] Just like in the 18th, 19th century, no, one's really talking about it. It's too hard. People look away, they don't want to engage. And that's where I get frustrated. Like, look, what's happening right now. Like I'm not going to get into the argument, the whole debate with a riot, I'm just using it as an example, but governments are shifting now. People are getting so loud, we're going to see changes. But I would love to see some day that happened for child rape victims. I'd like to see something so loud in every country that we have riots and people screaming because the children don't have a voice. You know, they can't protest, they can't rally. And they're the most precious in the world. And yet they're being exploited, trafficked, kidnapped, raped by the millions.
[01:07:59] Jordan Harbinger: For more, including how Tim Ballard became involved with busting child traffickers and rescuing their victims, check out episode 369 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:08:11] You know, I thought it was pretty interesting that over time bugs, diseases, viruses, they evolve to be less lethal or we adapt to make them so. Pathogens typically evolve to be less deadly because killing the host, you know, killing us or forcing the host to isolate themselves, you know, we're so sick, we can't go out of the house, results in a lower spread. So natural selection is just a whole amazing thing. It's sort of a genetic truce that keeps both the bugs and their hosts, so humans, that's us, alive to reproduce, to evolve. Really, really amazing stuff. I could read endless books about that alone.
[01:08:43] And hey, now we know that not only do pathogens but emotions spread and how that works in practice and why humans adapted to read other's emotions. That's also in his book as well, or in his books. I read all three. So it's hard for me to keep straight what's in each one. But when you got good work, you got good work. What can I say?
[01:09:01] When it comes to the social networking, each happy friend that a person has increases that person's chance of being happy by 9 percent. An unhappy friend, it decreases our chances of being happy by 7 percent. So more friends is not enough, more happy friends is key. Again, this is a bit of a misfit episode. I loved it. I really enjoyed this one. I hope you did as well.
[01:09:24] And again, a big thank you to Dr. Nicholas Christakis. His latest book is called Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. Of course, the other book about social networking and social network effects is called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. How your friend's friend's friends affect everything you feel, think, and do. We will link to all of that in the show notes, as we always do.
[01:09:47] Please do use our website links if you buy the books from any of the guests that does help support the show. And yes, they work in your country and yes, they work for Audible. All of you seem to be getting this right, but occasionally there's somebody who doesn't understand how these links work. Just use the links in the show notes, and if they don't work, let me know.
[01:10:01] Worksheets for the episode are also in the show notes. Transcripts are in the show notes. There's a video of this interview going up on the old YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. We also have a brand new clips channel with cuts that don't make it to the show or highlights from the interviews you can't see anywhere else. jordanharbinger.com/clips is where you can find that. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, or just hit me on LinkedIn.
[01:10:25] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships, using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free. jordanharbinger.com/course is where you can find that. I'm teaching you how to dig the well before you get thirsty. And most of the guests on the show, they subscribed to the course. They contribute to the course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company.
[01:10:45] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who's interested in the COVID thing and isn't totally freaking sick of it by now. You know what? Let's be honest, the social networking stuff is probably where most of you all are going to resonate. Share this with all your friends who think that the bad habits of those that they surround themselves with are not rubbing off on them. Basically, what I'm saying is share this with your kids, share this with your teenagers, and your 20-somethings who think they're isolated from all their dirt bag roommates. Hopefully, you find something great in every episode of the show. Please share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[01:11:35] And special thanks to Hyundai for sponsoring this episode.
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