Am I Influenced by People? Let Me Count the Ways

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

We have all had the experience of being in a room, perhaps a classroom, office waiting room or our living room at home, of starting to yawn after observing another person in the same room yawning. Or, when one person starts to laugh you find yourself starting to chuckle, even if you do not know what the joke is about.

A study just released in the July 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reports that even our weight is affected by other people. The study was conducted at Harvard University and the University of California. The study followed 12,067 adults over 32 years who underwent repeated medical assessments as part of a heart study. The findings were that if your friend has become obese you have a 57% chance of becoming obese as well. This holds true even if your friends lives far away. Neighbors who are not friends do not have this type of influence. However, spouses and siblings also are at increased risk of becoming obese but the chances are not quite as high as among friends. In addition, same sex friends are the most likely to influence one another along the obesity scale.

Another finding was that the same influence holds true for friends who are thin or have lost weight. Therefore, friends influence one another along either scale of thinness or obesity.

What the findings point to is the power of social networks to affect how people eat and handle weight issues. It seems that the epidemic of obesity in the United States is due, in large part, to the influence of friends on our weight because once they gain weight we receive a message that it is all right to eat more food. This phenomenon then spreads from friend to friend until larger networks of people are affected.

The researchers are careful to stress the idea that one should not give up friends because they have gained weight. Having and keeping friends is also important for our health. Instead of losing a friend the researchers state, that it would help to make an additional friend who is thin.

In many ways, the results of the study are not surprising because psychologists have known for a long time about the power of observational learning. In fact, parents seem to know the impact of observational learning when they counsel their children to "do as I say and not as I do." In actual fact, children and people of all ages are most likely to do as we do and not as we say. This is why role models are so powerful during development and throughout our lives. After all, role models are people we choose to imitate and, at times, we may not choose them but imitate them as a result of their presence in our lives.

All of this has implications for how children learn about things such as violence, bullying, abuse, drug and alcohol use and education, among many others.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

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