If you want to influence people’s behaviour, simply growing your social networks isn’t going to cut it, according to a paper published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
Social influencers are more likely to be those who form tight groups of friends, argues Josh Firth from the University of Oxford, UK.
Drawing from burgeoning research into human and animal social networks, Firth explains that even though these individuals have fewer social connections, their strong influence within their cliques can trigger a rapid spread of new behaviours.
This dramatically alters perceptions of which individuals are likely to be key for proliferating new behaviours, and the complex path those behaviours will take through a social network.
Social connections drive population-level behaviours that influence choice of mates, reproduction, foraging and predator avoidance and therefore have important consequences for health, fitness and survival.
The new revelation overturns prevailing notions that behaviour spreads through mere exposure like a contagious disease.
Although the “simple contagion” theory still dominates animal research, evidence shows that many species engage in many of the social decisions that humans make, such as when to adopt a new behaviour and who to learn from.
In animals, the same mathematical rules tend to underpin various aspects of social networks as humans.
Therefore, Firth says, “animal behaviours may spread in a more complicated way than we often currently assume, and – just like in human systems – it’s not necessarily the most sociable individuals that are the most influential.”
Limited evidence within animal systems supports this notion, such as captive fish experiments suggesting that behaviour spreads in a complex manner, and wild bird flocks showing that social considerations like “let’s follow the majority” can be made when behaviours spread through their social networks.
Including these complex influences into animal social system models can offer new insights because, unlike humans, they can be tracked over their entire lifetimes and be experimentally manipulated.
“Together,” says Firth, “the long-term, fine-detail tracking along with experimental manipulations of social behaviour mean that animal systems are in an excellent position to provide new insight into the science behind how behaviours spread.”
In turn, he adds, by applying recent insights into how human social networks spread behaviours to animal research, “I’m also sure that animal systems now have a lot to teach us about human behaviour in this way too”.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.