I think a lot about a person’s ability to change.
We all want to be better—to get fitter, to read more, to be kinder, to stop being so distracted.
With a billion different people come a billion different goals. Yet we all strive to grow, to improve, to crawl even one inch closer to our vision of our ideal selves.1
And yet, as Jesus warned his disciples, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak2—what we wish to do is rarely what we end up doing.
But let me take a step back and explain where this is coming from.
A couple days ago, I was writing a post about someone I admire, and when introducing them, I included their race, sex, age, and sexual orientation.
I cringed involuntarily after writing this loaded sentence and asked myself whether these labels were really relevant.
I went back and forth—deleting, un-deleting, deleting, un-deleting—but after much thought, I concluded that, yes, these labels were of critical importance.
In this post, I’ll explain why by exploring how labels relate to our ability to change.
Our friends shape us
A 2007 study by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler investigated the spread of obesity in a social network over a period of 32 years. The study’s results are a powerful illustration of the extensive reach of social influence.
Our risk of obesity, the study found, is 45% higher if a friend is obese (one degree of separation), 20% higher if a friend of a friend is obese (two degrees of separation), and 10% higher if a friend of a friend of a friend is obese (three degrees of separation).3
The study also found that the risk of obesity is higher if the subjects had a close relationship or were of the same sex and that a neighbor becoming obese didn’t increase risk, intimating that the effect is not due to geographic distance but social distance.
The explanation proposed by the authors is that seeing a friend gain weight makes it more likely that we’ll accept weight gain in ourselves.
In other words, our environment determines what’s normal and we act accordingly.
How to smoke less and be happier
Regarding smoking, they found that we’re 61% more likely to smoke at one degree of separation, 29% more likely at two degrees of separation, and 11% more likely at three degrees of separation.
Regarding happiness, they found that we’re 15% more likely to be happy at one degree of separation, 10% more likely at two degrees of separation, and 6% more likely at three degrees of separation.
An interesting difference between happiness and both obesity and smoking, however, is that geographic distance plays a central role in happiness.
As the authors found, a happy friend who lives within a mile increases the probability we’ll become happy by 25%. And this effect applies not only to friends but to spouses, siblings, and even next door neighbors.4
Happiness also shows a “strength in numbers” effect as each additional happy social contact increases our probability of happiness by 9% while each unhappy social contact decreases it by 7%.
Finally, as with obesity, happiness spreads significantly more through same sex relationships.
The effect of role models on our behavior
A kid who grows up in a poor neighborhood, with no family or friends who have attended college, is unlikely to attend college and escape the poverty trap.
With no other example to follow, it’s improbable that they’ll break from the established norms. As with the spread of obesity, the community determines what’s normal and we accept this outwardly imposed fate.
Direct examples, however, aren’t the only way we learn. Especially in the Internet Age.
This kid might never see someone in his community attend college, but they might one day read the biography of a successful someone or other and realize that there is another path.
Maybe this book would open their mind and change the trajectory of their life. And how wonderful this would be—books definitely hold this power.
The more probable outcome, however, is that the revelation would be short-lived.
It’s likely that when the kid returned to the harshness of their day-to-day life, they would write off the book as an impossibility, a fairytale meant for someone else, certainly not them.
But imagine for a second that instead of reading about a random success story, this kid was able to read about someone like them who succeeded? How much stronger would the effect be?
We don’t have to imagine—anticlimactic, I know—because Albert Bandura—one of the most influential psychologists of all time5—figured it out for us.
Much of Bandura’s research was on the subject of self-efficacy—a concept he came up with—which he defined as “one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task.”6
This is essentially psychology-speak for Henry Ford’s famous quote:
Whether you think you can or you think you can’t—you’re right.
High levels of self-efficacy are associated with achievement and wellbeing, as well as higher levels of motivation, effort, and self-esteem, while low levels of self-efficacy are associated with stress, depression, and neuroticism.
And what is one of the main factors that promotes high self-efficacy?
Seeing people who we consider similar to ourselves succeed, Bandura found, motivates us and makes us believe that we too can succeed.
The inverse is also true—seeing people who we consider similar to ourselves fail leads to self-doubt and makes us more likely to fail as well.
And the greater the assumed similarity between us and our role model, the more persuasive their successes and failures become.
This explains why in the Christakis and Fowler studies the likelihood of obesity and happiness was higher if the subjects had a close relationship or were of the same sex—given that we affiliate with people who are similar to us, it’s likely that a close friend of the same sex serves as a persuasive role model.
Going back to how this all started, I could’ve avoiding mentioning the race, sex, age, and sexual orientation of the person whom I was writing about. (And saved myself the trouble of writing this post.)
But by doing this, I might have robbed the reader (anyone out there?) of a powerful role model as well as of the experience of seeing someone like them who succeeded in spite of the challenges posed by their identity and labels.
So I shook off the ickiness and included these labels—some which are still ignorantly used as insults—in the hope that they’d be a source of inspiration for someone somewhere in our hyper-connected Internet Age.
I hope I was right, but let me know if I was wrong.
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As Jack London wrote, “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” ↩
There was no discernible effect at four degrees of separation. ↩
But not to coworkers, curiously enough. ↩
Especially for marginalized populations who often don’t have the benefit of seeing people of their same background in positions of power. ↩