Creating Big Change

For decades, our standard ideas about social change have been based on a popular metaphor, – that change spreads like a virus. Recently, we have all been reminded how a virus works: one person gets affected, they pass it on to one or two or three or a hundred others, and the contagion spreads through the population. The idea that “influencers” are the key to spreading innovations is based on the notion that well-connected individuals can play an outsize role in the spread of a disease, – for instance in a viral epidemic. Similarly, the idea that “stickiness” is essential for the successful social marketing campaign is based on the idea that certain viruses are particularly infectious.

These viral metaphors are useful when we’re talking about the dispersal of simple ideas or information, – headline news of a volcanic eruption, for example, or the marriage of royal celebrities. And those bits of information really are contagious: easy to catch, easy to transmit. But there’s a big problem with the viral metaphor: to create real change, you need to do more than spread information; you must change people’s beliefs and behaviours. And those are much harder to influence. Viral metaphors are able to describe a world where information spreads quickly yet beliefs and behaviours stay the same. It is a world of simple contagions, – catchy ideas and memes that spread quickly to everyone but lack any lasting impact on what we think or how we live.

But social change is far more complicated. Innovative ideas and behaviours do not spread virally; simple exposure is not enough to “infect” you. When you are exposed to a new behaviour or idea, you don’t automatically adopt it. Instead you have to make a decision about whether to accept or reject it. And that decision can often be complex and emotional.

My research, and that of many others in this field, has shown that as we consider whether to adopt a new belief or behavior, we are guided, much more than we realize, by our social networks. Through the hidden power of social influence, the network around us shapes how we respond to an innovation, causing s either to ignore it or to adopt it. This much deeper process of social spreading is called complex contagion, and it has given rise to a new science for understanding how change happens, – and how we can help make it happen.

When we discuss “social networks,” it is important to remember that these networks are not necessarily digital. They have existed for as long as humans have been around. They include everyone we talk to, collaborate with, live near, and seek out. Our personal network makes up our social world. The science of social network studies the web that binds these social worlds together, – from neighbours living on the same street to strangers on different continents, – and how social contagions can spread among them.

This book crystallizes over a decade of new research by myself and hundreds of other sociologists, computer scientists, political scientists, and management scholars working to discover the most effective strategies for spreading complex contagions. But the idea at the heart is a simple one: successful social change is not about information; it’s about norms. Social networks are not merely pipes through which ideas and behaviours flow from person to person. They are also the prisms that determine how we see those behaviours and interpret those ideas. Depending on how a new idea comes to us, we may either dismiss it or jump on board.

Unlike perceptual bias, in which our eyes distort visual information, or cognitive bias, which distorts our reasoning about economic information, network bias is a way our social networks invisibly shape the beliefs we hold and he norms we follow.

The social network that links the members of a community together can inadvertently reinforce people’s existing biases, preventing innovative ideas and movements from catching on. Yet with slight changes, the same network can instead trigger collective enthusiasm for an innovation, accelerating its adoption throughout the community.

Change: How to Make Big Things Happen
Damon Centola
Director, Network Dynamics Group – Annenberg School for Communication