Facebook, MySpace and other Web sites have unleashed a potent new phenomenon of social networking in cyberspace. But at the same time, a growing body of evidence is suggesting that traditional social networks play a surprisingly powerful and underrecognized role in influencing how people behave.
Taken together, these studies and others are fueling a growing recognition that many behaviors are swayed by social networks in ways that have not been fully understood. And it may be possible, the researchers say, to harness the power of these networks for many purposes, such as encouraging safe sex, getting more people to exercise or even fighting crime.
“Public policy in general treats people as if they are sort of atomized individuals and puts policies in place to try to get them to stop smoking, eat right, start exercising or make better decisions about retirement, et cetera. What we see in this research is that we are missing a lot of what is happening if we think only that way.”