Our program doesn’t just take a woman, bring her into our program, and send her back home,” Zoughbie explained. “We ask her to bring her husband, her sister, her best friend who lives next door. And they come into the program as a cohesive social unit that was preexisting, that we didn’t create artificially.” The approach is bearing results: In one internal study, the micro-clinic’s intervention sustained patients’ blood sugar and weight reductions over a two-year period.

Underlying MCI’s proposition is a bigger idea regarding how we conceptualize and approach global health. “We’re so accustomed to thinking about health in an individualistic and medicalized way,” said Zoughbie. Too often, this leads to diagnoses and treatments that are provided in isolation of patients’ social context, and a tendency to address the biological rather than social determinants of disease. But MCI, he said, “sees the social context as part of both the problem and the solution.

2012 Social Innovation Fellow Daniel Zoughbie, founder of Microclinic International

Find out more about how we can harness social contagion for social good

"If we can understand how behaviors spread…we could potentially promote behaviors like…condom use or tolerance."

Sinan Aral’s two areas of interest are behavioral contagions and causality. He believes that if we can understand how behavior is spread in a population, there’s the potential to promote good behaviors such as condom use and tolerance and to deter behavior like smoking and violence.

"You do what you see other people doing. And then it gets stuck by the social expectations of everyone else."

After spending years in Africa fighting AIDS, TB and cholera with the W.H.O., Gary Slutkin returned to Chicago and had an epiphany: the violence plaguing his hometown exhibited all the signs of an infectious disease. Learn how he’s applied epidemiological principles to reduce shootings and violent crime in inner-city Chicago neighborhoods by as much as 75% through the CeaseFire approach.

In the 19th century, writers like Charles Mackay and Gustave Le Bon viewed social contagion with alarm, seeing it as the cause of collective madness, whether in financial markets or mob violence. By the arrival of the 21st century, however, the prevailing view of contagion had become far more positive—particularly in marketing and related fields. If only an enterprising marketer (or some other change agent) could create the conditions for a social epidemic, the reasoning goes, and if only they could find the right people to trigger it, awesome change could be unleashed for relatively little cost.

One belief that hasn’t changed over time, however, is that social epidemics are responsible for dramatic, possibly sudden social change. But is this assumption really true? And if not, then what exactly can social contagion accomplish?

10 points on the science of spreading the word

Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we’re excerpting a contribution from political scientist and PopTech presenter James Fowler.

1. Good deeds are contagious

We naturally imitate the people around us, we adopt their ideas about appropriate behavior, and we feel what they feel. Acts of charity are no exception. In our 2010 generosity experiment, we showed that every extra dollar of giving in a game designed to measure altruism caused people who saw that giving to donate an extra twenty cents.

2. The network acts like a matching grant

That same experiment showed that contagious generosity spreads up to three steps through the network (from person to person to person to person), and when we added up all the extra donations that resulted at every step, we found that an extra dollar in giving yielded three extra dollars by everyone else in the network.

3. Messages get amplified when they spread naturally

People are bombarded by information and appeals every day, especially in our newly mobile and tech-centered society, so the effect of any one appeal to do a good deed may get lost. But don’t underestimate the effect of a broadcasting strategy. Our research on get-out-the-vote appeals suggests that the indirect effect of a message on a person’s friends is about three times larger than the direct effect on the person who received the message in the first place. The more you can get people to deliver the message naturally, the greater this multiplier effect will be.

4. Close friends matter more

When we studied behaviors like obesity, smoking, and drinking, we found that spouses, siblings, and friends had an effect on each other’s behavior, but next door neighbors did not. So any attempt to change people’s behavior should probably focus on motivating these “strong ties” rather than broadcasting to a wide range of weak connections.

5. Our real world friends are online, too

Although most relationships online are not strong (the average person on Facebook has 150 “friends”), we do tend to be connected to our closest friends online too. Therefore, it is possible to use online social networks to reach our real world friends to spread social good. If someone is suggesting friends to a person who could help spread the world, it is important to try to figure out which of his/her relationships are also likely face-to-face. We have done this using photo tags and frequency of communication online, both of which work relatively well.

Read all ten of Fowler’s points on spreading the word.

We were able to go back five years later with funding provided by the Thrasher Foundation and determine through interviews that between 60% and 70% were still filtering. Most were using the technique we had introduced but we also found that control villages where we hadn’t instructed them to filter had actually begun to do so.

By analyzing the data, we discovered there was herd immunity. If you were a family that did not filter but you were surrounded by families who did, you were protected. This was because the transmission, person-to-person, was significantly reduced in that situation. We could say with great confidence that filtration played a major role in the reduction of cholera. The paper showing the herd effect and the sustainability of this initiative was published in the online Journal of the American Academy of Microbiology.

Rita Colwell on folding saris and saving lives

Saris are meant to be worn. But did you know that the garment can also be used to radically reduce the spread of cholera?

In 2003, environment microbiologist, scientific educator, and distinguished professor at the University of Maryland Rita Colwell conducted a study in which 7,000 women in Bangladesh were trained to filter the water they gathered every day through a cotton sari folded four times, which reduced the spread of cholera by almost 48%.

Saris are meant to be worn. But did you know that the garment can also be used to radically reduce the spread of cholera?

Image: jay photog/Flickr

Everything we do ripples through our network. If you feel better because you did a good deed, this will have a positive effect on your friends, your friends’ friends, and even your friends’ friends’ friends. Your own positive change can affect hundreds of people. And who wouldn’t want to make his/her corner of the vast human social network a better place?
James Fowler (PopTech 2009) shares 10 Points On The Science Of Spreading The Word, excerpted from our first Edition on harnessing social contagion for social good. 

 To understand is to perceive patterns by Jason Silva and NotThisBody.

“Networks are everywhere. The brain is a network of nerve cells connected by axons, and cells themselves are networks of molecules connected by biochemical reactions. Societies, too, are networks of people linked by friendships, familial relationships and professional ties. On a larger scale, food webs and ecosystems can be represented as networks of species. And networks pervade technology: the Internet, power grids and transportation systems are but a few examples. Even the language we are using to convey these thoughts to you is a network, made up of words connected by syntactic relationships.”

- Albert-László Barabási, author of LINKED