Sustainability is contagious!

Some time ago I was in a lecture about diffusion networks where the concepts of social conformity and social contagion were explained. It is was no news to me that as a society we influence each other in some way but I found the level of influence that our networks have in our behavior striking. Did you know that if you have an obese fiend your chances of becoming obese increase considerably? Shocking, right? Well, I thought it might be interesting to talk about these topics here because sometimes we underestimate the impact that the small actions or decisions we take have on our environment or how we are being influenced by others.

Let’s start with the definition of conformity. Conformity refers to the act of matching beliefs, attitudes and behavior to fit in a group. Back in the 1950s, Solomon Asch performed some experiments that showed how other people’s opinion influences greatly an individual’s opinion and that in some cases an individual is willing to comply with a group decision even though he or she is not convinced it is the best decision, just because the social pressure is high.[1][2] Social contagion is defined as the spread of attitudes, ideas or behavior in a group through imitation, or in other words. Monkey see, monkey do! Emotions and behavior can spread rapidly; one example of this effect is the spread of obesity in a social network. Christakis & Fowler (2007) evaluated a network for 32 years and what they found was that an individual’s chance to become obese increased by 57% if he/she had an obese friend, by 40% if had an obese sibling and 37% if his/her partner became obese.[3] This gives you an idea of the power of the social context, we (the GO green office members) have noticed that when we organize activities, most of our attendees are students from Sustainable Innovation; of course this makes sense because we have interests in common. But we would like to also spread sustainable ideas to as many students and staff as possible. This requires us to be creative and use different strategies to reach out to a wider audience, such as our apple promotion.

In 1962 Everett Rogers defined the concept of sociological diffusion of innovations as the process of spreading an innovative concept in a social system. The rate of adoption of new ideas or innovations depends on many factors, such as the advantages it offers compared to other alternatives, whether other people share them or not, the risk level, its complexity, the fit with your values, the promotion it has, the type of social group etcetera. When an innovation is catchy, it suffices that a minority of people acquires it to spread quickly through different channels. [4]Nowadays social media is an important tool for companies, organizations and people in general to diffuse ideas, concepts and products because of the amount of people that can be reached not only through sponsored adds but through public and private comments among users.  Social diffusion is a topic that has been used to study different cases of adoption or rejection of sustainability initiatives and innovations, it helps to identify the causes of success or failure in order to predict what can happen with new ideas.

I hope that this article was interesting and remember that you and me, all of us can do small changes in our everyday life to become more sustainable that might be more important than we think. Sustainability is a broad concept that encompasses many aspects, not only protecting the planets resources but also ensure prosperity for everybody. This means that there are many opportunities to become more sustainable and there must be many initiatives that we can join and invite others to do as well!

Note: I invite you to look for the video about Asch’s conformity experiment it is quite funny!

  1. Asch, S. E. (1956). Asch Conformity Task. PsycTESTS Dataset. doi:10.1037/t31951-000
  2. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied70(9), 1-70. doi:10.1037/h0093718
  3. Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine357(4), 370-379. doi:10.1056/nejmsa066082
  4. Rogers, E. M. (2002). Diffusion of preventive innovations. Addictive Behaviors27(6), 989-993. doi:10.1016/s0306-4603(02)00300-3