How Social Networks Can Turn Basic Science into Public Benefit
Decades after scientists learned that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer, smoking is still the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Problems such as this keep social scientists awake at night. How can scientists change people’s attitudes and behaviors for the public good?
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Northwestern University are mapping the social networks of health and government workers in Bihar, India, to identify influential people who can strategically seed ideas about medical innovations that they hope to have adopted.
“We’ve built a model that provides people on the ground who are trying to implement healthcare practices with recommendations of who and how to influence,” said study co-author Leslie DeChurch, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Psychology, and an expert in organizational psychology.
The researchers published their model for this social network on September 15 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research is being supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The researchers will soon return to India, where they will put the model into practice and map the social networks of 14,000 family health workers in Bihar, India, a state with a population one-third as large as the entire United States. The paper-based survey involves the family health workers for the Indian government as well as several non-profit organizations and development partners. These key individuals were identified in an earlier stage of the project.
“We are asking them about who they go to for advice on family health solutions as well as questions that will help us assess the extent to which these people are driven by the need to be right or the need to be liked,” said study co-author Noshir Contractor, a professor at Northwestern University and an expert on social networks within communities. “Based on those characteristics, we can identify who is most likely to influence them and what message is mostly likely to influence them.”
In India, the neonatal mortality rate is 10 times higher than in the developed world. Even simple medical innovations can be met with resistance. For example, clinical trials have found that applying an inexpensive antiseptic to cleanse a newborn’s umbilical cord reduced the neonatal mortality rate by 24 percent. Many Indian parents, however, do not follow this advice.
“There’s a social science problem that stands between the basic science and turning basic science into something that will benefit people,” DeChurch said.
In the case of the antiseptic for newborns, some parents are hesitant to use it because of deep-rooted traditional beliefs that encourage parents to apply mustard oil to the umbilical cord. Some parents worry that breaking the tradition will cause bad luck for their child.
Contractor and DeChurch realized that for one person to persuade another person, it is important to have information about their social motives, which affects how they attend to information they receive from their network.
The results of the survey will be implemented in a digital dashboard. Members in a technical support unit from the non-governmental organization CARE India will use the dashboards’ information to assist health officials interested in scaling up innovations to identify who is likely to influence whom and with what message.
“A lot of people think that networks just make pretty pictures and nice visualizations,” Contractor said. “We want to prove that networks can do something very actionable and solve major world problems.”
This research is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Global Development Division under grant number 21640, the Family Health Division under grant number 1084322. Support was also provided by the National Science Foundation under grant numbers SES-1219469, CNS-1211375, and SBE-1244737. Any conclusions or opinions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the sponsoring agencies.
CITATION: Noshir S. Contractor and Leslie A. DeChurch, “Integrating social networks and human social motives to achieve social influence at scale.” (PNAS, September 2014). http://www.pnas.org/content/111/Supplement_4/13650.abstract
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Writer: Brett Israel, Georgia Tech, and Amanda Morris, Northwestern University