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Your Friends Dirty Little Drinking Secrets

In 1991, a study was held among college students that showed that college students greatly overestimated how much their fellow students drink. From this, you might think that everybody is just bragging about their drinking behavior. But actually there is a more obvious explanation. And it will show you the importance of leading by example…

Just take a look at the following figure. In this example only 33% of students drink often, but everybody in this group thinks that this number is actually 50%. The reason for this inconsistency is that the social connections between people are not distributed homogeneously.

we can easily get ideas that are very far off from reality
The students in this picture overestimate how much their fellow students drink

When we assume that some event, like drinking, takes place in the population on average as often as we see it happening, we can easily get ideas that are very far off from reality. 

In network science the specific distribution of social connections between people is very important. If there are too few connections between people, ideas cannot spread. They cannot spread because there are too many connections. People are not able to get out of their existing frame of mind. 

“Unity without uniformity”. “Diversity without division”. “Out of many, one”. Different cultures discovered the same important fact: ideas need to spread in a healthy society. And in order for spread to happen, you need the right amount of in-group and out-group connections between people.

ideas in isolation cannot spread
too many connections lead to group thinking
in the right network, we can be leading by example

Different distributions of social connections lead to a different capacity of the collective to develop new ideas. The cool thing however, is that a person needs only one or two close friends that are really into an idea. This is enough to incorporate this idea into their own thinking. In network science this is known as the ‘contamination threshold’ (see “the wisdom and the madness of crowds” to learn more about this concept). It comes down to the idea that a single person can quickly spread throughout an entire population, if he does net let himself be persuaded by some other idea.

So our ideas can have a lot of influence on the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis. We should think long and hard about the ideas that are driving our actions. Never underestimate the impact you have on the worldview of others. You could be leading by example.

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