Social Contagion & Tolerance


In 2007, The New England Journal of Medicine had a study on obesity and social networks that has results that said:

“A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% (95% confidence interval [CI], 6 to 123) if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval. Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40% (95% CI, 21 to 60). If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37% (95% CI, 7 to 73). These effects were not seen among neighbors in the immediate geographic location.”

Christakis, Nicholas A. and Fowler, James H. “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years” N Engl J Med 2007;357:370-9

It is clear that social contagion has impacts everyone across a wide-variety of behaviors. Hearing of a celebrity or having an acquaintance committing suicide increases the chances of those hearing of it committing suicide. News of mass shootings spawn other mass shootings.

Racial, gender and other stereotypes propagate across the social landscape in much the same way, both for good and ill. Social justice movements can reduce stereotypes just as racist, sexist and other groups can reenforce them.

Then, there is the whole process of demarginalization. In online forums, finding kindred spirits can help with being part of an often marginalized group, such as being homosexual. But, it can also lead to adopting extremist attitudes, such as the religious extremism that drives Islamic, and other ideologically-motivated terrorism.

All of which ties into the paradox of tolerance, a society without limits is a society that will be destroyed by tolerating behaviors that eat away at the social bonds that bind it together. But, where does brotherhood and sisterhood reside? Where should boundaries be drawn?

Should we select our friends based on whether they are physically fit? So, we reduce the chance that we will be influenced into behaviors that will make us obese?

What of people with a mental illness, such as the chronically depressed? What of stupid people? What of controlling, manipulative people? What of people with uncontrolled anger? What of the socially inept?

What if we change the perspective and ask ourselves about a society? Should individuals cut themselves off from a society, or parts of it, that have a negative social impact on them as individuals?

Clearly, the Western diet, as it is becomes the dominate way of eating around the world, leads to a whole host of modern ailments, from diabetes to dementia. It also seems likely that the Internet is a catalyst that is causing fissures in society by speeding up the forming of communities and the propagation of ideas, more of it bad than good due to the structure and incentives of the technology. Should healthy individuals cut themselves off from a sick society and technologies that tend to promote undesirable behaviors?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. However, I do remember a comment made at a Quaker meeting I attended once that seems relevant, they said:

“If you want to learn to love, don’t start with Hitler.”

-Quaker Meeting comment

I think the demands of love are that we try to be as open and tolerant as we are able. But, I think it is not an unqualified principle. If a relationship doesn’t have the potential to benefit from tolerance, where the risk is substantial and the reward minimal, then we can draw lines based on our capacity. The Enlightened Buddha, Jesus Christ or a deity may be able to save all sentient beings. It’s a good goal. But, if you are just starting out on your journey or only a little way on, trying to love Hitler out of the gate sounds like an excellent way to be pulled from the path and to lose ourselves entirely. Like on an airplane, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first. Save yourself, then you might be able to save others.

This is probably why Buddhist meditation on loving-kindness starts with our own selves. We must first learn to love ourselves. If we cannot learn to tolerate our own limitations and the negative influence of our own mind on our behavior, how can we hope to have much capacity to deal with the difficult individuals in our lives?

We surely have more capacity than we think we have and a principle of tolerance reminds us to stretch ourselves, perhaps even find our limits and run the risk of passing them. But, first start with yourself. Understand your limitations and weigh the risks. Don’t start trying to save the whole world. Start with just a small piece of it. Tending one’s garden can lead to tending the world.

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