Along with a team of researchers led by epidemiologist David Shoham from Loyola University, I recently published a paper in PLoS One examining the social contagion of obesity. As many of you know, this is a hotly debated topic of research that was kicked off by work of James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis published in the New England Journal of Medicine. (See this post for my two cents on the debate.) The central criticism of this research surrounds the issue of separating friendship selection from influence, which in some sense was laid to rest by Cosma Shalizi and Andrew Thomas.
One alternative approach is to use a “generative model,” which is exactly what my coauthors and I do. Specifically, we use the SIENA program developed by Tom Snijders and colleagues. Essentially, this model assumes that people make choices about their friendships and behavior just like economists and marketers assume people make choices about where to live or what car to buy.
In our paper, we apply the model to data from two high schools from the AddHeath study. We use the model to understand social influences on body size, physical activity, and ”screen time” (time spent watching TV, playing video games, or on the computer). In short, here’s what we find:
- In both schools students are more likely to select friends that have a similar BMI (body mass index), that is there is homophily on BMI.
- In both schools there is evidence that students are influenced by their friends’ BMI.
- There is no evidence for homophily on screen time in either school, and there is evidence that students are subject to influence from their friends’ on screen time in only one of the two schools.
- In one of the two schools there was evidence for homophily on playing sports, but in both schools there was evidence that students influenced their friends when it comes to playing sports.