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Nonlinear Dynamics of Networks

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Experiments on Social Contagions

Damon Centolla

M.I.T. Sloan School

Abstract:   Public health interventions frequently rely on the spread of new information in order to promote desirable behaviors. Recent advances in network theory have shown how specific topological features of social networks can amplify the diffusion of both disease and information suggesting that important advances in network epidemiology may also be useful for structuring intervention policies. However, recent theoretical work also shows that the dynamics of behavioral diffusion in peer-to-peer networks can respond very differently to the topological properties of networks than information or disease. For behaviors that are particularly costly, difficult, or contrary to existing norms, these differences may be more pronounced. This suggests that many of the interventions of greatest interest to public health officials may not benefit from network strategies aimed at the rapid diffusion of information. I present findings from a series of novel experiments designed to study the dynamics of behavioral diffusion in large social networks. The results show a striking effect of network topology on the diffusion of health behavior, contrary to the expectations of classical network theory.

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