How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions

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A new, counterintuitive theory for how social networks influence the spread of behavior.

New social movements, technologies, and public-health initiatives often struggle to take off, yet many diseases disperse rapidly without issue. Can the lessons learned from the viral diffusion of diseases be used to improve the spread of beneficial behaviors and innovations? In How Behavior Spreads, Damon Centola presents over a decade of original research examining how changes in societal behavior–in voting, health, technology, and finance—occur and the ways social networks can be used to influence how they propagate. Centola’s startling findings show that the same conditions accelerating the viral expansion of an epidemic unexpectedly inhibit the spread of behaviors.

While it is commonly believed that “weak ties”—long-distance connections linking acquaintances—lead to the quicker spread of behaviors, in fact the exact opposite holds true. Centola demonstrates how the most well-known, intuitive ideas about social networks have caused past diffusion efforts to fail, and how such efforts might succeed in the future. Pioneering the use of Web-based methods to understand how changes in people’s social networks alter their behaviors, Centola illustrates the ways in which these insights can be applied to solve countless problems of organizational change, cultural evolution, and social innovation. His findings offer important lessons for public health workers, entrepreneurs, and activists looking to harness networks for social change.

Practical and informative, How Behavior Spreads is a must-read for anyone interested in how the theory of social networks can transform our world.

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Videos from Computational Experiments

Chapter 2:  Understanding Diffusion

Chapter 3: The Theory of Complex Contagions

Chapter 6: Diffusing Innovations That Face Opposition

Chapter 7: Diffusing Change in Organizations

Data from Internet Experiments

Chapter 4 (Figure 4.2) All Trials Diffusion Data

Chapter 9 (Figure 9.5) All Trials Diffusion Data