Exploring the need to shift from linear to iterative metaphors for understanding social learning.

Complex change as a function of the critical mass of critical connections.

New research contradicting common intuitions about social connections and change shows how, while simple ideas spread most effectively through random networks, relatively complex behaviors spread more effectively through clustered networks. Researcher Damon Centola makes the argument that this happens because complex behaviors require social reinforcement and feedback from our connections. These connections contribute the kind of social activation energy necessary for complex behavior change. In some ways, it’s the network equivalent of peer pressure. However, it doesn’t depend on close or strong ties. Centola shows how clustered networks can be designed to facilitate complex behavior change by optimizing connections among even relative strangers. He also points out the critical role played by “wide bridges”, which function as small clusters between networks that can support the diffusion of complex behaviors across otherwise isolated or oppositional groups. By going beyond traditional ways of thinking about social contagion, Centola’s work suggests new ways of imagining how to design for personal and social change.

Talk Description

This talk presents over a decade of original research examining how changes in social behavior — in voting, health, technology, and finance — occur and the ways social networks can be used to influence how they propagate. The startling findings demonstrate 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, these findings illustrate the ways in which these insights can be applied to solve countless problems of organizational change, cultural evolution, and social innovation, offering important lessons for public health workers, entrepreneurs and activists looking to harness networks for social change.

Presentation Excerpt

It’s kind of a nice intuition which is we can think of complexity as something that’s like a barrier to diffusion. Obviously simple contagions spread faster. But you can also think of complexity as like a necessarily hurdle to overcome to convince people they should really do something. So the more reinforcement you get, not only are you more likely to adopt, but you’re more likely to stick with it.

Centola, Damon. 2018. How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions. Santa Fe Institute.

Centola, Damon. 2018. The Network Dynamics of Social Behavior: Online Course. Cousera.
2018. Biology > Energy and Enzymes > Introduction to Enzymes > Activation Energy. Khan Academy.


This content is being created and curated as part of a project exploring how changing the ways we think about thinking can revolutionize the ways we change the world. See the Emergent Cognition Project overview to learn more.