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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Networks and Sociopaths

As some readers know, one of my academic specialities is social network analysis (SNA). Not to be confused with social networking (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) although it often is, SNA is a collection of theories and methods that assume that our behavior is influenced by the people to whom we have ties and the networks in which we are embedded. This assumption has found empirical support in experiments such as those conducted by Solomon Asch ("Asch Conformity Experiments"), Stanley Milgram ("Milgram Experiment"), and Philip Zimbardo ("Stanford prison experiment"), and it is shared with scholars from other disciplines, such as the philosophers Martin Buber ("I and Thou"), Emmanuel Levinas ("Time and the Other"), Gabriel Marcel ("The Mystery of Being"), and Edward Farley ("Good and Evil"). More recently, neuroscientists have come to embrace it, arguing that not only are our brains wired to be social but that being wired as such provided us with an evolutionary advantage over those groups that are not ("Social: Why Are Brains Are Wired to Connect").

Interestingly, the notion that we are influenced by others is often met with resistance. Many of us like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, who choose what we say and do apart from what those around us say and do. The notion that we're consciously or unconsciously influenced by our ties to others strikes many of us as a form of mental weakness. Thus, many of us, when we hear about studies that demonstrate how easily we are influenced, assume that we're the exception to the rule, that only others are affected by those around them.

But that's simply not the case. All of us are influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the behavior and beliefs of our friends, family, and acquaintances. And it's a good thing that we are. Studies have found that the only people who are not influenced by others are sociopaths, that is, people who are incapable of empathy and often inflict harm on those "close" to them. So instead of resisting the fact that we're influenced by the people with whom we have ties, let's embrace it. It's what enabled our species to survive. It's what enables us to live and love. In short, it's what enables us to be fully human.

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