The genes in your congeniality: Researchers identify genetic influence in social networks

Jan 26, 2009

Can't help being the life of the party? Maybe you were just born that way. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego have found that our place in a social network is influenced in part by our genes, according to new findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This is the first study to examine the inherited characteristics of social networks and to establish a genetic role in the formation and configuration of these networks.

The research was conducted by Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, who is professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, Christopher Dawes and James Fowler, both of UC San Diego.

"We were able to show that our particular location in vast social networks has a genetic basis," says Christakis. "In fact, the beautiful and complicated pattern of human connection depends on our genes to a significant measure."

While it might be expected that genes affect personality, these findings go further, and illustrate a genetic influence on the structure and formation of an individual's social group.

The researchers found that popularity, or the number of times an individual was named as a friend, and the likelihood that those friends know one another, were both strongly heritable. Additionally, location within the network, or the tendency to be at the center or on the edges of the group, was also genetically linked. However, the researchers were surprised to learn that the number of people named as a friend by an individual did not appear to be inherited.

The study included national data (from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health) for the social networks of 1,110 adolescent twins, both fraternal and identical. The researchers compared the social networks of the identical twins to those of the fraternal twins, and found greater similarity between the identical twins' social network structure than the fraternal twins' networks.

There may be an evolutionary explanation for this genetic influence and the tendency for some people to be at the center while others are at the edges of the group, according to the researchers. If a deadly germ is spreading through a community, individuals at the edges are least likely to be exposed. However, to gain access to important information about a food source, being in the center of the group has a distinct benefit.

"One of the things that the study tells us is that social networks are likely to be a fundamental part of our genetic heritage," says Fowler, associate professor of political science at UC San Diego. "It may be that natural selection is acting on not just things like whether or not we can resist the common cold, but also who it is that we are going to come into contact with."

The findings also illuminate a previously unknown limitation of existing social network models, which had assumed that all members behave as interchangeable cogs. To address these intrinsic differences in human beings that contribute to the formation of social networks, the researchers have created a new mathematical model, called the "attract and introduce" model, which is also explained in this paper and supports the genetic variation of members.

This model creates networks that very closely simulate actual human social networks, and using this model, they found that when someone was placed in any virtual network, they gravitated towards the same place within the network.

Because both health behaviors and germs spread through social networks, understanding how contagions flow through social networks has the potential to improve strategies for addressing public health concerns such as obesity or the flu.

"I think that going forward, we are going to find that social networks are a critical conduit between our genes and important health outcomes," says Fowler.

Fowler and Christakis have also published on other aspects of social networks, such as the spread of obesity, smoking, and happiness.

Source: Harvard University

Explore further: First genetic link discovered to difficult-to-diagnose breast cancer sub-type

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Net neutrality balancing act

7 hours ago

Researchers in Italy, writing in the International Journal of Technology, Policy and Management have demonstrated that net neutrality benefits content creator and consumers without compromising provider innovation nor pr ...

Twitter founders, CEO to keep shares after 'lockup'

Apr 14, 2014

Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams and chief executive Dick Costolo have no short-term plans to sell their shares in the social network, according to documents released Monday.

How 'social contagion' begins and escalates

Apr 11, 2014

Understanding the roots of a global, contagious spread of online information may help better predict political revolutions, consumer behavior, box office revenues, public policy debates, and even public health ...

Recommended for you

Refining the language for chromosomes

Apr 17, 2014

When talking about genetic abnormalities at the DNA level that occur when chromosomes swap, delete or add parts, there is an evolving communication gap both in the science and medical worlds, leading to inconsistencies in ...

Down's chromosome cause genome-wide disruption

Apr 16, 2014

The extra copy of Chromosome 21 that causes Down's syndrome throws a spanner into the workings of all the other chromosomes as well, said a study published Wednesday that surprised its authors.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

didiergrossemy
1 / 5 (2) Jan 27, 2009
Didier Grossemy Says:
Some tech-free celebs are recovering tech addicts. Tyra Banks told New York Times Magazine that her BlackBerry habit caused her physical pain. She has since gone low-tech and jots her thoughts in a notebook.
http://www.zoomin...701.aspx

More news stories

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Study says we're over the hill at 24

(Medical Xpress)—It's a hard pill to swallow, but if you're over 24 years of age you've already reached your peak in terms of your cognitive motor performance, according to a new Simon Fraser University study.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.