Covid Chronicles (7)

The pandemic has forced a rethink in many aspects of our life.

Not least in our social circles and friendships.

If we are minded to read research to learn more, to track clinical experiences, to seek to understand the etiology of the virus and its fat tail, to fine-tune our risk taking to our risk appetite (based on our specific circumstances), it is increasingly hard to fraternise even politely with folks who think that the virus is a hoax, caused by 5G, and the vaccines in development a conspiracy to control citizens.

It is even harder when they ask if we personally know someone who had died, and the only response we have is “how long have you got because the list is long?”

In other words, we may increasingly seek to be in bubbles with people who have similar science literacy, numeracy, risk appetites, compassion, social conscience, world views and ways of seeing.

After a period during which many have missed seeing their friends, this may seem a particularly harsh place to be.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_3684.jpg
(Cover of a book by Joseph Epstein)

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Friends, whether close or mere acquaintances, are broadly our “social network”. They can and do influence our decisions and choices in many ways, not all of which are obvious or easy to see, and not all of which lead to desirable outcomes.

Nicholas Christakis of Harvard has explored the power of our social networks and how they influence us. One of his more controversial findings was that hanging out with obese or fat friends makes us fat. But above all, Christakis’s work showed that both good and undesirable things flow among our friends and social networks – undesirable things such as “violence, germs, sexually transmitted diseases, suicide, unhappiness. But good things also flow – happiness, love, altruism, valuable information on how to find a job”.

Brian Uzzi of Kellogg looked at the impact of social networks to analyse the success of Broadway musicals. He found that “success came more readily when a mix of incumbents and newcomers collaborated. While incumbents often had previous connections with one another, the research indicates that having too many incumbents repeatedly working together may lead to substandard results, since homogeneity can inhibit fresh thinking”.

The work of Stanford’s Noam Wasserman has found that founding a company with or hiring friends and family raises the probability of failure of the startup.

The common thread across these is that friends may influence our choices. They may enable, encourage, permit or prohibit our behaviours. Sometimes they may make a direct intervention e.g. a friend who prevents us from drinking ourselves silly or putting ourselves in harm’s way. At other times, they may support us or hold us accountable as we pursue challenging goals.

Our friendships are a complex outcome of values, preferences, and behaviours we choose or reject due to our friends.

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Especially in trying times, friends matter.

The right friends matter even more.