Absolutely everyone has been commenting on the recent The New England Journal of Medicine study that finds obesity is socially contagious -- that people are more likely to get fat if their friends get fat. The fact that the correlations exists is obvious -- people tends to hang out with people like themselves -- but what surprised everyone was the relative scale of the effect and the clearly causetive nature of the phenomena. We all know that our friends influence us, but we like to think the effects are subtle and on the edges. Our weight is something so personal, and yet so quantitative and unmistakably obvious, that this study's finding shoves it in our face: the influence of your friends matters a lot. Our American sense of individuality is mildly offended by the sudden realization that we are not islands.
All the comments about the study, though, seem to stay focused on health issues -- obesity, smoking, drinking, sex -- and not on (to me, at least) larger issues with a moral dimension. What this study means is that everything has a social aspect, one that is ignored at one's peril.Â One's spiritual life, too, is going to be affected by the company you keep. I imagine the same sorts of correlations exist for religious life -- ifÂ a friend becomes "born-again," youÂ have a much higher likelihood of doing the same. (Or, more ominously: if you have a friend who becomes a suicide bomber, you are more likely to do the same.)
So what should you do about it?
Form social group connections with people who share your values. A colleague recently asked me, "Do you think it's possible for someone to be a good person without being in a church?" I replied, "Sure . . . but you're probably going to need some kind of community of people who share your values." That group could be almost anything: a service organization, a school, a political movement, a chess club. Churches just have the advantage that they are explicitly about sharing and reinforcing specific values. I suspect that most people already know this, consciously or unconsciously. Most church-goers are not there for the theology; most of them don't really understand it, and a sizable number don't even truly believe it, but they all know that these are the people they want to associate with.
Make lots of friends. Aside from all the many well-documented advantages to having lots of friends, you'll be diversifying the pool of people who exert influence upon you, minimizing social risk in the same way that diversifying a financial portfolio insulates you from financial ruin.
Make time for friendships. Obligations to career and family can easily eat up all available time, leaving you stranded in a life where your relationships are defined by roles and not by choice. Getting along with your co-workers is not the same as having friends. Friendship, almost by definition, requires a personal sharing that goes beyond the bounds of defined roles. Often those connections can and should start spontaneously, but you have to make them a priority if you want them to grow. Personally, I'm lousy at this sort of thing; I make lots of time to work with others in groups, but rarely have a given enough attention to cultivating personal ties to individuals. Who would have thought it was so important to just hang out?
Don't presume to be immune to the influence of your friends. If you form a bond with someone, that relationship will influence your behavior. You can't touch and not be touched. Choose your friends carefully.
The biggest thing I got out of that study was a "So there!" to Pinker. Actually, he might not be surprised. But to me, it suggests that your environment--not in the form of random, unpredictable events, but in the form of circumstances that you can control--does have a real affect on something that might be presumed genetic (and does, of course, have a real genetic component as well). Which, in turn, suggests that the environment you create for your kids really does matter.
You could probably define the whole "growing up" process as the process of starting to do that for yourself more and more, so your parents have to do it less and less.
I think this backs up Pinker big-time. He said that peers were a big factor, and sure enough we find friendship connections having profound effects in measurable ways. But I agree with you, too: these are all factors that can be consciously controlled and premeditated.