Sociologist Dr Nicholas Christakis has a new book in which he argues that we are subject to a process of ‘social contagion.’ What we do is to a great extent determined by the company we keep. In some cases this is obvious: the clothes they wear, the music they like, and so on. But not just that. Christakis claims that things such as whether you know someone (who knows someone who knows someone) who is obese, influences whether you are likely to become obese. Ditto kinds of sexual activity, smoking, whether or not you vote, happiness, and other things.
The study that is supposed to support this claim is an analysis of data collected since 1948 which tracked the cardiovascular health of more than 5,000 people. The study was produced by digitalizing the data and mapping the interactions and connections of people featuring in the study. This is where the claim about the contagiousness of obesity came from.
A consequence one might draw from this claim (if it is true) takes the form of a familiar conceptual trope: you’re either a self-driven individual or an unthinking sheep. In that light the study suggests we have (another) good reason to place ourselves in the latter category. But there is another possibility.
Bernard Williams has suggested that there are contentful states of mind which are not beliefs or desires, but something that has yet to be either – he calls them ‘wishes.’ Our interactions with others help decide which a wish (thus understood) will become. He thinks of these interactions as situations in which there is a pressure to be truthful in what one says to others. This pressure thereby influences what we will believe – what wishes become beliefs.
This suggestion contrasts with a more standard view which begins with beliefs, desires, and so on, and denies (by omission) the existence of other states. So questions raised about mental life and its relation to our interaction with others are limited to those concerning the causal role of beliefs in those interactions. From the standard view, we get the conceptual trope already mentioned. From Williams’ view, we get a process that would lead one to expect the patterns described by Dr Christakis and company. Those patterns of influence are the consequence of pressures required to keep our beliefs in check. To, as Williams puts it, steady the mind.
The Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher , University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Norms of Assertion
By Matt Weiner , Texas Tech University
(Vol. 2, February 2007)