In Conversation: Yale's Nicholas Christakis

RWJF is dedicated to finding innovative solutions to thorny problems in health and health care. We are fortunate to work with grantees who consistently challenge our thinking and open us up to new ways of looking at the world. Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is no exception. We recently watched a talk of his on titled A New Kind of Social Science for the 21st Century (which we highly recommend), and found ourselves brimming with questions. His answers were as provocative as the talk itself, so we thought we'd share them here. Enjoy! 







Paul Tarini

Paul Tarini: I’m interested in whether the advances in social sciences you discuss will present new approaches to deal with friction or conflict between social groups, especially ethnic conflicts and religious conflicts.

Nicholas Christakis:
I think that these advances do shed light on violence and conflict, but the prospects for using the insights gained for large-scale efforts to control such conflict seem more limited to me. Small-scale is another matter. I think that, to the extent that we can understand the roots of human cooperation, for instance, and how this relates to our evolutionary biology and to our social interactions, we can think more deeply and carefully about how to facilitate cooperation, and reduce violence, on scales like classrooms and villages.  

Our own recent work, some of which is supported by RWJF, is informative in this regard, and we have studied the connection between social network structure and cooperation in hunter gatherers (PDF), and how to foster connections between people so as to make groups more cooperative (PDF). We see this work as having implications for everything from anti-bullying initiatives in schools, to violence-reduction programs in communities, to anti-racist education efforts in places where there is misunderstanding.  

And, I think that, in the near future, in a field known as “social epigenetics” (which relates to how social exposures help to regulate the expression of our genes), we will learn how early childhood exposure to warfare quasi-permanently marks a person's genes. I do think it will help us to understand how populations can be affected for years after exposure to things that include not only warfare, but also things like starvation or child abuse or poverty—all of which are horrible social exposures that can get “biologized,” or can get literally under our skin.  Such topics are, in my judgment, on the frontier of biosocial science.

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Wendy Yallowitz

Wendy Yallowitz: What’s an example of something you’ve learned from a recent experiment?

Christakis: Well, for example, we recently did an experiment (PDF) to see if taking a set of human beings and inter-connecting them according to particular rules, in particular social network structures, could make them more cooperative than they otherwise would be. And the answer is, “Yes.” You can take a group of people, the same people, and if you connect them in a way that allows them to re-wire their social connections with sufficient fluidity, they are cooperative and kind; but if you connect them another way, they are stingy and mean. Similar ideas hold true in other domains: experiments show that how you connect people can affect how cooperative, innovative or healthy they are.

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Nancy Barrand

Nancy Barrand: As we move to virtual social experimentation, how do experimentational ethics change? Are traditional IRBs (Institutional Review Boards) sufficient or even relevant?

Christakis: My own opinion about this topic is complex. I have served on IRBs twice in my career, including a stint as the Vice Chair of the IRB at the University of Chicago years ago. In general, I think that IRBs waste a lot of time reviewing quite innocuous social science research. It's been my experience that it is often easier to get approval for a randomized, control trial of a novel anti-cancer drug (wherein the risks to patients are morbidity or death) than for a social science survey project (where the risks are a loss of confidentiality, at worst). 

I think this is the case for a number of reasons, but my main concern is that we may have, in some instances, created an overly bureaucratized system that has all sorts of secondary costs.  For example, I have heard many stories of IRBs that offer advice on the scientific design of studies.  Please note that I quite understand the rationale for this, insofar as unscientific research is inherently unethical, because it imposes risk without benefit.  But what often happens is that, when there are differences of opinion about the scientific design of a study, the IRB has absolute power, so investigators have no choice but to do things the IRB's way.  

I also think that the amount of money and personnel time we spend on the review of studies may be wasteful; it's worth considering whether we could get more value, as a society, if those resources were devoted to inventing new ways to help people. I am not, of course, saying we should dispense with IRB review!  But I do think we need to look at ways to improve the system.  

Let me give you an example: Say you want to do a study involving paying small amounts of money to Amazon Mechanical Turk workers who are entirely anonymous to complete some tasks online (such as answering questions or interacting with others); this is the sort of novel work that is being done by many around the country (for example, see The Online Laboratory: Conducting Experiments in Real Labor MarketConducting Behavioral Research on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Evaluating Online Labor Markets for Experimental Research:'s Mechanical Turk). IRBs often spend a lot of time reviewing such projects, but they clearly present no material risk at all. 

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Christine Nieves: How do we get an everyday citizen psyched about sharing their data? (I'm assuming this is a little hard to do...) 

Christakis: I actually think this is easy! I think there is a large, exciting, and fascinating trend in “citizen science” where ordinary people participate in, and contribute labor or data to, scientific endeavors—for example, by helping to map everything from the heavens to the genome (PDF).

My long-term colleague and friend James Fowler and I have been advancing a number of initiatives in the past few years related to donating your data to science, and we think that these initiatives have had good traction, both in the private sector and among ordinary people. Other investigators are doing similar things. If people are willing to donate their bodies to science, or their money, we don't think it is a stretch (given suitable protections) that many will also be willing to donate their data. For example, entities like the Personal Genome Project reflect, in part, new attitudes towards privacy and to citizen science that are also themselves part of the massive/passive data revolution. I think privacy and confidentially protections will be important in all this, of course, but I don't think we face any insuperable challenges.

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Mike Painter

Mike Painter: The three trends you describe in the video, particularly the new approaches to experimentation in the social sciences, all sound like they have significant and exciting potential.  I wonder, though, if they are still somewhat in the realm of near-term science fiction, or are they ready for prime time? Do you think the new approaches to experimentation that you mentioned apply to the health care field?

ChristakisYes, absolutely. The three macro-trends that I describe in my talk (the impact of biology on social science, the massive/passive big data revolution, and the deployment of experiments in the social sciences) have been gathering steam in the past decade, but they have old roots—that is, there is some tradition of experimentation, or attention to biology, or using “big data” in medical, and indeed in socio-medical or biosocial, research. For example, people have been using Medicare claims data regarding millions of beneficiaries, and observational statistical methods, to draw informative conclusions about health care for 20 years (though the contemporary scope of big data is even greater!). And remember that the famous Rand Health Insurance experiment was done in the 1970s.

So, yes, I do think that these new approaches to experimentation are relevant. For example, there have been many experiments in the past five years showing how various online technologies affect health behavior. And there is a lot of work being done using experiments to evaluate how social interactions, whether in online or offline networks, can be salubrious— whether it relates to the area of social, and how social interactions affect cognition, or to the area of network targeting, whereby influential nodes in networks are targeted in order to turbo-charge population-level behavior change.  

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Brian Quinn

Brian Quinn: It seems like a lot of research in this space either relies on small, experimental datasets or data that is repurposed from other sources, like Twitter or the Framingham Heart Study. What is your dream dataset?

Christakis: I have many dreams. I guess I am greedy, so I would answer this question by saying that I would rather have a dream platform than a dream dataset. The dream platform would involve the capacity to follow, but also experiment in, a sample of many thousands of (willing) people, and to have both biological and social data.  James and I have been working to make this dream a reality. Stay tuned.

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Nicholas Christakis

Dr. Nicholas Christakis

About Nicholas Christakis

Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, coauthor (with James Fowler) of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, is Yale University’s Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science, Director of the Human Nature Lab and Co-Director of the new Yale Institute of Network Science. He is also an RWJF grantee.

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Yale's @NAChristakis talks about the power of social networks, health data dreams and more.


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