Influencing Cultural Norms Through Social Networks Could Improve Mental Health

May 21, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by

A program focused on changing the opinions of popular students could change the way others think about “norms” around bullying—which, in turn, could potentially lead to a change in students’ behavior.

Princeton professor Betsy Paluck provided this example during a recent presentation about her pioneering work using social network insights to affect culture and norms. Ever since, the concepts she explored have been influencing my thoughts about how to solve perplexing health and health care problems.

Michael Hebb - Part 1 at TEDMED 2013

These concepts came to mind while I listened to Michael Hebb's TEDMED 2013 talk, “What happens when death is what's for dinner?” Hebb’s idea is to get young people to think now about how they would like to be treated at the end of their lives. Putting aside the challenges linked to dynamic inconsistency, this conversation also has the potential to change norms about how young people think about organ donation and end-of-life care. For example, if I am at a dinner party with friends who have not thought a lot about issues around death, and I say, “There is no way I want to be hooked up to life-sustaining machines once my brain is ‘dead,’” someone with less well-established ideas about end-of-life care might think, “I guess this is how people like me think about these issues.” This may establish a default way of thinking that is difficult to sway. 

Michael Hebb - Part 2 at TEDMED 2013

I was recently discussing patients' privacy concerns after participating in a panel discussion at the launch of talksession, a telepsychiatry startup that GE is accelerating. I was talking with an anthropology-major- turned-surgery-resident-turned-psychiatrist, and he wondered aloud whether strong privacy protections are actually in the patient’s best interest (i.e. if data were shared, mining patient data could lead to new insights that could improve treatment of patients with serious mental illness). He further posited that patients don’t really care about privacy—that the hullabaloo about protecting patient data comes from providers thinking that patients care. And if that’s true, what do we do about it?

This discussion made me again think of Betsy’s presentation. If we found that people being treated for a mental illness care more about contributing to improved treatments and outcomes than about their individual privacy, we might use what we understand about social networks to change psychiatrists’ norms about privacy. By targeting information campaigns toward influential psychiatrists—getting them to understand that protecting privacy should be secondary to providing widespread high-quality care—one could change even the most longstanding of norms—and efficiently promote discovery and progress.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.