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Monday, May 26, 2008

Isolation and the Subtlety of Smoking

By Christopher Wilde

By and large we are communal animals who require and seek to be connected to the greater world through our social circles.  In nearly any endeavor networking has been repeatedly shown to be the key to financial and political success far more than actual skill or talent. The tried and tested axiom comes to mind, "It's not what you know it's who you know."

However moving with the pack, while advantageous to its members, is often dangerous to the society as a whole.  Group mentality more readily spawns racism, sexism, and class-ism as the in-group has a tendency to blindly reject those who are out of group.

It is one thing to be an individual node networked to a group having the ability to move within and transfer information to other members of the group and quite another to be shackled together as part of a chain gang forced to do the same menial labor as your fellow intellectual convicts.

With this in mind I read with great interests reports of a new study by Dr. Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard Medical School and James Fowler of the University of California.  The study shows that individuals who do not quit smoking are stigmatized, isolated, and pushed to the edge of their social groups.  The majority of those who quit smoking more readily do so as part of groups made up of spouses, friends, siblings, and co-workers and who all quit at relatively the same time. The study also shows that those who are on the outside can later quit smoking and work there way back into the in-groups. What is not clear is whether those on the edge are there solely for the cause of their smoking.  

The researchers studied a sample of 12,067 people ranging from 1971 to 2003, the individuals were densely connected.   This allowed them to see that their is a strong social impact on smoking and a domino effect that takes place in close relationships as these people quit together in droves.

My interest in all of this is to what degree other aspects of psychology play into this isolation?  For instance what can be said of the kinds of people at the center of social circles, are they rugged individualists who lead the pack to quit smoking, or are they the desperate clinging co-dependent followers who cannot function without a group?

While the study is about smoking versus not smoking the underlying theory investigated is social network theory, what the researches refer to as "network phenomena." Social network theory suggests that the attributes of individuals (like skill or talent) are less important than their relationships and ties with other individuals within the network.

Social network theory plays a fundamental role in our understanding of how our society functions. Yet we are all individuals and any time a study springs forward that highlights the power of the group we should always strive to dig down and examine the individuals at play. Failing to do so serves only to polarize those outside of the center even further.

Now consider that earlier this year researchers at the University of Iowa found that nicotine addiction, like alcohol, has a strong genetic component. It seems to me, that if after thirty years those who continue to smoke may be those whose underlying addiction has the strongest genetic component.  They are individuals who may never be able to quit without long-term therapeutic intervention. These people, pushed out, may not be isolated because they lack good networking skills or social ties, but by virtue of an inability to easily quit smoking those ties are severed. They are now the victims of the conformist views of the group in addition to being victims of addiction.

I would expect to see these individuals with a multitude of other social problems outside of smoking and over time tend to believe these problems would only get worse. Meanwhile the larger group of non-smokers will continue to view themselves as better people. The in group whenever possible has a tendency to leach power from those who are out of group, only furthering the decline of individualism and independent thought.

So rather to look at this study and see the power of the group to promote healthy living that is better for all, what I see is a pendulum of group think mentality that has reached its apex in one direction and flung those individuals who haven’t the genetic strength to cling with the group. We must remember that there was a time when this same group mentality pressured everyone to take up smoking. There was a time when smoking was cool and to be hip you popped a cigarette in your mouth to mirror silver screen idols.

Don’t get me wrong, smoking is bad for you. Whether you quit or don’t quit should not be about the pressure of the group. It should be because you have the intellectual fortitude to realize it’s bad for you and then seek the knowledge, power, and therapy necessary to quit. While the pressure of the group is great in assisting you in this circumstance, the reality is that more often than not the pressure of the group is the one that got you into the bad thing in the first place.

Note: Please do not construe anything I’ve written here to mean I support “smoker’s rights.” I’m a proud ex-smoker who remembers the lessons of history and is still misanthropically traumatized by an ABC After School Special called “The Wave.”

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