Gallagher Lecture

The Spread of Behaviors in Social Networks
Damon Centola, PhD


Wednesday, March 8, 2017 from 1:00 – 2:15 p.m.


Public health interventions frequently rely on the spread of new information in order to promote desirable behaviors.  Recent advances in network theory have shown how specific topological features of social networks can amplify the diffusion of both disease and information – suggesting that important advances in network epidemiology may also be useful for structuring intervention policies.  However, recent theoretical work also shows that the dynamics of behavioral diffusion in peer-to-peer networks can respond very differently to the topological properties of networks than information or disease.  For behaviors that are particularly costly, difficult, or contrary to existing norms, these differences may be more pronounced.  This suggests that many of the interventions of greatest interest to public health officials may not benefit from network strategies aimed at the rapid diffusion of information.  I present findings from a series of novel experiments designed to study the dynamics of behavioral diffusion in large social networks.  The results show a striking effect of network topology on the diffusion of health behavior, contrary to the expectations of classical network theory.

Learning Objectives:

1. Understand how the structure of networks affects diffusion
2. Understand the differences between disease diffusion and the spread of behaviors
3. Understand how to use social networks to implement behavior change interventions 

Damon Centola, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is Director of the Network Dynamics Group. Dr. Centola uses computational models and online experiments to study technology diffusion, social epidemiology and cultural evolution.  Recent popular accounts of Dr. Centola’s work have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostWired, and CNN.  His research has been funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.  He is currently working on a book entitled How Behaviors Spread: The Science of Complex Contagions.

For more information on Dr. Centola's work, please click here