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  • 18th Apr 2019

We’re all social butterflies now

New book explores how to reclaim the positive power of social networks

One of the most powerful departures of behavioural economics from “standard” economics is that where standard economics tends to assume that people are individualistic, and out only for their own ends, behavioural economics embraces altruism, reciprocity, conformity, and identity – aspects of our being which influence our behaviour and are inherently social. That’s what our new book, Social Butterflies, is all about.

It’s a theme captured in a study by Bruce Sacerdote, who exploited the random assignment of students to their college roommates to see how much you’re influenced by your roommate. The answer, as it turns out, is quite a lot – roommates tended to join the same sorts of societies, have the same hobbies, and even get about the same grades.

If this is striking, it’s worth noting that it’s probably an underestimate of the true effect our friends have on us. Your real friends, after years of knowing each-other, are able to exert far more influence than a mere change in GPA or a decision to sign up to the creative writing society. What else could get you up at 5am to make it to breakfast, or keep you up until 2am putting the world to rights? How many of us have changed jobs – or stayed longer than we should – because of the influence of our friends?

If economists have been slow to work this out, a new breed of political operative, empowered by social influence and by technology, has latched onto it with enthusiasm. From fake news to micro-targeted ads based on our preferences and the content of our networks, there’s growing evidence that our social instincts have been hijacked and manipulated by people who haven’t taken Richard Thaler’s exhortation to “nudge for good” to heart.

Better understanding our social instincts – how they can be used for good – is the current frontier in the application of behavioural science. Whether that’s thinking about how information diffuses through a network, and finding the key node to deliver a first nudge to maximise its effectiveness; or finding role models who can inspire young people to consider a life they wouldn’t otherwise have done; leveraging existing social capital to provide more effective social support when it’s needed the most, or helping build social trust, one of the most vital building blocks of a society, and one of the best predictors of future peace and prosperity.

The most exciting days of these social nudges are ahead of us, as we see how a more realistic model of groups and of our social instincts can help boost social cohesion, build better, stronger communities, and improve social mobility. We hope that by reading the book you’ll come to agree with us about the power of reclaiming our social selves, and be inspired to take up the cause.


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Michael Sanders

Executive Director of the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, formerly Chief Scientist at the Behavioural Insights Team

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Susannah Hume

Associate Director at King's College London, formerly Principal Research Advisor and Head of Skills at the Behavioural Insights Team