Considering Complex Contagion and the Time to Do what is Right
Thoughts on Attitudes, Behavior, and Poetry
When you have smart friends, you receive smart texts. Here is an example from Michael Bisch, Executive Director of the Yolo Food Bank:
“Good afternoon, Andy! I took a break from my normal Neanderthal existence yesterday by listening to a Hidden Brain podcast regarding complex contagion for leading social change. It left me thinking of a current Food Bank initiative, but also of you and your weekly radio program. What, if anything, do you know about complex contagion?”
I like how Michael tucked in the politically-current adjective “Neanderthal,” remembering to capitalize the extinct human sub-species to show full respect. Secondly, he referenced the show of a radio journalist, Shankar Vedantam, knowing that I am a big fan of journalism, NPR in particular, and intellectual authors who seek to understand human behavior (Daniel Pink is another favorite). Thirdly, Michael brought up contagion – something we are all concerned about, as we seek out vaccinations for ourselves and our family members – but framed it positively, referencing the 2007 article “Complex Contagion and the Weakness of Long Ties” by Damon Centola and Michael Macy.
In this article in American Journal of Sociology, Centola and Macy suggest that information and viruses are simple contagions, but that behaviors are complex contagions, and therefore are more difficult to spread. Faculty members know this from our ongoing quests to get students in our classes to read the syllabus.
This was my texted response to Michael: “One of my jobs on [the UC Davis] campus is to encourage innovative faculty use of instructional technology tools. I host a number of faculty forums in which I feature faculty who use widespread tools, such as our learning management system, in creative ways, and who make any effective use unusual tools, such as a tool that allows batch-grading of scanned paper exams. As you may be able to guess, the principle of complex contagion informs all this work, because we are hoping to change / improve faculty behaviors so that their students will benefit from proven approaches to teaching. We focus on faculty presentations, rather than staff presentations, because faculty will more likely adopt or adapt an approach that has been used by a peer, including peers in different academic disciplines.”
I followed up with this: “Have you read James Clear’s book ATOMIC HABITS? It is the best-selling book right now on adopting favorable habits or breaking unhelpful habits. This month at work I am leading a weekly book group reviewing the book and its applicability to our professional goals. Highly recommended.”
Michael Bisch responded this way: “No, I’ve not read ATOMIC HABITS. Yesterday was the first I ever heard of complex contagion. I immediately recognized we at the Food Bank needed to course correct on some critical initiatives. Even a Neanderthal can have an epiphany! 😁”
I told Michael that “Positive change is built on epiphanies.”
By the way, I am enjoying this “viewer mail” approach to writing newsletters that I am trying out this week. Bob Dunning, my favorite Davis Enterprise columnist, has been using this approach in his daily column for decades (a record-breaking five decades, in fact), and it certainly saves a lot of time from the point of view of the journalist. I welcome your emails, comments, and (inner circle) texts, loyal readers!
Anyway, speaking of epiphanies, I typically turn to literary classics when I am looking for wisdom, even about understanding behaviors. Keeping that in mind, consider this bit of dialogue from The Sun Also Rises that has led to what some people call “The Hemingway Law of Motion”:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
We could all think of examples of what Hemingway is exploring here, such as with the rapid change in national attitudes about gay marriage, especially during the time period between 2004, when same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts, and 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all same-sex marriage bans in the U.S. in deciding the case Obergefell v. Hodges.
Consider also the nationwide soul-searching that came about after the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd, a Minnesota citizen who, like many of us, had lost his job because of the Covid-19 pandemic that we are still experiencing every day. While we would like to believe that attitudes towards equality and civil rights had been moving in more humane directions for many years (or gradually), the death of Floyd (and of Breonna Taylor, and of many others) moved the country rapidly, with regard to our attitudes and our behaviors, or so we would hope. Many people finally came to understand that, as Dr. King says, "The time is always right to do what is right."
This week, we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Breonna Taylor, and the one-year anniversary of the shutdown of most American businesses and schools. Both Covid-19 and the widespread outrage about fatal police shootings of unarmed African-Americans came to us gradually, and then suddenly.
As complex contagion theorists would predict, when it came to responding to the pandemic, it took a while for us all to change our behavior (complex contagion) when confronted with the bracing information about the virus (simple contagion). When it comes to civil rights and human rights in the United States, I look forward to seeing continued awareness and evolution when it comes to changes in behavior by our police, and by all of us, in the coming months and years.
Meanwhile, all of us would advance the causes of compassion and equity by making a cash contribution to the Yolo Food Bank during this difficult and ongoing season of need. Thanks to Michael Bisch for all his work in our community, and for his contributions to this week’s newsletter.
And thanks to all of you who support these efforts by becoming sponsors on Patreon. New sponsors for March include Lori Raineri and Doug DeSalles, new friends and old who appreciate the efforts I invest every week in keeping you intrigued and entertained with fresh trivia. Thanks also to the regular sustaining sponsors, The Original Vincibles (the folks who receive a copy of almost every book mentioned in the newsletter), The Outside Agitators, Quizimodo, and Bono’s Pro Bono Oboe Bonobos. Please join us with a new or upgraded membership on Patreon to see your name or your team’s name in the newsletter every week.
P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
Science. What H word is the greatest threat to chimpanzees in the wild?
Eye Color. A study released by the U.K.’s Centre for Advanced Facial Cosmetic and Plastic Surgeryhas determined that what former member of One Direction has the greenest eyes of any Hollywood A-Lister?
Current Events – Names in the News. What is the four-syllable name of the rover that recently landed on Mars?
P.P.S. “Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
P.P.P.S. As we consider the one-year anniversary of both the pandemic lockdown and the death of Breonna Taylor, join me in turning to poetry, that we may find some uplift and a moment for deeper reflection courtesy of the artistry of two fine poets. At 8 PM on Thursday, March 18th, otherwise largely isolated friends and readers will gather together virtually for a poetry reading via ZOOM. To participate, visit https://ucdavisdss.zoom.us/my/andyojones at 8 PM, or a few minutes before if you wish to chat with the host and the other attendees.
This short (30ish-minute) reading will feature poetry by Aaron Poochigian and Simply E The Poetess. Please join us Thursday for the particular pleasures of poetry: as the poet Andrew Motion advises, "Think big and stay particular."
Aaron Poochigian earned a PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. His first book of poetry, The Cosmic Purr (Able Muse Press), was published in 2012, and his second book Manhattanite, which won the Able Muse Poetry Prize, came out in 2017. His thriller in verse, Mr. Either/Or, was released by Etruscan Press in the fall of 2017. He has published numerous translations from Ancient Greek for Penguin Classics and W.W. Norton. His work has appeared in such publications as Best American Poetry, The Paris Review, and POETRY.
Poochigian’s new book, American Divine (March 20, 2021), has won the 2020 Richard Wilbur Award. Recent Poetry Night feature Dana Gioia said this about Poochigian’s new publication: “If any doubts remain that a splendidly original poet has arrived, American Divine should settle the matter. The book confirms Poochigian's status as one of the most arresting poets of his generation. The poems are strong, individual, and unusually accessible despite their capacious erudition. The real critical question is more complicated, namely how does one describe the singular poet Poochigian has become? How does one characterize the potent and omnivorous style he has created? Poochigian is at once a traditional, indeed even classical, and yet his work is idiosyncratic, disruptive, and often disturbing -- not the qualities usually associated with a classical sensibility.”
Simply E, the Poetess, will open for Aaron Poochigian. Simply E is a spoken word artist, singer / songwriter, recording artist, and voice actress. She’s currently working on a book of poems set to be released in 2022. Simply E opened for the award-winning, international megastar DaVido, at the Africa Muzik Festival in Atlanta, and has appeared in music videos by BET award-nominated rapper Big KRIT, and by the violinist Demola, featuring DaVido. Simply E graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in Social Sciences, and is a candidate in the Georgia State University Executive MBA program. An artist and mentor active on Clubhouse and elsewhere, E divides her time between Atlanta and Memphis. Find out more about Simply E, the Poetess, at https://linktr.ee/ethepoetess.