Social Contagion and Packetability

How does behavioral or attitudinal change propagate through groups?

One process - that of seeding social contagion (also known as diffusion or peer influence) - is of increasing interest within organizations looking to leverage the power of social change at scale. Typically influencers are identified, and these influencers are leveraged to spread new beliefs or behaviors. Compared to more traditional HR practices such as training sessions, webinars, etc, attempts to seed social contagion are low cost, efficient, and highly flexible.

What is often lacking in the planning and execution of strategic social contagion is a basic understanding and acknowledgement of what the “thing” being spread is. More specifically, the degree to which the belief or behavior is easily replicable and communicated across individuals. Recently, we (Gladstone, Rubineau, Taylor, forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Social Networks) have coined the term ‘packetability’ to describe the ability for something to be more or less easily transferred between two or more actors. The more fixed the form of the belief or behavior, the more ‘packetable’ it is. For instance, a manager attempting to get employees to login to a new piece of software is very packetable: the behavior is a simple binary “do or do not do” and is easily tracked; the manager in question can easily monitor and track the spread of the contagion she initiated. On the other hand, some beliefs or behaviors are highly ‘non-packetable’. A manager attempting to seed a contagion designed to increase personal responsibility among employees, or decrease unethical behavior, is generally low in packetability. Why? Ethical behavior, or employee personal responsibility, mean different things to different people--as these concepts are transferred from person to person, they change and mutate, they are highly interpretable. As such, this makes it difficult for the manager to identify and track the spread of the contagion she crafted. Further, because ethical beliefs or feelings of personal responsibility don't necessarily take binary or digital forms, knowing that a contagion was successfully diffused is difficult.

The strategic use of social contagion to enact organizational change is a massively powerful tool. At interstitio, we are experts in Network Analysis--the science of understanding the connections among people, and how those connections can be leveraged to manipulate social contagions, if you’d like to learn more about how you can using data you already have, be sure and drop us a line.