Author: Helding, Lynn
Date published: September 1, 2011
IN A PREVIOUS COLUMN entitled "Ants, NATS, and Swarm Logic," I considered "Emergence Theory," the phenomenon by which a coalesced whole can be greater than the sum of its individual parts.1 Groups evince behavior that is not only explicable by Emergence Theory, but according to the authors of the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, group behavior is also observable, quantifiable-and contagious.2
The debut of Nicholas Christakis's and James Fowler's book was greeted with breathless reviews-"Connected could change your life forever!"3-and deliberately provocative headlines: "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?"4 This particular headline was immediately absorbed into the popular imagination; coauthor Christakis recalled a popular syndicated cartoon that depicted two women in a restaurant ordering lunch, each pointing at the other and simultaneously claiming, "She'll have a small dry salad and a cup of water."5
I read Connected from cover to cover, and while it neither changed my life nor, alas, made me thinner, the authors' rhapsodic case outlining the extent to which our networks exert a profound influence upon our very selves was quite persuasive.
Our connections affect every aspect of our daily lives . . . How we feel, what we know, whom we marry, whether we fall ill, how much money we make, and whether we vote all depend on the ties that bind us. Social networks spread happiness, generosity and love. They are always there, exerting both subtle and dramatic influence over our choices, actions, thoughts, feelings, and even our desires. And our connections do not end with the people we know. Beyond our own social horizons, friends of friends of friends can start chain reactions that eventually reach us, like waves from distant lands that wash up on our shores.6
Most of us already benefit from our social networks, and professional "networking" is nothing new; humans have traded in the currency of connection and influence for about as long as we have been upright. But the digital age has created new conduits for networking that have made acquisition and retention of both social and professional contacts more efficient, faster, and arguably more effective. These new channels not only reach further afield but also feature a depth and complexity that was never before possible. How we can harness social-network science to strengthen our studios, advance professionally, and enrich our discipline as a whole is the subject of this installment of "Mindful Voice."
THE FALLACY OF FREE WILL
The science of social networks considers the myriad ways in which individual humans influence each other's behavior. This is not a remarkable concept on its face, but at its core is a direct assault on the notion that we are all, individually, masters of our own destiny. Updates from the front of the cognitive revolution regularly challenge the presumption of free will by presenting evidence that we are not as free to make up our own minds as we would like to believe.
In his book How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer dissects the mental process of decision making deconstructing a foundational tenet of the Western world. The operating premise holds that humans are rational, or at least capable of being so when motivated. Lehrer throws down the gauntlet by declaring flatly, "There's only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: it's wrong. Its not how the brain works."7 Lehrer convincingly demonstrates throughout his book that, despite our belief that a rational thought process guides our choices, in reality a multitude of forces, many outside our sphere of consciousness, shapes our will, influencing everything from our successes to our mistakes. Still, toss this notion out in the midst of your next cocktail party and notice that of all the topics under the cognitive umbrella, the ones that rankle folks most are those that challenge their notions of individuality and free will.
What might all this mean for teachers of singing? Consider the studio environment, in particular the one-on-one voice lesson itself, as a very manifestation of individuality, from the instructor's singular focus on one student for a purchased hour of instruction, to the individual achievement toward which both teacher and student are striving. Outside the studio, however, both student and teacher navigate peopled environments-networks-which exert various influences upon each of them; these influences are incorporated back into the studio environment. In human terms, the mindset that each player brings into the studio matters. If a teacher comes directly from the divorce court to the voice studio, or a student arrives late to a lesson from a tryst with her boyfriend, or a fender-bender, or any of a hundred scenarios that are the stuff of human drama-these experiences all combine to shape the studio dynamic.
THE SCIENCE OF SOCIAL NETWORKS
In the lexicon of social network science, Christakis and Fowler make a clear distinction between simple "groups" versus "social networks," which they describe as
. . . altogether different. [A social network] includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves.8
Just like the slime-mold colonies featured in "Ants, NATS and Swarm Logic,"9 this is yet another description of an emergent system. Echoing a line from the Emergence Theory playbook, they continue,
[These ties] explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.10
There are two more fundamental properties to understanding social network science, which Christakis and Fowler describe as "the anatomy and physiology of the human superorganism."11 They are connection, which they define as: "who is connected to whom; the particular pattern of ties that connects the people involved," and contagion, defined as "what, if anything, flows across those ties."12 In order to examine the interplay between these two properties, Fowler and Christakis mapped out the social networks of 5,124 different people, using data culled from a huge preexisting epidemiological study, the historic "Framingham Heart Study."13 They built a computer diagram that turned each person into a colorcoded "node," and then set the diagram in video motion. As the nodes revealed the 53,228 social ties that bound these networks together, the researchers began to see that this was where the real story lay. (To see these networks in action, visit the authors' website, where you can even plot your own social network diagram.)14
THE THREE DEGREES OF INFLUENCE RULE
An accepted canon in sociology is known as the "Six Degrees of Separation Rule," the astonishing finding that people the world over are all connected to each other by an average of six degrees of separation.15 Working off of the "Six Degrees" rule, Christakis and Fowler were not interested in simple association per se, but in influence, and they found evidence for what they dubbed the "Three Degrees of Influence Rule."
Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends' friends (two degrees), and even our friends' friends' friends (three degrees).16
This maxim underscores the startling notion that we influence, and are influenced by, people we do not even know. The statistics are stunning.
For example, the risk for smoking in a person connected to a smoker (that is, at one degree of separation) is 61% higher, on average, than would be expected as a result of chance. It is 29% higher if the friends of that person's friends smoke, and 11% higher if the friends of the person's friends' friends smoke. By the fourth degree of separation, there is no longer an increase in risk.17
Christakis and Fowler discovered similar effects in obesity, alcohol consumption, and heart disease, which are spread through social networks by contagious behaviors. While their research portends significant reconsiderations of public health policies (a cause taken up at Dr. Christakis's Harvard lab), they have also discovered that beneficial behaviors can be contagious too, like generosity, exercise regimens, and even that most intangible concept of the human condition, happiness. In interviews and lectures, both men state repeatedly that "People are inter-connected, and so their health is interconnected," a refrain from their landmark paper in the New England Journal of Medicine.18 However, this simple concept was not so apparent when Dr. Christakis began his professional medical career, when his experience with the so-called "Widowhood Effect" (whereby spouses die within weeks of each other) first sparked his interest in contagious behaviors. And Christakis and Fowler are only the latest in a succession of sociologists who have been studying the phenomenon of social contagion for decades.
PEER EFFECTS AND HOMOPHILY
The influence of one's peers (known in the sociology literature as "Peer Effects," but also called "induction") is an ongoing focus of social science research. Peer effects are known to figure prominently in many adolescent behaviors, such as sexual activity and drug use. The dearth of academic and financial success among members of similar ethnic or demographic populations have been linked to peer effects and have spawned historic social justice initiatives in the United States, such as school desegregation and affirmative action. The bold premise of author Judith Rich Harris's 1998 book The Nurture Assumption holds that the effects of peers matter much more in the development of children than do the effects of parents.19 Peer effects were investigated at Dartmouth College in 2000, when researchers conducted a study on randomly assigned roommates, the annual tradition at most colleges and universities whereby entering freshmen students are paired with roommates assigned to them by the campus housing office. This study revealed the surprising extent to which a student's incoming GPA could significantly affect his or her roommate's GPA, both positively and negatively.20
The Dartmouth study could surely bolster support for the social networking site "FaceBook," which recently launched an online matching service called "RoomBug."21 This site allows entering freshmen to select their own roommates, despite protests from parents and others that dealing with difference promotes inner growth. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd opined in her column "Don't Send In The Clones,"
Choosing roommates who are mirror images may fit with our narcissistic and microtargeted society, but it retards creativity and social growth.22
Maybe, but try selling that argument to the studious freshman who sued his college for negligence and breach of contract, claiming that school housing authorities ignored his request for a similarly-minded roommate and paired him with a "loud and raucous" football player. The plaintiff claimed that his roommate's abusive behavior caused him to suffer from stress disorders so debilitating that he had to withdraw from the college.23
It is a well known feature of human nature that "birds of a feather flock together";24 the technical term is "homophily" and some university officials have given up fighting this tendency. Instead, departments of college admissions and student life have joined popular social networking sites like "Facebook" and "MySpace" in order to advance admissions objectives, such as recruitment, retention, and rankings. "We decided that rather than continue to fight against the social media that is so much a part of our students' lives, we need to get engaged in that social media," said TJ Logan, associate director of housing at University of Florida, one of five universities that bought into "RoomBug" early on.25 Considering the disastrous effects that party-animal roommates can have on singers' sleep and stress levels, not to mention exposure to second-hand smoke and excessive talking, this initiative is one that voice teachers who have any connection with college-aged singers should support.
To be sure, much is made of the value of diversity because its opposite, homophily, reinforces one's worldview rather than challenges it.
Homophily limits people's social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience.26
And critic Dowd is correct that in humans, "As in Darwinian evolution, cross-pollination with diverse strains promotes species development."27 But there is a critical distinction that must be made between deliberately exposing ourselves to difference for our own betterment and deliberately exposing ourselves to the harmful effects of others' behavior. All college students who are serious about their health ought to be free to make this most fundamental of choices, but for college athletes, whether soccer players or singers, the care and feeding of the body as instrument is job number one. As Christakis and Fowler note, "the truth is that we seek out those people who share our interests, histories and dreams. Birds of a feather flock together."28 Their "Three Degrees of Influence" rule makes "RoomBug" an application with which students could not only live, but could genuinely thrive.
In the 1950s, pioneers in the emerging field of social science were studying peer effects and homophily, and they homed in on specific people within peer groups who seemed to exert an inordinate sway on the tastes and opinions of others. These people, dubbed "opinion leaders" or "super-connectors," have since been an alluring target group for marketers seeking to influence the purchasing habits of the crowd. The altruistic use of these so-called "alphas" have steered public health campaigns for decades, such as using major sports and movie stars as spokesmen for antidrug campaigns. However, this canon has recently been challenged, specifically questioning the wisdom of a singular marketing focus on one super-connector. According to network-theory scientist Duncan Watts,
It just doesn't work . . . A rare bunch of cool people just don't have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There's no there there.29
The myth of the super-connector is just like the myth of the "pacemaker" cell in emergent systems.30 It haunts our imagination, and is suddenly ubiquitous once we start looking for it. A young student teacher is counseled to charm the "popular" kids in the class if she wants to keep order; a self-managed performing artist believes his breakthrough will come if he can just meet that one well connected agent, director, or conductor, a yearning perfectly distilled in William Bolcom's cabaret song "Oh Close the Curtain," set to a poem by Arnold Weinstein.
Oh Close the Curtain, I can't stand the skies
Am I uncertain or is this room full of sighs?
What a wonderful party, never heard such lies!
And oh I want so to be in with these guys.31
But how much influence do "alphas" really exert, and what is the relative value of that influence? The first thing to consider is network position, and the related question is this: Is the center of a network really central?
THE MADISON AVENUE MISTAKE
One's place in a network can be in or near the center; it can be sometimes positive, or sometimes negative. In other words, network position can be permanent or subject to change. For example, if the boss is handing out raises to a team of workers that has produced an excellent product, one would likely wish to be at the center of that network. On the other hand, if you are a voice teacher and your entire studio comes down with the flu, you might wish (as you take two aspirin and call in sick) that you were on the edge of that particular network.
"Super-connectors" are typically located at or near the center of their networks, and studio teachers, by virtue of their role, do occupy a central location in their own voice studio; as such they are also stationary. But just because we are centered, we ought not to make the Madison Avenue mistake, that is, assume that our position translates to significant influence over our studio network. If by analogy, teachers are to their studios as parents are to their family units, teachers may not be as influential as they would wish, especially if their studio is comprised of teenagers or undergraduates, who are more susceptible to peer effects than are mature adults. This galling suggestion, that we voice teachers are not, alas, "super-connectors," "Mavens," "Gatekeepers," "Influentials," or any of a dozen titles that have been invented for the highly influential, is perhaps rivaled only by Jonah Lehrer's challenge to free will. But if the voice teacher is not the "Influential," can one be found among a group of students?
The Madison Avenue mistake can be seen on some sports teams or in certain voice studios, where one star athlete or singer is flaunted by the instructor as a model for his less seasoned compatriots. As well intentioned as these strategies may be, the hyperfocus on individual super-connectors as arbiters of attitudes and habits is wrong-headed simply because "alphas" are not the only vector through which such things travel.
The key to any student cannot be found solely from within that individual, nor can the source of a dynamic studio issue entirely from the accomplishments of one, or even several, star students. Rather, it is amid the ties that connect them to others that the complexity of influence must be considered. This is one of the central messages in Connected, and is beautifully illustrated by a moment that Dr. Christakis described as "the most exciting and the most depressing moment of my scientific career."32
THE TIES THAT CONNECT
Christakis and Fowler had mapped out thirty-two years' worth of statistics to illustrate the development of obesity within their core subject group, and then developed an animated video version that could illustrate how the contagion had spread within this network. Five years and a half million dollars later, when the moment finally came to run their much anticipated animation, what was revealed was not what they had expected.
They pushed "play" and watched as obesity broke out in clusters; individuals weren't getting fat on their own, but their waistlines were expanding along with others within connected groups. The researchers had made the Madison Avenue mistake. They had fallen for the myth of the "super-connector," a figure Christakis had dubbed "Patient Zero."33
Before running the animation, Christakis had imagined super-connected "Patient Zero," whose profound influence caused obesity to spread out from her in concentric circles the way that waves of water react when a single pebble is dropped into a pond. He imagined those waves hitting an imaginary shore where, like sound waves, they would bounce back and reinforce each other to create amplified amplify peaks of obesity and attenuated troughs of thinness. But as they watched their animation, the two researchers immediately concluded that their assumptions had been naïve. Instead of the single pebble in the pond effect, what they saw is that the spread of epidemics and behaviors play out like a handful of pebbles strewn across a pond's surface. Instead of concentric rings radiating from one super source, they witnessed a complex variety of waves-"multicentric" ones-that spread out in varying degrees within the network, emanating from a variety of sources.
MARKETING THE STUDIO
Habits, like viruses, can be caught and spread. But unlike a contagious virus, some habits are worth spreading. How we might actually influence an entire studio to adopt similar, and similarly healthy, habits (like practice and fitness routines, and diet choices) is, of course, the million dollar question, and one that market researchers have spent far in excess of a million dollars attempting to answer. For decades, advertising executives focused on those one or two highly influential people within a clique, hoping for their purchasing habits to spark a trend. Now that the role of the super-connected has been called into question, naturally the question becomes, how can you start a trend among a group with no prominent leader? This question has recently bedeviled American journalists and politicians alike as they hasten to predict the actions of a current and perfect example of an emergent system that has no leader: the "Tea Party" movement.
Consider the independent studio teacher, whose livelihood depends upon reputation, which in turn is largely transmitted by word-of-mouth. According to Duncan Watts,
Cascades require word-of-mouth effects, so you need to build a six-degrees effect into an ad campaign; but since you can never know which person is going to spark the fire, you should aim the ad at as broad a market as possible-and not waste money chasing "important" people.34
In other words, teach to the best of your ability at all times, to all constituents, because according to the "Six Degrees of Separation Rule," everyone knows everybody else, and you never know which one among the many will "spark the fire." Besides, recent research into the nature of expertise has taken issue with the whole notion of inborn talent, seriously questioning its very existence, or whether the so-called "10,000 Hour Practice Rule" is the real governor of extraordinary success.35 Just as advertisers should beware the Madison Avenue myth of the super-connecter, teachers should not be seduced by the notion of "talent," only giving our best when motivated to do so by those who initially evince the most ability. Eventually, tortoises as well as hares reveal themselves in the studio. This is especially true among the young.
IT TAKES A NETWORK
The question remains: How might we influence an entire studio to adopt similarly healthy habits, like practice routines? Further, how might we engender a studio ethos of mutual support, or stimulating competition? If one individual "Influential" isn't the answer, but spreading the news within a network is, then the answer is: create a network.
This is a challenging proposition given the one-on-one nature of voice instruction, but it is probably essential to the success of the modern studio. I came to this conclusion myself when I noticed that each time my studio congregated en masse, it always felt like a class reunion-minus the golf tournament and the martinis, but including the sentiment, "Gee, we should do this more often"-and I was, at those moments, keenly aware of my network centrality. Even though the personnel in my studio changes from year to year, there is always the usual assortment of new specimens each autumn: the belter with a huge break in the middle, the teenaged tenor who woke up to find he's a baritone, the ten breathy sopranos. My students face similar challenges, but I am the one who connects the dots. They are at once familiar to me and yet virtual strangers to one another. Recently, I integrated more technology into my curriculum in order to address this dichotomy. I sought technology support in order to envision new ways to use tools already in place (email, video cameras) and learn how to appropriate new ones (blogging, YouTube). Instead of targeting one or two "alphas" (otherwise known as voice performance majors) to model behavior in the studio, I aimed to spread the studio ethos equally among everyone enrolled, then to actually require them to interact with each other, not just with me. I based all this on the notion that, just as acts of altruism have been shown to multiply as they progress throughout a group of givers, a teacher's instruction could, and ideally should, exhibit exponentially greater effects. To review my protocols and their effects, see the chart at the end of this article.
Harnessing Christakis and Fowler's "Three Degrees of Influence Rule" as a way to combat obesity and smoking is currently receiving quite a lot of attention in public health circles. Particular interest is on targeting people in the second and third degrees of influence, rather than the first degree, the theory being that such a strategy will ensure that the dieter would be joined on at least one side by a confederate.
In a similar way, I judged that my emendations in the voice studio would ensure that enrolled singers are not simply linked to one another in a linear fashion, but that they are all surrounded by others engaged in a similar pursuit. Posting lesson summaries, videos, and performance critiques on the private class website for all students to see adds dimensions of accountability and common cause to a degree that no amount of grading or evaluation on my part could engender. From a teacher's vantage point, just as the organism Dictyostelium discoideum "oscillates between being a single creature and a swarm,"36 the voice studio reveals itself at once through the abilities of its individual singers and, in Christakis's and Fowler's words, through the "synchrony of the superorganism."37
1. Lynn Helding, "Ants, NATS, and Swarm Logic," Journal of Singing 67, no. 3 (January/February 2011): 85-90.
2. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2009).
4. Clive Thompson, "Is Happiness Catching?" The New York Times Magazine (September 19, 2009).
5. Ibid., 32.
6. Christakis and Fowler, 7.
7. Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2009), xv.
8. Christakis and Fowler, 9.
10. Christakis and Fowler, 9.
11. Ibid., 30.
12. Ibid., 16.
13. For more information on this historic study of cardiovascular disease, see: http://www.framinghamheartstudy.org/about/ history.html.
15. Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgram, "An Experimental Study in the Small World Problem," Sociometry 35, no. 4 (1969): 425-443.
16. Christakis and Fowler, 28.
17. Nicholas Christakis, "The Dynamics of Personal Influence," The Harvard Business Review Online; http://hbr.org/web/2009/ hbr-list/dynamics-of-personal-influence (accessed September 20, 2010).
18. Christakis and Fowler, "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 Years," New England Journal of Medicine 357, no. 4 (July 2007): 370-379.
19. Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The way They Do (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).
20. Bruce Sacerdote, "Peer Effects with Random Assignment: Results for Dartmouth Roommates," The Quarterly Journal of Economics 116, no. 2 (May 2001): 681-704.
22. Maureen Dowd, "Don't Send In The Clones," The New York Times (August 10, 2010); http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/ 11/opinion/11dowd.html (accessed September 20, 2010).
23. "Student Sues College," The New York Times (May 27, 1994); http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/27/nyregion/student-sues-college-saying-a-party-animal-roommate-drove-him-into-therapy.html (accessed September 20, 2010).
24. Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook,"Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks," Annual Review of Sociology 27 (August 2001): 415-444.
25. Isaac Arnsdorf, "No More New Kid On Campus," The Wall Street Journal (August 5, 2010); http://online.wsj.com/article/ SB10001424052748704017904575409203223872556.html (accessed December 21, 2010).
28. Christakis and Fowler, 17.
29. Clive Thompson, "Is the Tipping Point Toast?" Fast Company Magazine; http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/122/is-the-tipping-point-toast.html (accessed September 20, 2010).
31. William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein, "Oh Close The Curtain," Cabaret Songs, Vol. 2 (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corp., 1986).
32. See "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: The Spread of Health Phenomena in Social Networks," a 60 minute video of Dr. Christakis giving a talk at Dartmouth College (February 7, 2008); http://christakis.med.harvard.edu/pages/media-talks/ subnav/video.html (Accessed Sept. 20, 2010).
34. Thompson, "Is the Tipping Point Toast?"
35. Lynn Helding, "Innate Talent: Myth or Reality?" Journal of Singing 67, no. 4 (March/ April 2011): 451-458.
36. Helding, "Ants, NATS and Swarm Logic."
37. Christakis and Fowler, 289-292.
Lynn Helding has sung throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, and Iceland, where her performances were broadcast on Icelandic National Radio. Her lecture series Connecting Voice Science to Vocal Art illuminates ongoing research in cognitive science, a field she claims "ushers in a paradigm shift in emphasis from how well teachers teach, to how well students learn."
Helding studied voice at the University of Montana with Esther England, in Vienna with Kammersänger Otto Edelmann, and at Indiana University with Dale Moore, where she was the first singer accepted to pursue the Artist Diploma. She earned the Master's Degree in Vocal Pedagogy from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and studied vocology with Dr. Ingo Titze, Dr. Katherine Verdolini and others at the Summer Vocology Institute of the National Center for Voice and Speech. In 2005, she was awarded the Van Lawrence Fellowship, given jointly by the Voice and NATS Foundations.
She served four years as a member of the voice faculty at Vanderbilt University, and is currently Associate Professor of Voice and Director of Performance Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She welcomes visitors to her website: http://users.dickinson.edu/~helding and communication at: email@example.com.