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Fruit Flies and Loneliness: Taking Cues from Others

Written by: Bill Sherman on Thursday, 31 December 2009, 12:24 PM

Social learning appears in more than human beings. Many animals, including0 stickleback fish display the behavior. Now, scientists believe that fruit flies are capable of social learning. Yes, fruit flies.

According Sachin Sarin and Reuven Dukas at McMaster University, inexperienced female fruit flies follow the lead of mated female fruit flies when selecting which fruit to lay their eggs.

Focal females (observers) that experienced novel food together with mated females (models), who had laid eggs on that food, subsequently exhibited a stronger preference for laying eggs on that food over another novel food compared with focal females that experienced the food alone.

As humans, we are constantly picking up cues from the people who surround us. Their behavioral choices influence our own choices, as demonstrated by the research work of Christakis and Fowler which shows that smoking cessation and obesity are directly influenced by your social network.

Christakis and Fowler present research that loneliness spreads through social networks. While this idea seems completely counter-intuitive, it’s a powerful insight. If you are lonely, you exhibit negative behaviors to the people within your network. In fact, having a friend who reports being lonely makes a person 52 percent more likely to feel lonely themselves. Drake Bennett of the Boston Globe presents a great summary of this research.

Loneliness, by contrast, seems to spread through an accumulation of encounters. Lonely people are, in general, less pleasant than nonlonely people: more impatient, more moody, more self-pitying. They have, in the language of psychology, “more negative affect,” and each unpleasant encounter they subject their friends to wears on those friends and taxes the friendship, until the friends themselves start to feel lonely, as well. Having more than one lonely friend only accelerates the process.

Female fruit flies take their cues from each other. Social learning allows females to determine where to lay their eggs. However, humans take their cues from each other too. Positive behaviors (and perhaps learned helplessness) radiate through social networks.

If you want to drive learning through your organization, then you must also understand your organization’s social network and the embedded social capital.

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