Thomas Nast's most famous drawing,

Image via Wikipedia

A recent article in Science reveals that being naughty is easier if you’re in a naughty neighborhood. In fact, seeing even one social norm violated (like seeing graffiti on a building or litter on a lawn) makes violating other social norms more likely.

The researchers use the “broken windows” theory of social behavior, which George Kelling coined in the 1980s to describe the observation that if a building had broken windows, that made it more likely other windows would be broken, more vandalism would occur, and ultimately a break-in could result. Decrepitude has a downward spiral.

This also bears on the concept of moral hazard, which is “the prospect that a party insulated from risk may behave differently from the way it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk.” In other words, if broken windows are everywhere, you rightly assume you can break more (or go even further) with impunity.

Being naughty has a network effect.

This has been shown in other studies of obesity and smoking. If your friends are fat or smoke, you’re more likely to eat too much or smoke, too.

However, at Christmas, millions of children are visited by a fat man who smokes and breaks into houses.

What does this say about the social network at the North Pole?

Yet this traditional visitor continues to judge naughtiness or niceness, despite himself representing three known social network traps.

The model emerging of naughty networks forces us to rethink the traditional model of Santa. In his version of the world, being naughty or nice is an individual choice with individual accountability in the form of presents (for nice) or coal (for naughty). There is moral hazard, but no accommodation for the power of social networks.

Clearly, his mental model is flawed.

By predicating his list on individual responsibility, Santa takes nothing into account about environment, network effects, or “broken windows.”

One must ask: Is this fair given the new state of knowledge about naughty networks?

Santa is out of step with the times. Does he even realize what his own obesity, smoking, and break-ins represent within the community built around him? His self-awareness is limited, indicating that he too has fallen prey to a social network effect — a plump wife, fat little elves, pipe smoking, sneaking through chimneys, and the images of himself reinforcing that obesity, smoking, and crime are acceptable.

Just this week, a study was published in the BMJ showing that happiness is contagious, and that niceness might be susceptible to the same network effects. But entropy often means that nice networks have an uphill battle.

Recent research about social networks demands a new approach to evaluating naughtiness or niceness, and a new image of Santa. Children, and their adult counterparts, are significantly affected by their environments and social networks — friends, family, and peers. Failing to take these into account threatens the relevance of Santa’s approach and reputation.

Perhaps after a round of Chantix and hypnotherapy, some time with a personal trainer and nutritionist, and rehabilitation of his criminal ways, Santa could adopt something akin to a Facebook application that shows the connections of his adherents, and then adopt a relativistic approach to evaluating naughtiness or niceness, taking into account a person’s environment, peers, and contemporaries.

I know it’s the only way I’m getting any decent presents this year!

(Thanks to JS for the pointer.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


1 Thought on "Naughty Networks"

I think if I include a link you’ll zap my comment, but reading this I couldn’t resist sharing with you a headline which I caught sight of in The Sun yesterday:

“Lapland Was Bad For Our Elf”

Google the phrase if you want to find out more. Maybe time for Santa 2.0?

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