Spring 2013

Problem Solver: How to spread success

The problem: The scientific community has uncovered examples of so-called “social contagion,” in which physical or emotional traits are shared by groups of friends. Some Greater Binghamton high school students wondered: Is this as true for academic performance as it is for obesity and happiness?

The researchers: Hiroki Sayama, director of Binghamton’s Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems Research Group, along with four high school students and an administrator from nearby Maine-Endwell High School.

The strategy: Sayama and the students conducted a survey of the junior class. The students were asked about their friendships, and the researchers constructed a series of social networks.

The student researchers obtained the GPAs of every student in the 160-member class and developed a hypothesis: Students whose friends had better grades than they did had a better chance of improving their academic performance than students whose friends weren’t doing as well in school.

In the second year of the study, the students — then seniors — demonstrated that this was indeed the case. “If your friends had a higher GPA than yours,” Sayama says, “you have a better chance of improving your GPA — and vice versa.”

The teenage researchers, now in college, appeared as lead authors when their study was published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

“Many things are communicated over social ties,” Sayama says. “This is one of the first discoveries that shows social contagion might also be taking place in academic performance.”

–Rachel Coker