Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) came up with a comprehensive algorithm that evaluated the effect of peer influence on how much a person leads their life. Bryan Wilder, a USC Viberti Ph.D. candidate in computer science, and Kayla de la Haye, an assistant professor of preventive medicine developed the RECONNECT model. This model is a comprehensive algorithm that offers health practitioners the tool to set up real-life peer support groups based on demographic, social, and health-related data self-volunteered by patients.
The model creates networks at a big picture scale. Instead of recommending the right weight loss program like traditional methods, the RECONNECT model suggests the right people to surround yourself with for permanent behavior change. Because you will be in a social circle that promotes health and well-being, you are more likely to make healthier choices. Dr. Wilder and de la Haye believe that their model is more interactive than traditional strategies based on cause and effect and survey after survey.
Wilder and de la Haye will be trying out their algorithm in Antelope Valley, a small region in California on the western tip of the Mojave Desert. Fifteen percent of its 400,000 residents live below the poverty line. In addition, only 10 percent of its children residents are considered to be healthy by their parents, and the incidence of obesity in this region are among the highest in Los Angeles.
In a pilot study that de la Haye conducted, data supporting social intervention was found. For example, mothers with young children have very few same-age friends, and those who do not have friends and have limited social support show poor health-related behavior, such as unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.
Their study will be funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). The study will involve 300 families that will be enrolled in an 18-month home-visiting program monitored by a health professional. The standard home-visiting services will be given to half of the families, while the RECONNECT model will be applied to the other half. The researchers aim to work with low-income moms and their babies to encourage healthy eating and activity to fight obesity and diabetes in children.
The study will determine if families engaging in healthy lifestyles and the RECONNECT model are overall better off and have lower risk for obesity and diabetes than those who receive the standard in-home services.
Your peers may also affect how much you eat. Research shows that people eat more in a company and follow what and how others eat.
Health psychologist John de Castro looked at a series of diary studies in the 1980s to study social influences in eating. By 1994, de Castro gathered diaries of more than 500 people recording their meals and the social context of how they consumed them, in company or alone. He found that people ate more when they were in a group compared to when they ate alone. He named the phenomenon “social facilitation,” describing it as the “single most important and all-pervasive influence on eating yet identified.”
Other studies also suggested that meal times are extended when eating in a group, and people tend to eat more in those extra minutes. In addition, people order more food individually when anticipating a group meal. There are also times when people eat less in a group. Eating behaviors can be managed by the need to behave. People eat according to social norms or they observe how others eat and follow their lead, which is a behavior called social modeling. (Related: Negotiating yourself into good health habits: Expert shares tips for successful manipulation of your mindset.)
Read more news stories and studies on eating behaviors by going to Psychiatry.news.