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Your roommate’s brother’s co-worker might be making you fat.

Professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego James Fowler thinks he might be, at least.

Fowler spoke to an audience of 200 students and faculty at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday. His talk was part of the Levin Family Dean’s Forum, which brings noteworthy scholars from the liberal arts and sciences fields to Penn.

Fowler’s research focuses on social networks and how people are influenced by their connections on these networks — but these aren’t the social networks you might suspect. Fowler investigates the intangible social webs made up of friends, family and co-workers who interact in-person.

Fowler co-authored “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” with Nicholas Christakis, a former Penn professor who received his master’s degree from the University in 1992 and his doctorate in 1995.

The two observed “three degrees of influence” between subjects, in conjunction with the Framingham Heart Study. The study looked at the factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease. Like six degrees of separation, Fowler’s “influence” applies to those within three social connections.

The team’s initial work on obesity showed that when you consider someone a friend and he or she becomes obese, your own risk of becoming obese within two to four years increases by about 57 percent, Fowler said. If the person considers you a friend as well, your risk triples.

Smoking behavior and happiness showed the same patterns. People beyond the three degrees of influence were usually not affected.

“It’s this power that we’re hoping to exploit whenever we’re trying to make the world a better place,” Fowler said.

He also discussed how his theories relate to social media.

One of his studies on social media analyzed Facebook networks. After viewing an Election Day announcement in their news feeds, 60,000 people went to the polls. An additional 280,000 people voted upon seeing an “I Voted” message from their friends. Public voting records were used to verify the results.

After the event, Wharton senior Michael Ma said that he was most curious about “more ways we can influence people via these social networks.”

Fowler remarked that while social media is a new way to communicate, “friendship networks” have always existed. “It’s pretty much using the same mechanism that we’ve always used,” he said.

At the end of the forum, Fowler advised people not to break off a relationship just to avoid a negative influence like obesity or smoking. Instead, he encouraged using these patterns as motivation to “pay it forward” and act as a positive influence.

Twenty graduate and undergraduate students were presented with a certificate, $250 and a signed copy of Fowler’s book at the event to honor work in their respective fields.

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