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We succeed or fail with help from our friends

Human networks can have a big impact on whether we get ahead in life, but they can have the opposite effect too.

Melissa De Witte-Stanford • futurity
March 14, 2019 2 minSource

friends posing for photo (human networks concept)

To understand why people succeed or fail, look at their circle of friends. Like it or not, says economist Matthew Jackson, people’s fates are closely connected to their human networks.

While human networks can be beneficial—a friend can be a referral to a lucrative new job, for example—there can be negative effects as well: What happens when someone doesn’t know influential people? A limited human network, Jackson says, can hinder opportunities with deleterious effects in society. It helps explain why social immobility and inequality exist today.

The deep connections that people nurture underlie important political and economic establishments as well, Jackson says. For example, financial markets have become so intertwined—with central players larger than ever—that when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, it triggered a recession worldwide. One risky financial move is all it takes to spread financial distress across the network.

Jackson, a professor of economics at Stanford University, has researched the powerful effects of networks for more than 25 years. He’s collected his findings in a new book, The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviors.

Here, Jackson talks about how human networks can explain many important phenomena, from financial crises to disparities across groups, consequences of school segregation, social immobility, and more.

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