Sensitivity analysis for contagion effects in social networks

Sociol Methods Res. 2011 May;40(2):240-255. doi: 10.1177/0049124111404821.


Analyses of social network data have suggested that obesity, smoking, happiness and loneliness all travel through social networks. Individuals exert "contagion effects" on one another through social ties and association. These analyses have come under critique because of the possibility that homophily from unmeasured factors may explain these statistical associations and because similar findings can be obtained when the same methodology is applied to height, acne and head-aches, for which the conclusion of contagion effects seems somewhat less plausible. We use sensitivity analysis techniques to assess the extent to which supposed contagion effects for obesity, smoking, happiness and loneliness might be explained away by homophily or confounding and the extent to which the critique using analysis of data on height, acne and head-aches is relevant. Sensitivity analyses suggest that contagion effects for obesity and smoking cessation are reasonably robust to possible latent homophily or environmental confounding; those for happiness and loneliness are somewhat less so. Supposed effects for height, acne and head-aches are all easily explained away by latent homophily and confounding. The methodology that has been employed in past studies for contagion effects in social networks, when used in conjunction with sensitivity analysis, may prove useful in establishing social influence for various behaviors and states. The sensitivity analysis approach can be used to address the critique of latent homophily as a possible explanation of associations interpreted as contagion effects.