The alarming reason why I “flipped the bird” in second grade

by | November 5, 2012

As an innocent second-grader, I was walking home from school one day with a friend.

My friend dared me to “flip the bird” to the next car that drove by. If I did, he promised he’d give me a pack of candy cigarettes.

Not having any idea what it meant, but only how to do it, I did indeed flip the bird. Candy cigarettes were on the line, after all.

And the car promptly pulled over. A man emerged. I was scared to death. In no uncertain terms and with no lack of vigor, he told me just how impressed he was with my gesture.

But the real punishment came after he walked me home and told my parents what I had done. And to top it off, I never collected on my blasted candy cigarettes.

Turns out I’m not the only one who’s done boneheaded things because of the influence of friends (including being tempted by cigarettes).

In my “Live Extraordinary” Manifesto is a line that advises, “Who you become tomorrow is determined by the books you read, the friends you keep, and how you spend your free time today.”


Gleaning insights from decades of research data, Harvard professors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have discovered the following, which they detail in their book Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do:

  • We are 61 percent more likely to smoke if we have a direct relationship with a smoker. If your friend of a friend is a smoker, you are 29 percent more likely to smoke. Even at a third degree of separation (friend of a friend’s friend), you are 11 percent more likely.
  • If you have a friend that becomes obese, the odds that you’ll gain weight jump to 57 percent.
  • A British study revealed that among binge drinkers, 54 percent reported that all or almost all of their friends are binge drinkers, compared to 15 percent of nonbinge drinkers.
  • One Harvard study found that Harvard students were 8.3 percent more likely to get a flu shot if an additional 10 percent of their friends got a flu shot.
  • People who are surrounded by happy people have a significantly greater likelihood of future happiness.

It’s just common sense that we tend to mirror the attitudes, emotions, likes, interests, and habits of our peers — “birds of a feather” and all that. As social critic Eric Hoffer put it, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

But underlying common sense is a fascinating biological mechanism in the human brain, which scientists call the “mirror neuron system.”

Christakis and Fowler explain:

“Our brains practice doing actions we merely observe in others, as if we were doing them ourselves. If you’ve ever watched an intense fan at a game, you know what we are talking about — he twitches at every mistake, aching to give his own motor actions to the players on the field.

“When we see players run, jump, or kick, it is not only our visual cortex or even the part of our brain that thinks about what we are observing that is activated, but also the parts of our brain that would be activated if we ourselves were running, jumping, or kicking…

“It seems we are always poised to feel what others feel and do what others do.”

W. Clement Stone was not exaggerating when he said, “Be careful the environment you choose for it will shape you; be careful the friends you choose for you will become like them.”

That’s why Thomas J. Watson counseled, “Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.”

Whether we flip the bird for candy cigarettes or strive for greatness, the influence our friends have on our decisions, actions, and habits cannot be underestimated.


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