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Divorce may be rampant among baby boomers, but is it contagious?

A quarter of all divorces in the United States are among couples who have been married 20-plus years, according to a front-page article in Sunday’s Star Tribune.
Baby boomers are, writes Strib reporter Bill Ward, “the most divorce-prone generation

A quarter of all divorces in the United States are among couples who have been married 20-plus years, according to a front-page article in Sunday’s Star Tribune.

Baby boomers are, writes Strib reporter Bill Ward, “the most divorce-prone generation in history.”

The reasons for these “gray divorces,” he adds, lie in the weakening of religious and social taboos against divorce — and in the fact that women are now more financially independent.

“All of these developments make it easier for longtime couples to split when root causes such as midlife crisis, empty-nest syndrome or alcohol abuse hit,” Ward says.

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Please take note: He doesn’t mention anything about divorce being “contagious.”

I bring this up because science writer Dave Johns wrote an interesting article in Slate last week about how “social contagion” studies have come under heavy criticism. These are the studies that purport to show that divorce, obesity, happiness, loneliness and other social behaviors can spread like a virus among social networks — even to friends of friends of friends.

It’s unlikely, though, that you’ve heard about these criticisms. That’s because studies that make new claims are much more likely to get published (and into the media) than those that critique and disprove the claims.

No wonder that the public holds on to many medical and social science “truths” long, long after they have been debunked.

Divorce as a collective phenomenon
The social contagion theory of divorce hit the headlines almost exactly a year ago this week. Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, two researchers, James Fowler of the University of California-San Diego and Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University (authors of the book “Connected”) reported that “divorce can spread between friends, siblings and coworkers, and there are clusters of divorce that extend two degrees of separation in the network.”

Dr. Christakis

“Divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends far beyond those directly affected,” they concluded.

Yet, as Johns points out in his Slate article, that study has never been published because it has yet to pass peer review.

Other social contagion studies by Fowler and Christakis, however, have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including a widely reported 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that obesity spreads through social networks.

But, as Johns reports, “something of a consensus is forming within the statistics and social-networking communities that Christakis and Fowler’s headline-grabbing contagion papers are fatally flawed.”

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The flaws are in the mathematical modeling used to come up with the findings — modeling that other researchers claim are riddled with statistical errors, says Johns.

Statisticians critical of the social contagion studies are having a difficult time getting their critiques published, however — an issue that points to an ongoing problem in academic research. “Outlets for critiques are relatively few and not highly regarded,” writes Johns. “… Critiques lack the same kind of novelty as original studies and they are necessarily tedious and impolite.”

A complicated story
Meanwhile, the idea that divorce is “contagious” continues to hold on to the public’s imagination — without the countering news that it and other social-contagion theories are being seriously challenged.

Of course, even if the critics of Christakis and Fowler’s research prevail, that doesn’t mean our peers have no effect on our actions, as Johns points out:

“The critics are not saying peer pressure is a myth — no one thinks that — but only that Christakis and Fowler’s studies and their claims for the virulence of obesity and the rest were far of the mark. … One irony of the contagion battles is that even if their methods are suspect, Christakis and Fowler are obviously correct that peer influence exists and that it may be even more important than we realize. …

“Yes, we influence each other all the time in how we talk and how we dress and what kinds of screwball videos we watch on the Internet. But careful studies of our social networks reveal what may be a more powerful and pervasive effect: We tend to form ties with the people who are most like us to begin with. The mother who blames her son’s boozebag friends for his wild behavior must face up to the fact that he prefers the fast crowd in the first place. We are all connected, yes, but the way those links get made could be the most important part of the story.”