If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you? It’s a parental standby, but like most clichés, it rests on a basic truth: our social circles significantly influence our thoughts and behaviors.

For social scientists, unraveling friends’ true influence on us has been challenging: do we really know what our friends think, and how much sway do our friends hold relative to other factors?

Through a new online social circle research panel dubbed “SciFriends,” SFI Professor Mirta Galesic and her team are working to shed new light on these questions.

“Our behaviors are often influenced by what we think other people around us think,” Galesic says. “And even if we know that something else might be better for us, a lot of people will just do whatever their friends are doing. This panel is an attempt to measure that.”

Funded by an NSF grant, the research aims to attract participants with a diversity of socio-demographic characteristics, along with members of their personal networks.

By asking panelists about their own behaviors (like their health habits) and their beliefs about how their friends behave, the team can study how subjective judgments participants make about their friends stack up against objective data collected from their social circles.

Planned studies include an exploration of the spread of new beliefs in social circles. For example, if people are given scientifically accurate information about the benefits of vaccination, will their willingness to accept this information depend on the heterogeneity of their social circles? 

Data collected in the SciFriends pilot phase will help researchers from psychology, sociology, computational social science, and other fields build more coherent models of the cognitive processes underlying social judgments, but it’s only the start, Galesic says. The logical progression is to use SciFriends to learn more about the social mechanisms that perpetuate inequality in our society, she says.

“This work can illuminate how people’s social circles affect their aspirations, their inferences about what is normal, and their support for policies aimed at reducing societal inequality, in turn fostering behaviors that either fight or further reinforce inequality,” she says.