Saturday, April 12, 2008 | His political science students know Dr. James Fowler as the prof who writes on his chalkboard-painted office walls. Scientists and journalists know him as the man who found a social link in obesity. But fans of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” (pronounced with silent “t”s) know him as the guy who found the first scientific evidence to support the “Colbert bump,” a phenomenon in which political candidates receive a boost in their political support after appearing on Stephen Colbert’s talk show.
Fowler is now a University of California, San Diego political science professor who specializes in social networks, political participation and genetics. He got his bachelor’s degree from Harvard, worked with the Peace Corps for two years in Ecuador, received his master’s degree in international relations from Yale, and then his Ph.D. in government from Harvard. He worked at University of California, Davis before coming to UCSD in 2006.
In the midst of chalk-covered walls, Fowler sat down with us on a school day afternoon to chat about how your changes can change those around you, coming up with ideas after a night out in Vegas, and the inspiration that can come from Suave shampoo commercials.
We found you through the Stephen Colbert report that you had done. How do you get funding to do stuff like that?
You don’t need funding to do that.
You don’t need funding?
No. All you need is a computer. In fact, when I did this research, I was with my friends in Las Vegas. And we were out from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and everyone came back and crashed in the hotel room. And I couldn’t sleep, and I was bored, and I was lying there thinking, “I wonder if the Colbert report — the Colbert bump — is real.” So, I thought, “Ok, I’m awake. I might as well just go do this.”
The FEC data — the data on campaign relations — I can look and find out if you’ve ever donated more than $200 to a campaign. It’s all there, so you just download it and stick it in. It literally took me two hours to do the analysis.
The whole paper?
Well, the analysis. And then writing the paper is a joy. It’s not something you need to be paid research time to do. Most of the time I’m writing stuff that is very technical and very dry, and this is one chance for me to actually be humorous for a change.
Do you find that you ever get funny looks from fellow professors who are studying more serious things and don’t write these humorous papers like you do?
I wouldn’t say funny looks, but I do have quite a bit of e-mail chatter that came to me after the paper was accepted for publication. And it was mentioned on “The Colbert Report” a couple weeks ago. And one of my colleagues from UC Davis, where I used to work, he wrote, “Is it science? Is it art? Who can tell?” (Laughs) So, just kind of that attitude about it.
But I think that most people realize, especially when you read the article, the tone of it is humorous. It’s 90 percent entertainment and 10 percent information or learning something new about the world. So, it’s kind of funny because they haven’t studied specific programs that much. I was kind of surprised by that because I started to think, “Well, I’ll just do a sort of traditional paper with this,” and I realized people hadn’t looked at the specific effect of being on a specific show.
There’s a bunch of information about spending money on a campaign and whether or not that will increase the number of votes you get, for example, or the number of campaign donations. There’s not, like, an Oprah paper or a Bill O’Reilly paper. And so, in a certain sense, this could be a kind of new direction for us to sort of think about, you know, what happens when we target a specific audience, like the audience of “The Colbert Report.” Is that the kind of audience that’s actually going to give money for the candidates that appear on the show?
What do you think your research says about the audience of “The Colbert Report”?
I had an interesting question from a reporter at NPR about what happens when there’s a Democrat in the White House? Because they’re not just anti-Democrat or anti-Republican. They’re anti-authority. So, if you go back to the early “Daily Show,” that took place during the Clinton administration, they were sometimes just as critical of Bill Clinton when he was in office as they are now of George Bush. So, I think there is definitely a liberal bias or a Democratic bias, but in part that’s because the current administration is Republican.
You’re obviously very interested in things that are really relevant to current society. Have you done a lot of studying on social networking? And what did it look like before Facebook and MySpace?
Social networks is one area I study, so the story that had the most media interest was our story about obesity that came out last summer that showed that if your friend increases weight, then it increases the likelihood that you’ll gain weight as well. And there were all kinds of political cartoons and news shows. There was quite the frenzy. I was not prepared at all for really how much interest there would be. Typically, I write an article, and I’m lucky if one or two of my peers reads it, let alone thousands of people hitting my website. So, it kind of caught me by surprise.
In general, I’m really interested in this idea that we’re all connected and that not only is it the case that our friends affect us and our family affect us, but their friends and their family also affect us. People two degrees removed and three degrees removed and so on. So, for me, it’s almost spiritual to sort of think about these hyperdiatic effects, these effects that jump over the people that we’re connected to people that we don’t even know.
One of the reasons is because, if you think about it, you’re part of a larger community. But the other thing that I also think is really neat is that we feel sort of depressed when we think about what impact we have on the world.
And the research that we’re doing so far shows that when you make a change, it influences the people around you, and the people around them. And in some cases, hundreds of other people will be affected by some positive change that you’ve made. I think when people start to realize this, it helps them to take a little bit more responsibility for their lives so that they might be more likely to live healthy lives or to try to make their friends and neighbors happy.
You mentioned the frenzy that followed that obesity study. Do you think there’s anything that ever gets lost between what your actual research says and how the TV and newspapers interpret it? Like “Your friends make you fat.” Is there anything that was lost in translation?
Absolutely. I literally did more than a hundred interviews for that story. It was just crazy. In every single interview, without fail, I said, “Every friend makes you healthier.”
And yet, we have articles saying, “Dump your fat friends.” I wish I had known the storm that would come because we actually went back to the data from the study and looked to see what happened to people who dumped their fat friends. And you know what happened? They became fat! And the people that kept their fat friends, their friends who became obese, were much less likely to put on weight. And it’s because the effect of having an extra friend is so much more important than the effect of whether or not your friend is overweight. And I tried to emphasize that, and it got lost.
What first gave you the clue to study the impact of friends on someone’s obesity?
Well, I’m a political scientist, so this is not the first thing you would think for a political scientist. So, as a graduate student, I was very interested in this thing called the paradox of turnout.
And it’s the idea that, if you think about why you vote and try to think about, under what circumstances will I vote, you start to realize very quickly that an individual vote doesn’t matter. There are millions of people in the United States. If you hadn’t voted in the last election, what would have happened? Would anything have been different if you hadn’t voted? Or if you had voted? Would it have changed anything? No. It only would have changed elections where there was an exact tie. How many elections have you ever observed in your lifetime that were an exact tie? None. So, we’re talking about the odds of you affecting the outcome of an election in the United States on the order of one in 10 million.
So, as a graduate student, I was struggling with this problem, and I began to think, we know that there’s evidence that friends influence each other and families influence each other when it comes to political activity, but it had never gone beyond that. It had never gone beyond the first step — that I affect my friend.
And, believe it or not, I was lying there awake, sort of thinking about what am I going to write my dissertation on. And I remembered this commercial, which you’re probably too young to remember, from the 1970s. It was a Suave shampoo commercial. And it talked about a woman telling two friends about Suave shampoo, and then she told two friends, and the screen splits into four. And then they told two friends, and the screen splits into eight, and so on and so on and so on. And pretty soon, there’s like hundreds of women using Suave shampoo.
And so I realized that there’s this exponential nature of social networks that could mean that one person’s actions actually influence dozens or hundreds of other people that might mean that even though you only have a one in a million chance of affecting the outcome, you’re actually changing hundreds of people’s actions with your own action. If that spreads through a network, that might counterbalance these really large numbers and help us to explain why people actually vote.
Do you get a lot of your ideas in the middle of the night?
(Laughs) I guess Las Vegas and now this. That’s right. That’s right.
So how do you get ideas for other research? Are there social groups that you interact with — grandparents or kids —that you get ideas from?
I don’t know. One thing is I have a very short attention span.
So I like reading things that are completely different from what I normally read. For example, this last week, I spent the day reading physics journals, and I’m not a physicist, so a lot of that was very hard for me to digest, but I was trying to read that and trying to learn what I can I bring to political science. I really believe in all this new emphasis on interdisciplinary work — that you can take ideas that have been circulating in one discipline for a long time and apply them to your own field. It may not be a new idea, but the fusion might get you something new. Bringing it from one field to another, in and of itself, can make everyone think differently about a problem and help you solve problems when we try to think about problems and why we behave the way we do or so on.
What role do you see your research playing in kind of the bigger picture? You’re not finding a cure for cancer or anything but, like with the Stephen Colbert thing or the obesity study, how does that play a role in society?
It’s funny because I think when I entered graduate school, I was motivated to do the kind of research that would have an impact on the world. Then, I fell in love with knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
And I sort of lost touch with that and thought, “Well, I’m just really interested in this idea, and I’m just going to see where it takes me.” Just pure research. But what’s interesting is that some of these pure research ideas that I’ve become interested in have become fashionable all of a sudden in the last few years. It’s sort of interesting that now I get this question because I used to be very concerned about it, and I sort of stopped caring about it. And now people are asking, “What does this mean?” Like with the obesity study — “How can we use this to fight obesity?” Or with Stephen Colbert, people were asking me, “Well, does this mean that entertainment news is taking over the real news? Is this a bad thing for society?” I don’t know. I’m not really sure what use people will make of information like this.
Do you think you’ll do any analysis on Conan O’Brien’s show or Jon Stewart?
(Laughs) No, I don’t think I have anything like that in the works, but you never know. I might just have to wait for the next time I have a sleepless night.