The importance of social influence in habit shaping

Written by Liz Withyman
December 10, 2023

People whose choices or circumstances result in a similar body size tend to cluster together.

Warning: This blog post might cause offence. It’s not meant to, of course.

It’s actually all about the importance of social influence on your journey towards a more vibrant life and how crucial it is to get support.

My purpose in passing on the following statistics is to set off a ripple of vibrant health among my audience and in turn their communities, by bringing awareness to the way that human social networks operate.

So here it is: In his research on the ‘obesity epidemic’, Nicholas Christakis studied the way humans are embedded in social networks and how our networks affect our lives.

He found that, as with behaviours like smoking, drinking, voting choices, divorce and altruism, people whose choices or circumstances result in a similar body size tend to cluster together.

The figures showed that if your friends are clinically obese, your risk of obesity is 45% higher than average.

If your friends’ friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 25% higher.

If your friends’ friends’ friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 10% higher.

Why is this the case?

His studies showed that the REASONS for this include the following:


firstly, what he calls induction, meaning: if Person 1 gains weight, this somehow causes Person 2 to gain weight;


secondly, homophily, meaning, people form a tie with each other because they share a similar body size; and

Confounding factors

thirdly, confounding factors, meaning that people share exposure to something like a health club, resulting in them both losing weight at the same time.

How does it work?

In relation to the first point, where if 1 person gains weight it CAUSES another to gain weight, the mechanism could be that Person 1 says to Person 2 something like “let’s go and have cake and wine”!

Obvious how that influence works!

Or, it might be more subtle than that..perhaps Person 1 gains weight and it changes Person 2’s idea or expectation of what body size should be at a particular stage of life.

So rather than a BEHAVIOUR spreading from person to person, it’s a NORM or idea that is spreading.

“If you’re packing on the pounds, blame your friends”!

The reason I think this could be offensive is I’ve read headlines resulting from these studies that go “If you’re packing on the pounds, blame your overweight friends”.

Or, “Are your friends gaining weight? – perhaps YOU are to blame”

Although interestingly, in European countries the headlines were more like “are your friends gaining weight? – perhaps YOU are to blame!”

NB These are not the messages I want you to take from this!

My point is that being part of a community that makes certain lifestyle choices can profoundly affect your choices, so it’s something you need to be aware of.

Forewarned is forearmed.

And also be aware that conversely, your choices affect your social network.

This could inspire you to lead by example.

What’s important about this?

The reason I’m highlighting this and that I’ve made Buddying Up one of the habits in my course 7 Habits for a Vibrant Life is that I’ve had clients who come up against resistance to the healthy new habits they want to embed, from people in their lives.

They’ve been told, “you can’t skip breakfast – it’s the most important meal of the day! You won’t be able to concentrate!”

Or “you shouldn’t starve yourself for hours or your metabolism will drop”…that kind of thing.

Not very supportive when you’re trying to do IF, and also not true!

Awareness is key

It can be discouraging when you don’t get support from people in your life, but if you’re AWARE that this might happen, you can give yourself the opportunity to RESPOND thoughtfully, rather than REACT and regret it or get blown off course.

What to do if you get discouraged

Here are some of my thoughts for reframing it if it’s challenging you….


Maybe your people just don’t UNDERSTAND why you’re doing this. They probably aren’t aware of the massive benefits of an IF lifestyle. They may need educating, although of course they may not want to be educated! Depending on your relationship with them, you could try to educate them (this can be risky, so tread carefully!).

Or you can just smile politely, stick to the program and get amazing results, which will speak for themselves.

Be compassionate

Maybe they’re INSECURE….when people don’t support you, it’s usually more about them than you.

And some people may feel threatened by you stepping out of the comfort zone you may have previously shared with them..they may be afraid of being left behind, or of feeling envious of your results, and it might make them attack your new thing.

In this case I’d say just be compassionate and make sure they know that they’re welcome to join you if they change their mind…


Maybe they’re being PROTECTIVE of you, trying to protect you from disappointment, because they’ve seen new healthy habits fail before and they don’t want it to happen again. In which case they might just need reassurance.

You can’t please everyone


For me this has been a very important principle – it’s just not possible to be surrounded by approval and positivity all the time…life’s not like that!

You might create ripples

So for me the answer is to work on myself and stay committed to my path. My advice in these scenarios is FOLLOW YOUR DREAM! You can feel down about other people’s opinions or criticisms, and give it all up so that you fit in with your crowd, or you can choose to start living a life in which you fulfil your potential.

You’re powerful.

You can make your Vibrant Vision a reality.

Believe in it.

And you might just create ripples in your circle by doing this…others might follow your example and get the benefits for themselves.

You’ll find support if you look for it

And finally, YOU’ll find support if you look for it.

One way of doing so would be to Buddy up with an Accountability Partner either online or in person.

This is such a powerful way to create momentum and maintain your new lifestyle. James clear in his book Atomic Habits has a chapter entitled, Having an Accountability Partner Can Change Everything. He puts it this way: “knowing that someone is watching can be a powerful motivator. You’re less likely to procrastinate or give up because there’s an immediate (social) cost…perhaps they’ll see you as untrustworthy or lazy. Suddenly, you’re not only failing to keep your promises to yourself, but also failing to keep your promises to someone else”.

And studies show that having an accountability partner for maintaining an exercise habit massively increases your chances of success…this is translatable to any habit.

And of course you can be cheered on within the 7 Habits for a Vibrant Life community, via the group meetings and being in touch with others who’ve done the program.

And if you need extra support, you can book some 1:1 coaching sessions with me or another coach.

Our ancestors lived in communities and their very survival depended on it. Perhaps ours does too.

Liz Withyman

Liz Withyman is an ICF-registered ACC (Associate Certified Coach) who trained with the Coaches Training Institute, the most rigorous and respected coach training in the industry.

She runs her online Coached Intermittent Fasting Program, 7 Habits for a Vibrant Life, regularly throughout the year.

1:1 coaching is available on request. 

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