Theses Doctoral

Social Network Effects on Health and Emotional Wellbeing

Stanoi, Ovidia Andreea

Humans’ social relationships determine to a large degree their trajectories in life. Despite strong evidence for the impact of interpersonal relations on wellbeing, the causal links between the two are not yet fully understood. This dissertation offers a new perspective on the mechanisms through which social ties influence negative (excessive drinking) and positive (participation in recreational activities) health behaviors. In three studies employing a unique combination of social network, fMRI, and experience-sampling methods, we propose that health decisions are the result of complex computations involving prior social experiences, perceived social norms, social comparison processes, and current feelings of connections. Each chapter of this dissertation discusses one of these three studies.

Chapter 1 provides evidence that past social experiences shape valuations of new information by showing that pairs of students that drink often together tend to have more similar neural responses to novel alcohol cues in regions associated with affective self-generated thought. In addition, this Chapter suggests that researchers must consider the intricate interplay between individuals’ personal goals and their communities’ norms to understand the influence of social environments on neural representations. The degree to which students aligned their neural response patterns to alcohol with those of their peers depended on interactions between their individual motives for drinking and their group’s approval of this behavior.

Chapter 2 presents novel findings that people spontaneously represent social information from multiple networks (e.g., popularity and leadership) at a neural level in social cognition (right TPJ, dmPFC) and valuation (vmPFC) regions. Importantly, individuals who display higher neural sensitivity to status differences are also more likely to align their drinking behavior with their group norms in daily life. Together, our results provide insight into the neural mechanisms through which social comparison processes shape conformity and suggest social cognition and valuation regions as important hubs orchestrating this process.

While Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 focus on the influence of social ties on drinking, Chapter 3 discusses the protective role of close relations during difficult times. We provide evidence that close college friendships, even if afar, helped young adults cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow-up between- and within-individual analyses reveal that this buffering effect could be explained by differences in the quality of online interactions (e.g., via phone, text messaging), instances of personal disclosure, and participation in enjoyable activities.

All in all, this dissertation advances our understanding of why measures of social wellbeing are the best predictor of health trajectories in life, by highlighting the important role social ties play in shaping valuation of new information, guiding behavior to meet social goals, and protecting against stress by allowing people to engage in recreational activities.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ochsner, Kevin N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2024