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Tipping Points

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Spread of smoking behaviour in populations through multiple peer influence

(6 March 2014)

Modelling smoking in populations reveals how small changes can lead to sudden shifts in behaviour.

Researchers from the Tipping Points project have developed a new modelling approach for understanding the spread of unhealthy behaviours through multiple peer influence, such as people’s tendency to follow social norms by imitating their peers or in response to peer pressure, using smoking as a case study. Peer influence is the effect on an individual’s behaviour through people they have social contact with, such as a friend or relative. The model is based on populations in North East England and shows that competing behaviours lead to discontinuous transitions in the overall number of smokers in a population.

The study, led by Dr John Bissell, Dr Camila Caiado and Professor Brian Straughan from Tipping Points, is of relevance to health practitioner communities and policy makers because it demonstrates how small changes in a population can lead to sudden shifts in behaviour that could continue in the long-term. According to the research, multiple peer influence has the greatest impact on whether people decide to take up smoking or not. Researchers found that potential smokers who had contact with current smokers were likely to increase the population of smokers overall. The model designed by researchers also accounts for former smokers who may have a potential relapse when coming into contact with current smokers.

Key Finding:

In modelling smoking behaviour, former smokers are most affected over time by peers who quit around them, but potential smokers respond mostly to contact with current smokers, which leads them to copy their behaviour.


Compartmental modelling of social dynamics with generalised peer incidence. Math. Models Methods Appl. Sci. 24, 719 (2014). DOI: 10.1142/S0218202513500656