"Support or competition? How online social networks increase physical activity: A randomized controlled trial." Preventive Medicine Reports, 2016.

Jingwen Zhang, Devon Brackbill, Sijia Yang, Joshua Becker, Natalie Herbert, and Damon Centola

To identify what features of online social networks can increase physical activity, we conducted a 4-arm randomized controlled trial in 2014 in Philadelphia, PA. Students (n = 790, mean age = 25.2) at an university were randomly assigned to one of four conditions composed of either supportive or competitive relationships and either with individual or team incentives for attending exercise classes. The social comparison condition placed participants into 6-person competitive networks with individual incentives. The social support condition placed participants into 6-person teams with team incentives. The combined condition with both supportive and competitive relationships placed participants into 6-person teams, where participants could compare their team's performance to 5 other teams' performances. The control condition only allowed participants to attend classes with individual incentives. Rewards were based on the total number of classes attended by an individual, or the average number of classes attended by the members of a team. The outcome was the number of classes that participants attended. Data were analyzed using multilevel models in 2014. The mean attendance numbers per week were 35.7, 38.5, 20.3, and 16.8 in the social comparison, the combined, the control, and the social support conditions. Attendance numbers were 90% higher in the social comparison and the combined conditions (mean = 1.9, SE = 0.2) in contrast to the two conditions without comparison (mean = 1.0, SE = 0.2) (p = 0.003). Social comparison was more effective for increasing physical activity than social support and its effects did not depend on individual or team incentives.

Published in Volume 4, pages 453-458