Monthly Archives: July 2007

Conserving Energy: My Friends Make Me Do It

Clive Thompson (8/15/07, Wired magazine, “Desktop Orbs Could Reform Energy Hogs“) suggests that we could effectively reduce energy consumption if our daily energy consumption was apparent to all of our friends on a site like MySpace or Facebook or sent it to our friends through an RSS feed.

Friends might compete to be more eco-friendly.

Thompson notes that such of eco-feedback mechanisms already work: hybrid-car owners try to maximize their energy efficiency through on-board real time dashboard displays showing instantanteous gas mileage.  Electricity company NStar notes that when customers have monitors that display real time energy use across their appliances, they change their behaviors and average 15-25% less energy consumption.

This suggested approach marries the use of feedback mechanisms with the power of social norms, and threatens to ostracize people who drive hummers or fail to replace their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones.

Thompson writes:  “it could spawn a cascade of conservation. It’s fun seeing your personal energy tab go down by kilowatts — but just imagine watching the world’s usage plunge by terawatts or petawatts. It would be like a global Prius, with millions worldwide tweaking the Earth for maximum mileage. Now that’s fun.”

Who’s READ Minding READ the READ Mind? (READ THIS)

A fascinating piece “Who’s Minding the Mind?” (Science Times, NYT, 7/31/07) discusses accumulating evidence of the influence of the subconscious on individuals’ actions.  Researchers think that smells, touch, sights, and other senses prime our brain to respond in a certain way, sometimes overwhelming or shifting our more normal, patterned conscious response.

There are lots of interesting experiments described (including the apochrophyal  subliminal advertising for concessions in a NJ movie theater in the late ’60s). But some of the following experiments relate most to how we treat others (trust or generosity or like/dislike):

  • Yale psychologists manipulated test subjects’ judgments of a lab assistant — a stranger to them – by whether they asked them on the way to “an experiment” to hold a warm cup of coffee or iced coffee.  The iced coffee created, as you might suspect, icier views of the lab assistant. (The lab assistant according to these subjects was colder, less social and more selfish” than the one that gave other random students a hot cup of coffee to hold.)   [I'm sure there is a dating/mating how-to book to be written from these and other such studies -- i.e., no iced lattes on a first date!] “The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup….That was all it took:”

  • A 2004 experiment (at Stanford University, under Aaron Kay, psychologist) found that students could be subconsciously conditioned to respond in a more competitive or cooperative manner depending on whether there was a briefcase or a backpack on the other end of a table. The students played a 1-on-1 investment game with an unseen opponent.  “Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead. The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.”
  • “Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has done research showing that when self-protective instincts are primed — simply by turning down the lights in a room, for instance — white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral expressions.”
  • Northwestern University undergraduates in a 2006 experiment were asked to remember something unethical or virtuous they had done, “like betraying a friend…[or] returning lost property. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, an antiseptic wipe or a pencil; and those who had recalled bad behavior were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe. They had been primed to psychologically ‘cleanse’ their consciences…..Once their hands were wiped, the students became less likely to agree to volunteer their time to help with a graduate school project. Their hands were clean: the unconscious goal had been satisfied and now was being suppressed, the findings suggest.”

And brain imaging suggets that the brain uses the same neural circuits for subconscious as conscious processing.  The subconscious responses originate in the more reptilian part of the brain but then rise and compete against more conscious responses.  And the subconscious impact can be greater since we can’t easily moderate it, since we’re unaware of it being employed.

The article notes: “In several studies, researchers have also shown that, once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits. Study participants primed to be cooperative are assiduous in their teamwork, for instance, helping others and sharing resources in games that last 20 minutes or longer. Ditto for those set up to be aggressive.”

The article doesn’t mention it, but the findings are consistent with findings of Mahzarian Banaji with her Implicit Association Test where they find lots of implicit/subconscious discrimination against lots of groups (people of color, elderly, etc.).  One of the rare ways to improve people’s scores on the IAT is to have people spend some time prior to the test looking at pictures of inspirational figures from the discriminated against group; for example, if the test was to test implicit bias against blacks, subjects could lessen their implicit bias by looking at pictures of Jackie Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, etc.

The article relates to issues like social trust or social capital because it suggests potentially that one of the reasons why we are less generous or trusting to others might be that we receive more subliminal and subconscious signals (through others’ behavior or news broadcasts or advertisements) that leave us subconciously a lot less likely to be generous or trust than what our conscious might decide is our “approach.”  And in an environment like today when we are relatively more socially isolated, one can easily imagine that the relative weight of these subconscious influences is greater than when our conscious might be able to have stronger intuitions based on all our socializing, but I’m speculating on the latter.  Moreover, if our subsconscious does pick up on a lot of these signals, it certainly helps explain another reason why social capital tends to move in virtuous circles or viscious spirals because the actions (positive or negative) by others may be subconsciously spreading these to others who then in turn influence others subconsciously.

And on a lighter note, with so many women complaining that men don’t do their share of housecleaning, another experiment mentioned in this article suggested that people clean more (picking up loose crumbs in the experiment) when they smell citrus-scented cleaning fluid even though they aren’t aware that they are doing this.  So how about a product idea — boxer shorts (smelling of citrus-scented cleaning fluid) as a Christmas gift of women to their loved ones.

The full article, Who’s Minding the Mind? is available here 

Community mapping

An interesting NYT story (“With Simple New Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking“, NYT, 7/27/07) describes how individuals are collectively using available mapping software to help create community maps. 

 The article describes how a Federal Way, WA resident created an online map that individuals could contribute to to chart the growth of graffiti in his town. 

But such approaches have been used in many other instances not described in the NYT story.

 For example, this community mapping is being used to track the extent of flooding in British areas

A UK site has a map where people can map potholes that they find so that the localities can fix them or see a map of the hazards here.  [A related UK website lets individuals report downed trees, etc. that block trails and see the map of hazards here.]  Or this site in Bakerfield, CA shows the location of citizen-reported potholes with notes when they are fixed [note: Rochester, MN or Sioux City or Houston have somewhat similar sites].  Bakefield users can add photos of the potholes to the map locations, but only a few do.

This site (by a Dartmouth student) shows the extent of recovery in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans for Katrina victims; one can zoom in to see a block or the condition of specific houses.

These mash-ups (as some call these mixtures of maps and reporting) can be used by citizens to describe areas where properties sell for less than the government thinks they are worth or pintpoint the location of bombings in Iraq (as described in this presentation by Dan Gilmour.)

One could imagine the same mapping software being used by community residents to report where they spotted prostitutes or drug dealers (to help law enforcement authorities), etc.

 Wikimapia offers software that lets residents describe places in their community, but so far those efforts have been far more granular and less dense in contributions at the level of a block or community.  This site describes 8 other interesting community mapping programs, including Platial.  Another effort, Urban Tapestries, is something of a cross between GIS systems, knowledge mapping and sharing.

 This blog site (Google Maps Mania) describes many other such efforts, like efforts to map crime statistics in cities, free summer meals for school-age children in NYC, etc.

This software offers the potential to create useful tools to spur local participation in caring for their neighborhood, and in creating tools that foster citizens or government being able to respond more effectively.

For more on this phenomenon, read  Advocacy mashups harness power of mapping: Google Earth Outreach is a new service aimed at non-profits and activists.

It’s not clear that the software will lead to greater social capital, but it might lead to increased civic engagement and a stronger sense of shared collective norms.

 The challenge with many such community mapping approaches, as Dan Gilmour notes, is ensuring that they are accurate and can be trusted.

See also this follow-up post on a related topic on gauging trustworthiness of such community information.

Let us know through comments about other interesting examples of community mapping on the web or your thoughts on the social promise of this technology.

Overweight friends as social contagion (II)

Yesterday, we reported about Christakis’ and Fowler’s top-rate study of how obesity spreads in social networks.

In today’s NYT, Gail Collins has a humorous Op-Ed (“Fat comes in on little cat feet“) about the ramifications of such a study.  Included are the following:

“8 p.m. — ‘Friends.’ In a much-anticipated reunion special, the gang has all bought condos in the same strangely affordable Manhattan apartment building. Tension mounts as Phoebe and Rachel notice that Monica is putting on weight. Well aware of the new study showing that obesity travels through friendship networks, they evict her. ‘The body mass of the many is more important than the survival of the one,’ says a saddened Ross. ‘Even if she is my sister.’ Later, the rest of the group reminisces about good times past with their now-shunned buddy. Nicole Richie guest stars as Chandler’s new love interest.”

Collins notes that the study found that obesity spreads through social networks and Christakis and Fowler “believe this is true even if said friend lives in Bangkok. The far-away friend has far more influence on your weight than relatives in the same house. And your neighbors can gain or lose the equivalent of several persons without it having any impact whatsoever.”

Collins doesn’t blame the researchers for their findings but notes that this is unlikely to be the “kind of information that’s going to brighten up anybody’s day. I’ve been overweight my entire life, and although I’ve had a lot of friends, I can’t think of one who got fat while hanging around with me. But if there’s anybody out there, I really do apologize. I’d have dropped you ages ago if only I’d known.”

Given the social contagion finding, Collins speculates:” Can you imagine how mean the high school mean girls are going to get if they think they have scientific evidence that ostracizing the chubby kids is a blow for physical fitness?….And now that his theory about leprosy-bearing Mexicans sneaking across the border has been completely debunked, Lou Dobbs will be hyperventilating about obese illegal immigrants ingratiating themselves and their fat into American communities.”

Christakis and Fowler are clear to indicate that they do not recommend dropping fat friends from one’s social network since friendship has many other health benefits.  A Slate magazine article (“Maybe fat people should be stigmatized“) thinks that they authors are being too PC and avoiding people taking responsibility for their decisions.    And Christakis and Fowler compare having an overweight friend to having no friend and conclude that the former confers more health benefits (even with the accompanying increased risk of obesity);  if their choice set was a fat friend or a thin friend, they would have gotten a different result since the thin friend would still confer the health benefits of friends without the obesity risk.  To this, Christakis said in a phone interview with Collins that “The network of fat-influencing relationships are so dense that in the end ‘your weight status might depend on the weight difference of your sister’s brother’s friend.’ ”   Sounds like a bit of a cop-out.  Like arguing that someone shouldn’t avoid risk factors because there are so many other risks out there.

But maybe in our days of increased social isolation, people should hang on the friends they have since so many Americans are losing their close friends.

David Lazer has an interesting post about how Christakis et al. deftly handle the issue of causality in their paper using longitudinal data.

And Ellen Goodman had an interesting post on this called Obesity Contagion (Boston Globe, 8/3/07)

The NEJM article by Christakis et al. on the spread of obesity through networks is available here.

Can your friends affect your weight?

Nicholas Christakis (at the Harvard School of Public Health) (together with James Fowler at U. Cal. San Diego) has done very interesting research with the landmark Framingham Heart Study looking at the likelihood of obesity. They find, after tracking some 12,000 individuals through the 32-year long study (1971-2003), that even controlling for all the genetic markers for obesity (like parents’ obesity) and weight at the study’s baseline, having fat friends increases the chance that you will be fat.  [The Framingham study participants could list only up to 3 friends, so the friends being discussed here are closer, stronger friends, rather than weaker ties.]

Having an obese friend increased one’s likelihood of obesity by 57%, with a smaller effect for siblings and spouses. This risk of developing obesity rose to 171% for the closest mutual friendships. Having very large neighbors had no effect on obesity if those neighbors weren’t friends of the individual in question.

The study found that the network impact of friends on obesity could be seen in as small as 2-4 year increments.

Christakis discounted other likely factors such as environmental (since it didn’t matter how close geographically ones’ friends were, making it less likely that they are both responding to something in the neighborhood, for example).  They did code the data for density of fast food restaurants and it did not make this effect go away.  [The fact that long-distance close friends influence obesity as much as nearby close friends is very surprising;  for sure, if respondents are still listing this long-distance friend as one of their three closest friends, they must have stayed in regular contact, but I would have thought that obese friends made respondents feel more comforable being obese partly by physically seeing an obese friend, and this is presumably less common with geographically distant friends.

And Christakis thinks the mechanism is “induction”; having an overweight person list YOU as their friend doesn’t increase your likelihood of being obese, but your listing an overweight person as YOUR friend does.  The impact of these friendships decreases with social distance (in other words, your friends affect your weight more than your friends’ friends, which is more consequential than the weight of your friends’ friends’ friends, etc.) but they still have an impact out to three degrees of separation.  And same sex friends influence your weight gain more than opposite sex friends.

Christakis thinks that people with heavier friends either come to think of themselves as less fat or else it validates their obesity in a way that wouldn’t be the case if their friends were thinner.  (But the study showed that it wasn’t the simple story of a change in physical exercise or eating habits from these friends.)  And there is homophily in obesity — in other words, fat people are more likely to choose overweight friends and thin people are more likely to pick thin friends.  And if overweight people have thin friends or vice-versa, these relationships tend to be less stable over time (the thin people are more likely to drop their overweight friends or become more obese).

The New York Times notes that: “Science has shown that individuals have genetically determined ranges of weights, spanning perhaps 30 or so pounds for each person. But that leaves a large role for the environment in determining whether a person’s weight is near the top of his or her range or near the bottom. As people have gotten fatter, it appears that many are edging toward the top of their ranges. The question has been why. ” (“Find Yourself Packing It On? Blame Friends, NYT, 7/26/07).  The study suggests that social contagion of obesity through networks may be the explanation.

Christakis thinks that the role of social networks may be one of the explanations for the increasing obesity in America (along with other factors like exercise, change in eating habits like supersizing of food and more fast food and soft drinks, etc.).  The social networks may have changed norms and made weight gains more acceptable, even outside of any change in behavior.    Moreover Christakis thinks that we might be able to use the structure of social networks to fight obesity, by for example fighting obesity in groups rather than with individuals.  If there can be a social contagion of obesity, how might we start a social contagion of weighing less?  Co-author James Fowler noted that having a friend that was able to lower his or her weight down made it easier for one to lose weight; that’s why weight loss programs often function using groups, to reinforce the attempted change in behavior. But this question of spurring a social contagion for good is exactly the kind of question that Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point considers.

Christakis and colleagues have also found similar network properties in this study to the spread of smoking, but the cessation of smoking was not a factor in individuals gaining weight or not.

Finally Christakis thinks that we may undervalue health interventions since we look only at the impact of the intervention on one individual rather than examining the multipliers on this investment through his/her social network.

The authors note that there are many social and health benefits of  friendship so their study is not a reason not to develop friends with anyone.

Follow-up posts on this study available here, and here.

The Christakis et al article is published today in the New England Journal of Medicine and a summary of some of the findings is available in this Harvard Gazette story.

There’s a neat visual representation of the obesity spreading through the social networks over time in this video.

See also, Clive Thompson, “Is Happiness Catching?” (NYT Sunday Magazine, 9/13/09)

Getting the boomers to volunteer

I’ve written about this topic elsewhere

Getting them to volunteer will not be easy, but if one could get them to volunteer, it would be of immense importance given the size of the Boomer population.  An increase in Boomer volunteering could dramatically expand the ranks of volunteers, dramatically increase the health and happiness of Boomers.

VolunterMatch reports on recent survey data indicating that Boomers (even among non-volunteers) may be interested in volunteering.  The devil may well be in the details, because unless the survey was very thorough in trying to get the opinions of less civic minded Boomers, the people who are easiest to get on the phone are also probably most civicly minded and therefore most likely to volunteer.

Moreover, the definition of *non-volunteers* is a little suspect.  They seem to define non-volunteers as those who didn’t volunteer in the last year.  When data gathered by the Corporation for National Service seems to show that 33% of all volunteers don’t volunteer in consecutive years.  If Boomers are typical, then many of these *non-volunteer* Boomers may be Boomers who are volunteers but simply didn’t volunteer in the past year.

The question that was asked by Peter Hart and Associated in their phone interview of 300 adults (ages 55 and older) was “how interested are you in volunteering, either now or at some point in the future? Among older adults 55+ years of age who have not volunteered in the past year, 14% are very interested, 20% fairly interested, and 29% somewhat interested.   And of the 34% who say they are “very” or “fairly” interested in volunteering:
• 45% are college graduates
• 42% are professionals/managers
• 41% are women age 55-64
• 39% are churchgoers

As of yet, I have not been able to get an answer to what % of Boomers who haven’t been volunteers in the last 10-15 years really are interested in volunteering, as opposed to the inflated number that VolunterMatch used that presumably includes a lot of semi-regular Boomer volunteers that might volunteer one year but not the next.

The social formings of individuals’ psyches

There was an interesting column by David Brooks on Friday (NYT, 7/20/07).  Brooks, based on Douglas Hofstadter’s “I Am A Strange Loop“, discusses the idea of the relational self. Namely, that  Hofstadter’s work emphasizes “how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others, but it’s not one of the those stiffling collectivist theories that puts the community above the individual.”  Brooks notes that this line of research invaldiates the Ayn Rand claim that success is merely a function of genius and willpower since there “is no self that exists before society.”

In a statement sure to vex fellow conservatives, Brooks notes that Hofstadter’s work “explains why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty.  Human beings are permeable.  The habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and social trust.”    It explains how the same individual could be a flaming liberal or flaming conservative depending on where they grow up.

We’ve been interested in related questions of social identity (how people come to define themselves, what groups they see themselves as part of, etc.) and although the field of social identity is just starting to become a bit more hard-nosed, it has appeared clear to us that people’s sense of identity is partly informed by their social capital (who they hang around with and befriend, their relationships) and their social identity in turn also influences their social capital.  More work will need to be done to sort out how strong these arrrows are in both directions.  Are you more of a radical feminist or a Dittohead because of the friends you hang out with or does your identity as a radical feminist or Dittohead more influence who you relate to?

Brooks notes that in the information age we know that we’re connected to others by communication and “no man is an island” but yet the ways in which those webs of relationships and interconnections influence us is still somewhat of a mystery that Hofstadter is helping to solve.

[The Brooks article called "A Partnership of Minds" is available here.]

Volunteer and live to 100? Why Good Things Happen to Good People

Stephen Post and Jill Neimark have written a popular book on the health benefits of volunteering and doing good to others called Why Good Things Happen to Good People (2007) . More information available from their web site.

The book is written in a quite accessible way and captures many of the underlying research that talks about the health benefits of social connectedness, although they also have a special focus on how giving provides pleasure, happiness, and boosts immunological protection.

Among the studies they cite:

  • High School giving predicted positive physical and mental health some 50 years later (Psychologist Paul Wink, Wellesley College studying some 200 individuals from 1920-1970)
  • Giving significantly reduces mortality in sernior years. (Doug Oman, Univ. of California at Berkeley) Among individuals 55+ years of age, those who volunteered for two+ organizations reduced their chance of dying in the next 5 years 44% over those who didn’t. Only the cessation of smoking had a slightly higher health impact.
  • Giving eases economic anxiety. (Neal Krause, Univ. of Michigan) Among a population of 1000 churchgoing adults, those who had offered social support to others experienced reduced anxiety if they later came under economic stress.
  • Helping others increases your longevity, but receiving the same  help does not. (Psychologist Stephanie Brown, Univ. of Michigan).  Brown studied 400 older couples. Even adjusting for age, gender, physical and emotional health, personality, and marital status, Brown found that the givers were twice as likely to remain alive in the 5 years studied.
  • Sometimes just ‘thinking’ charitable thoughts is healthy. For example, a new NIH study found that just deciding to donate to a charity helps release the feel-good chemicals, dopamine and serotonin in the brain. And a Harvard University study (by David McClellan) showed that merely watching a movie of Mother Theresa boosted the immune system and that this could be sustained after the watching by thinking about this giving that had been observed.
  • Coveting thy neighbor’s investment decisions

    There’s a new, interesting paper that describes how we’re influenced by our social connections in how we invest.  The paper, called Information Diffusion Effects In Individual Investors’ Common Stock Purchases: Covet Thy Neighbors’ Investment Choices,” by Asst. Profs. Zoran Ivkovich and Scott Weisbenner at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. [Previous working paper available here.]

    The findings are summarized in Mark Hulbert’s Neighborly Advice, for Good or Ill (NYT, Business Section, 7/15/07).

    Hulbert writes: “The impulse to keep up with Joneses plays an enormous role in the behavior of consumers, whether they’re shopping for clothing or toothpaste, buying a home or deciding which school ought to be entrusted with their children…..It turns out that the investing arena is no different. When making changes in their portfolios, people pay a great deal of attention to what their neighbors are doing.”

    The study analyzed 35,000 households’ stock portfolios (that had accounts with a large discount brokerage firm from 1991-1996).

    Households from the same zip code were likely to herd in their investment behaviors (with the strongest herding for households more geographically proximate) and this herding was strongest in states that had the strongest social networks (using Robert Putnam‘s state-level data of social capital).   THe authors presume that in places with stronger social connections, individuals are more likely to learn what their friends and neighbors are doing, beit at the bowling alley, the PTA meeting, kids’ soccer, after church or at Rotary.

    Hulbert notes, “Because the time period the professors analyzed ended in 1996, it is unclear what impact, if any, the explosive growth in investment chat rooms, and of the Internet generally, might have on the word-of-mouth effect. But in his book “Bowling Alone,” Professor Putnam argues that more traditional modes of social interaction are in many ways far more powerful than those conducted over the Internet. This suggests that the word-of-mouth effect is likely to still be playing a powerful role, Professor Weisbenner indicated in an e-mail message.”

    Supremes: Who’s Your Daddy?

     Recent rulings by the Supreme court limiting the rights of free speech in schools, campaign finance reform, the right of Lilly Ledbetter and other workers to sue for pay discrimination, and the ability to use race to achieve equity in schools, enabling companies to set minimum prices, among other rulings, show how much the Supreme Court has tipped to the right with the appointment of Justices Alito and Roberts.  [Slate’s Emily Bazelon has a piece showing just how wrong some liberals who knew Roberts were in guessing that he’d be a moderate, reasonable, and wary of overturning precedent.]
    But the rulings, seemed the death knell for natural law, and a validation of The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model Revisited by Jeffrey Allan Segal/Harold J. Spaeth (2002) that showed that at least for the Supreme Court the law and precedent does not restrain personal preference. [Of course, perhaps we didn’t to know this after seeing the Supreme Court’s nadir in decision-making, putting an end to the recounting of Florida ballots in the 2000 election rather than enabling America to learn which presidential candidate, Bush or Gore, Floridians had actually elected.]