Monthly Archives: August 2007

Two recent summaries of Putnam diversity research; Putnam article available free until year end

So diverse, yet adverse to reaching out (Houston Chronicle, Lisa Gray, 8/30/07)

More Bowling Alone in America (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Richard Handler, 8/22/07) and follow-up article here.

And, good news, Blackwell Synergy Publishing has agreed to make Robert Putnam’s E Pluribus Unum article (from the June 2007 Scandinavian Political Studies Journal) available for free download through December 31, 2007 to enable more people to read the original article about the connection between diversity and community cohesion.

Other posts on this topic here.

Money can’t buy you love, but can it buy you happiness?

The common wisdom is that being wealthier as a country (beyond some minimal threshold) doesn’t make its residents happier.  [It's a seeming paradox epnonymously named after Richard Easterlin.]

Angus Deaton’s recent study (“Income, Aging, Health and Wellbeing Around the World”, 2007) claims that this is incorrect; he finds that national level income does make you happier.  (Deaton thinks that the Easterlin paradox resulted from an overly high influence of former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries analyzed in a World Values Survey that have, post Communism, much lower life satisfaction than would be expected at their levels of income, but are less typical of the overall pattern.)

There is still some disagreement about how much this overturns the Easterlin paradox.  Deaton, and the Gallup World survey use a “ladder” question to evaluate life-satisfaction.  The question is of the form: ‘Imagine an eleven-rung ladder where the bottom (0) represents “the worst possible life for you” and the top (10) represents “the best possible life for you. On which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?”   Such ladder questions have tended to be more related to national income levels than the standard ‘subjective wellbeing question’ of the form:  “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays? Please answer using a scale where 1 means extremely dissatisfied and 10 means extremely satisfied.” (This type of question can be asked with different number of points on the scale or labels for the points)

Moreover, Deaton does find that while ‘ladder-type’ wellbeing rises with national income, there is a negative relationship between economic growth and such wellbeing.  It is possible that the process of economic growth is de-stabilizing, anxiety-ridden and enervating, in a way that saps wellbeing in the short-term.

In any event, it should be noted, that at the individual-level it is RELATIVE income (being wealthier than one’s neighbors) that makes you happier, not absolute income.  So if you had the choice of living in a poorer neighborhood where you were wealthier than your neighbors, or living in a wealthy neighborhood where you were poorer than your neighbors, the former is the better strategy for being happy. (See Luttmer, Erzo. F. P. (2005). Neighbors As Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being.)

To read the Deaton paper, see: “Income, Aging, Health and Wellbeing Around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll” (NBER paper, Aug. 2007 by Angus Deaton)
Summary: During 2006, the Gallup Organization conducted a World Poll that used an identical questionnaire for national samples of adults from 132 countries.  I analyze the data on life satisfaction (happiness) and on health satisfaction and look at their relationships with national income, age, and life-expectancy.  Average happiness is strongly related to per capita national income; each doubling of income is associated with a near one point increase in life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10.  Unlike most previous findings, the effect holds across the range of international incomes; if anything, it is slightly stronger among rich countries.  Conditional on national income, recent economic growth makes people unhappier, improvements in life-expectancy make them happier, but life-expectancy itself has little effect. Age has an internationally inconsistent relationship with happiness.  National income moderates the effects of aging on self-reported health, and the decline in health satisfaction and rise in disability with age are much stronger in poor countries than in rich countries.  In line with earlier findings, people in much of Eastern Europe and in the countries of the former Soviet Union are particularly unhappy and particularly dissatisfied with their health, and older people in those countries are much less satisfied with their lives and with their health than are younger people.  HIV prevalence in Africa has little effect on Africans’ life or health satisfaction; the fraction of Kenyans who are satisfied with their personal health is the same as the fraction of Britons and higher than the fraction of Americans.  The US ranks 81st out of 115 countries in the fraction of people who have confidence in their healthcare system, and has a lower score than countries such as India, Iran, Malawi, or Sierra Leone.  While the strong relationship between life-satisfaction and income gives some credence to the measures, as do the low levels of life and health satisfaction in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, the lack of correlations between life and health satisfaction and health measures shows that happiness (or self-reported health) measures cannot be regarded as useful summary indicators of human welfare in international comparisons.

The amazing sacrifice and solidarity of WWII Americans

I attach this PDF chart, thanks to Todd Washburn at Harvard, from Hadley Cantril, The Human Dimension: Experiences in Policy Research (1967, p. 48). It is based on Cantril’s polling for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during WWII. (Apologies that PDF runs vertical rather than horizontal)  Note: The methodology may not quite be up to 21st century standards, but results are amazing and powerful nonetheless.

My colleague, Robert Putnam, has noted that as late as 1945 (after years of the draft; gas rubber, and food rationing; Victory gardens; Bond drives; Civilian Defense Corps; battle casualties; wage and price controls; etc.) that all required untold sacrifice on the part of the Americans, 40% still thought “the Government hasn’t asked people to make enough sacrifices,” down from 65% of Americans in late 1942.

It shows an incredible ability of Americans to rally behind calls to sacrifice for the good of the country and the world. And it makes one long for American leadership that effectively could have called for such sacrifice immediately in the wake of 9-11 or now in asking for energy consumption to forestall the inevitable global warming if we don’t take concerted action.
1942.

[If you want to learn more about the sacrifice of Americans during WWII, read Bowling Alone (By Robert D. Putnam), pp. 268-272.]

Virtual simulations of social dynamics

Various pieces raise the question of simulating social dynamics online. Researchers already had agent-based modeling, but the problem with agent-based modeling is that the models are only as good as the assumptions. Why not better to take a site that has humans interacting and let THAT be the laboratory?

Recently, an accidental and virtual spread of “corrupted blood” disease through the World of Warcraft MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) has intrigued researchers. Tufts University School of Medicine are studying the spread of that ‘plague’ to better understand the spread of pathogens among humans. Obviously, this will be useful only to the extent that the interaction of players on WoW mimics the interaction of humans in real life, and to the extent that the way that the disease spreads on WoW mimics the way it is caught in the real world. But researcher Professor Nina Fefferman, from Tufts University School of Medicine, noted: “Human behaviour has a big impact on disease spread. And virtual worlds offer an excellent platform for studying human behaviour…..The players seemed to really feel they were at risk and took the threat of infection seriously, even though it was only a game…” The virtual setting helps epidemiologists who normally have to rely only on observational and retrospective studies; in virtual worlds they can watch a virus spread in real time without anyone being hurt. And in principle, with the permission of software developers, or potentially on an open source type platform like Second Life, researchers could actually unleash a virus and watch it spread, although they would have to ensure that the software permitted others to ‘catch’ this virus.

Second Life may not be good at some simulations like infections because it may tell you who converses with whom but can’t actually show the transmission of illnesses since it is only a virtual encounter.

Already a Second Life site is being used as a lab to help people gain empathy about schizophrenia. [See also an Educause Connect blog post about the potential of SL for empathy.]

One wonders whether ‘bots operating in Second Life could also be used to track the social effects of things like prejudice for example, or friendship formation. Bots could be programmed to respond in different ways to different people and monitor the effect, or respond in the same way with others but be ‘housed’ in different avatars (white, black, Asian or Hispanic) and gauge the impact on friendship networks or prejudice. In universities, one normally has to get human subject review for any experiments that could effect people. Would the same apply to randomized studies of social interactions on SL or another MMOG site? And one might be able to randomize who one interacts with (at least from people in an MMOG) that wouldn’t be as easy in real life.

As always the concern would be whether people behave the same in Second Life as F2F (face-to-face), but it may be a more realistic venue than agent-based modeling.

BBC news story or Lancet Infectious Diseases story on the spread of the ‘corrupted blood’ on WoW and how it interested researchers.

[thanks to David Pescowitz at Boing Boing for the heads up about this WoW story]

Related: NY Time’s Tierney’s labs also had a post on simulating universe on computers. How powerful would the computer have to be? How accurate would the simulation be?]

(See also later related Social Capital Blog story about “Hive Intelligence“)

Is a Katrina bright-spot, nieghborhood solidarity?

There is an interesting op-ed today in the CS Monitor called “One small bright spot in Katrina’s aftermath: neighborhood loyalty”(8/30/07).  It’s not a very data-filled argument, but Danny Heitman argues that despite the mobility in America, Louisiana residents show a greater in-bred permanence and commitment to neighborhoods.

Heitman writes: “[I]n the New Orleans neighborhood of Lakeview, directly in the path of flood waters when the Crescent City’s levees failed after Katrina, signs of renewal have emerged, often driven by longtime residents who cannot think of living anywhere else.

“This past spring’s survey of the neighborhood by local civic groups concluded that some 40 percent of Lakeview’s 7,000-plus homes are either occupied or under repair, a boost of 15 percent from last autumn’s numbers.”

Heitman thinks that part is homeowners staying because they expect properties to appreciate more and older neighborhoods may attract dollars for historical rebuilding.

“The homebody culture of Louisiana is another factor in the diehard nature of the recovery. As William Frey of the Brookings Institution noted after Katrina, 77 percent of New Orleans area residents are Louisiana natives, a native-born rate that far surpasses other Southern cities.”

Here is full article: One small bright spot in Katrina’s aftermath: neighborhood loyalty: The commitment of residents to rebuilding has extended not just to a given city or region, but more narrowly to a neighborhood block. (Christian Science Monitor, Danny Heitman, 8/30/07)

Advertisers to mine Facebook personal info

I wrote earlier about advertisers mining the personal information users store on social networking sites here

Latest report in WSJ Facebook Gets Personal With Ad Targeting Plan (Vauhinin Vara, 8/23/07, p. B1) highlights Facebook’s latest plans to enable advertisers to capitalize on Facebook user’s personal information.  Plans are to launch this in Fall 2007 and rumors are that it will be akin to Google’s AdWords that lets companies buy keywords for searches and then place their advertisements when those words are searched.

How our conscious can hide the truth from us

A number of recent articles, videos, etc. focus on how concentrating on one thing or having a specific worldview keeps us from seeing what is really going on.

The New York Times “Sleights of Mind” had an interesting piece about this in yesterday’s Science Times, 8/21/07) which discusses the science and categorization of cases when much of the information that the subconscious takes in never gets revealed to the conscious, because the conscious filters out that information as irrelevant.

One category, how focusing on one thing can obscure attention to other matters, is called ‘inattention blindness.’  Examples of this can be found in The amazing Card Color Change Video and on this site where focusing on certain tasks like counting the number of passes of basketballs from one player to another can cause you to miss things going on in the video; here is a different video example of the same thing.  And a description of this inattention blindness phenomenon is here

Other categories of these ‘sleights of mind’ are: ‘disgusing one action as another. implying data that isn’t there, [and] taking advantage of how the brain fills in gaps.’

The article described one effort where the brain mistakenly sees a pattern where it isn’t there.  “Pulling one coin after another from the air, he dropped them, thunk, thunk, thunk, into the bucket. Just as the audience was beginning to catch on — somehow he was concealing the coins between his fingers — he flashed his empty palm and, thunk, dropped another coin, and then grabbed another from a gentlemen’s white hair. For the climax of the act, Teller deftly removed a spectator’s glasses, tipped them over the bucket and, thunk, thunk, two more coins fell.

“As he ran through the trick a second time, annotating each step, we saw how we had been led to mismatch cause and effect, to form one false hypothesis after another. Sometimes the coins were coming from his right hand, and sometimes from his left, hidden beneath the fingers holding the bucket.

“He left us with his definition of magic: ‘The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.’ “

Full “Sleights of Mind” article available here and is worth reading.

Rewarding utilities for saving electricity

Thomas Friedman has an interesting column in the Times called “Go Green And Save Money” (8/22/07).

Reminiscent of the upside-down thinking of perspicacious Charles Handy in the Age of Unreason [1989] (where for example, he proposed paying doctors an annual fixed amount per patient of theirs so they had an incentive to keep them well since it necessitated fewer office visits and less investment on their part, thus making them more money. By aligning the doctors’ interests and the patients, one could better encourage wellness.).  Description of such thinking here.

Friedman discusses a proposal by Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy (in Charlotte, NC) called ”save-a-watt.”

The program is based on the fact that saving energy (conservation) is a cheaper and greener way of increasing energy capacity than building more power plants. 

Thus Save-A-Watt would get Duke Power to invest heavily in ways to save energy consumption among customers; their efforts would be evaluated by an independent commission, and rates would increase by their savings.  Although rates per kilowatt would increase, they would increase more slowly than if new power plants were built, and given that most customers would be using less energy through Duke Power’s efforts, their actual utility bills should decrease.

Rogers says ‘”we need to make energy efficiency something that is as ‘back of mind’ as energy usage. If energy efficiency depends on people remembering to do 20 things on a checklist, it’s not going to happen at scale.”

Friedman writes:

“[T]he only institutions that have the infrastructure, capital and customer base to empower lots of people to become energy efficient are the utilities, so they are the ones who need to be incentivized to make big investments in efficiency that can be accessed by every customer.”  But the utilites will only invest in this efficiency if they are financially rewarded for it.

“”The way it would work is that the utility would spend the money and take the risk to make its customers as energy efficient as possible,’ he explained. That would include installing devices in your home that would allow the utility to adjust your air-conditioners or refrigerators at peak usage times. It would include plans to incentivize contractors to build more efficient homes with more efficient boilers, heaters, appliances and insulation. It could even include partnering with a factory to buy the most energy-efficient equipment or with a family to winterize their house.

“‘Energy efficiency is the ‘fifth fuel’ — after coal, gas, renewables and nuclear,’ said Mr. Rogers. ”Today, it is the lowest-cost alternative and is emissions-free. It should be our first choice in meeting our growing demand for electricity, as well as in solving the climate challenge.”  Since creating more capacity through conservation in essence is a new energy resource, Rogers advocates treating it like a production cost of energy (in the same way as building new power plants).

“‘Once such a system is in place’, Mr. Rogers added, ‘our engineers would wake up every day thinking about how to squeeze more productivity gains out of new technology for energy efficiency — rather than just how to build a bigger transmission or distribution network to meet the growing demands of customers.’ (Why don’t we think about incentivizing U.S. automakers the same way — give them tax rebates for save-a-miles?)”

Full article available here.

Does Facebook help enhance your friendships?

Three researchers at Michigan State University (Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfield, Cliff Lampe) have published The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.

The study purports to find that (at least on MSU campus), more Facebook use is associated with higher levels of social capital, but especially useful for maintaing social ties to high school friends and to building bridging social capital. I’m less persuaded by these latter two findings. For “maintained social capital” all the reports of “maintaining social ties” that they use are self-reports and more hypothetical and less behavioral. So the study asks whether you would have a person you could stay with from high school rather than how many times in the last year (if ever) you did so. I think the measures encourage inflated perceptions of whether e-connections are valuable, without any tethering to real world behavior to test whether these inflated perceptions are valid. I’ve written earlier on how Facebook can cheapen the currency of “friendship” and simply calling someone a friend doesn’t necessarily afford the same benefits as comes with friends made off-line.

“Bridging” social capital in the study really just means an imagined connection with the MSU community and the ability to make new friends. I would find the results more powerful if the questions referred to actual friendship networks with people who were different than the respondent (with regard to race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) or questions on trust of different ethnic groups as we’ve done in our 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Even in our surveying where we ask people how many close personal friends they have who are African American, Asian, Hispanic, etc. we find that people enlarge their circle of “close” friends to find bridging relationships. So we know already that there is response desirability (people want to be able to report bridging relationships) and this tendency is fueled by loosely worded questions. I’m confident that people using the Internet think it increases their social bridges (the folk wisdom that “the Internet brings us all together”), so it requires more tightly worded questions to sort out fizzle from fact.

One of the more interesting findings from the paper was their finding, contrary to some of the “rich get richer” Meetup analysis I have done about what type of users benefit from participating in Meetup, was that the “poor get richer” through Facebook. [They use the terms slightly differently than I did; I was referring to people who were richer in "social capital" (already more socially connected) benefitting more than the people who were less connected. By the "poor get richer", they mean that those with lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, may show the biggest gains by using Facebook more.] Nevertheless, the finding is still interesting.

Conclusion: it’s more serious research than I’ve seen on Facebook, but still leaves me hungering for better measures that are more behavioral and less ethereal.

Postscript: There is an interesting, more rigorous study of Facebook by Nicholas Christakis and Jason Kauffman at Harvard, but the results for now are largely limited to verifying homophily (the fact that “birds of a feather flock together”) on Facebook.

Couch surfing: Mi casa es su casa

The Boston Globe in “Take The Couch” (8/22/07) highlights an organization CouchSurfing.com  that we listed on the Saguaro Seminar website many months back on our social capital in organizations page.

The site offers a way for people (mainly in their 20s) to share their ‘couches’ with others who are traveling and find couches to crash on across the world when they are traveling.  The site’s creators believe it is more about making human connections than about saving a hotel night’s rate; other sites like hospitalityclub.org aim more for the latter.

The story reports that “tracks the number of registered users and how many cities are represented, but it also follows the connections and friendships that have been forged. According to its website, nearly 240,000 friendships have been created so far among more than 285,000 registered users.”

And having listed one’s couch, one is not required to actually make it available to anyone requesting; one has alternate options like meeting the traveler for a cup of coffee (assuming the traveler finds alternate accommodation).

The Globe also reports that “has grown into a global nonprofit organization with hundreds of volunteers. Experienced CouchSurfers can become ‘ambassadors’ for the website, organizing events for local CouchSurfers to get together.”

And the site takes efforts to try to build up trust between the couch-provider and couch-taker.  “It provides safeguards for hosts and surfers. For a $25 fee, the website’s administrators verify bank accounts and mailing addresses, to prove that users are who they say they are. References on each user’s profile build confidence among other surfers. Members are also given the opportunity to reach the highest level of verification available called ‘vouching,’ in which they are essentially ‘vouched for’ by three CouchSurfers who themselves have been ‘vouched for’ already.”  It makes sense: using social capital to create synthetic trust between strangers.  As one couch-offerer noted, “It’s tough to believe the kid you’re meeting at the airport is getting off a plane from China to come here and steal my Nintendo Wii.”

Full story available here.