Monthly Archives: December 2007

Social Networks: Birds of a Feather Do Flock Together

A study by Harvard and UCLA researchers on Facebook is finding that social networks tend to lead to bonding social capital (people associating with others like them). These are preliminary findings and the study is continuing through 2009.

They have found that race and gender have the largest influence on who one befriends in social networks online, and white students (especially men) have the least diverse social networks. The study also found that the size of the social network was largest for black students, followed in turn by mixed race students and white students.

While this finding is consistent with findings across lots of sociological settings that show that we tend to form friendships with others who are like us (what researchers call ‘homophily’), it is a blow to Internet utopianists who hoped that the Internet would somehow make it far easier for us to form friendships with those who are different than us. [As the dog using the Internet in the famous New Yorker cartoon articulated, "no one knows you're a dog on the Internet."]

The interesting research project is being conducted by Jason Kauffman and Nicholas Christakis at Harvard University and by Andreas Wimmer (a sociology professor at UCLA). [We wrote earlier about Nick Christakis' research on how obesity spreads through social networks.]

Putting a positive spin on the fact that facebook tends to lead toward like befriending like, Kevin Lewis (a third year PhD working on the project) asserted that this finding may buttress the case that the friendships formed online are real, if they exhibit traits (like homophily) that we see in real-world friendships.  Harvard-UCLA researchers are also examining”triadic closure” with these data: the tendency found by socialists for people who have friends in common to themselves become friends over time.

This study is part of an emerging field of computational social science (analyzing the vast data trails that Americans leave with their e-mail, their online friendships, their call-logs, etc.). My colleague David Lazer recently convened a meeting at Harvard of scholars doing computational social science or interested in doing more.  (For a brief post, see here.)  Some of the projects are quite fascinating including one by a scholar who captured all of his child’s communication and utterances from infancy through toddlerhood through an always-on digital camera, and then transcribed all the conversation to observe patterns of speech development.

And the New York Times yesterday in their article, “On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data” (NYT, 12/18/07) mentioned not only the Kaufman et al. study but other interesting recent studies. “Scholars at Carnegie Mellon used the site to look at privacy issues. Researchers at the University of Colorado analyzed how Facebook instantly disseminated details about the Virginia Tech shootings in April….Social scientists at Indiana [Eliot Smith], Northwestern [Eszter Hargittai], Pennsylvania State [S. Shyam Sundar], Tufts, the University of Texas and other institutions are mining Facebook to test traditional theories in their fields about relationships, identity, self-esteem, popularity, collective action, race and political engagement.”

This is all a wonderful development as we hope it will help to sort out some of the ethereal claims on social networks from the actual practices observed.  And given that these networks are longitudinal, one can actually watch friendships being made and see what factors at time 1 predicted friendships at time 2 which is quite exciting from a social science perspective.

Why we help others and what we think about those that do?

There have been two nice pieces recently on the helping instinct: “The moral instinct?” in the NYT magazine (by Harvard’s Steven Pinker) and a video talk by Daniel Goleman.

The Moral Instinct

Steven Pinker notes that three individuals have done a lot of good: Mother Teresa (with all her work with the poor in India), Bill Gates (through his philanthropy around diseases and technology) and Norman Borlaug (who most people have never heard of but who has ushered in a green revolution in agricultural productivity that has saved a billion lives in the developing world). Pinker notes that our moral views of these individuals are clouded by how much we know about them and whether they are embued with a saint like halo in the case of Mother Teresa or Bill Gates’ profit-making motive. Our judgments ignore the fact that Mother Teresa often avocated suffering and treated people in harsh conditions: her missions offered “their sick patrons…plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.”
The article highlights how brain scanners, game theory, evolutionary biology and neuroscience are being used to understand how we make moral judgments.

Pnker notes that moral action requires a neural switch that forces us to classify actions as “immoral (‘killing is wrong’), rather than merely disagreeable (‘I hate brussels sprouts’), unfashionable (‘bell-bottoms are out’) or imprudent (‘don’t scratch mosquito bites’). It requires us to have a universal sense of right and wrong. Pnker says it also requires that one think that the immoral actor needs to be punished, although while I agree that is a common reaction, it is not essential to seeing this action as immoral.

“The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.” Actions can take on different tones of morality over time: smoking has become moralized from largely being a person decision and many other behaviors have become amoralized over time like divorce, being a working mother, using pot, or being gay. And Pinker notes that the movement of smoking to being “immoral” is not just a question of the harm done to others since other things which cause harm to others, like not changing the batteries in smoke alarms or going on a driving vacation, both which increase the risk to others, are not moralized.

Examples developed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, show that we typically develop a gut feel about whether something is moral or immoral and then struggle to defend our position. For example, deciding that it is immoral for a woman cleaning out her closet and finding her old, now unwanted, American flag, to cut it up into pieces and use the rags to clean her bathroom. In this case as in many others, it is difficult to argue who has been hurt.

And scholars think that many of our standards of immorality have developed for evolutionary biological reasons. We think it is okay to push a lever to divert a speeding conductorless trolley onto another track that kills one innocent person rather than the five it would kill on its current course, but not okay to throw a fat man off a bridge in front of a trolley to save these five men, even though both result in one innocent person being killed rather than five. Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, believes that we developed norms about not manhandling innocent people. They also tested this with neuroscience to observe with brain scanners a conflict between the brain’s emotional regions and the brain’s rational lobes. “When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.

“But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.”

This research led closer to a sense of universal morality, that emerges even early in childhood before empathy is taught. “Four-year-olds say that it is not O.K. to wear pajamas to school (a convention) and also not O.K. to hit a little girl for no reason (a moral principle). But when asked whether these actions would be O.K. if the teacher allowed them, most of the children said that wearing pajamas would now be fine but that hitting a little girl would still not be.”People almost universally across the globe have things that might seem akin to social capital: “a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms.” They also believe in deference to legitimate power, respecting high status people, and avoiding “defilement, contamination and carnality.” They’ve lumped these into five elements of the “periodic table” of morality: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity, the second and third of which are closely connected to social capital. Pinker notes that groups across the world can vary on morality depending on the relative weights they attach to these five elements of morality.

The subjects of fiarness and community/loyalty “match up with the classic examples of how altruism can evolve that were worked out by sociobiologists in the 1960s and 1970s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Fairness is very close to what scientists call reciprocal altruism, where a willingness to be nice to others can evolve as long as the favor helps the recipient more than it costs the giver and the recipient returns the favor when fortunes reverse. The analysis makes it sound as if reciprocal altruism comes out of a robotlike calculation, but in fact Robert Trivers, the biologist who devised the theory, argued that it is implemented in the brain as a suite of moral emotions. Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future (consistent with Mencken’s definition of conscience as ”the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking”). Many experiments on who helps whom, who likes whom, who punishes whom and who feels guilty about what have confirmed these predictions.”Community, the very different emotion that prompts people to share and sacrifice without an expectation of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives (and which evolved because any gene that pushed an organism to aid a relative would have helped copies of itself sitting inside that relative). In humans, of course, communal feelings can be lavished on nonrelatives as well. Sometimes it pays people (in an evolutionary sense) to love their companions because their interests are yoked, like spouses with common children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with common tastes or allies with common enemies. And sometimes it doesn’t pay them at all, but their kinship-detectors have been tricked into treating their groupmates as if they were relatives by tactics like kinship metaphors (blood brothers, fraternities, the fatherland), origin myths, communal meals and other bonding rituals.

” Unfortunately, the meme of the selfish gene escaped from popular biology books and mutated into the idea that organisms (including people) are ruthlessly self-serving. And this doesn’t follow. Genes are not a reservoir of our dark unconscious wishes. ”Selfish” genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, because a gene’s metaphorical goal of selfishly replicating itself can be implemented by wiring up the brain of the organism to do unselfish things, like being nice to relatives or doing good deeds for needy strangers. When a mother stays up all night comforting a sick child, the genes that endowed her with that tenderness were ‘selfish’ in a metaphorical sense, but by no stretch of the imagination is she being selfish.

“Nor does reciprocal altruism — the evolutionary rationale behind fairness — imply that people do good deeds in the cynical expectation of repayment down the line. We all know of unrequited good deeds, like tipping a waitress in a city you will never visit again and falling on a grenade to save platoonmates. These bursts of goodness are not as anomalous to a biologist as they might appear.”

Trivers, the biologist showed that even individuals who wish to promote reciprocity must develop some system (he proposed tit-for-tat) in being reciprocal without being preyed upon or perennially cheated. Trivers theorized that people would compete in a reciprocal society to be the most generous partner so that his reputation would spread and others would want to cooperate with him, since a reputation for fairness and generosity was important. And favor receivers would have to sort out the puffery (claims of having done huge favors) from the reality. But Trivers hypothesized an ecological niche also for stingy reciprocators who gain fewer trading partners, but have to give less on each transaction or cheaters who exploit gains from one-off transactions without the expectation of repeat play.

Whether this morality is God-given is unknown although Pinker notes that the rules of morality have to be symmetrical: we can’t advocate a system that constantlly privileges me over you. That is why the notion of “interchangability of perspectives” keeps on reappearing in “the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.”

The Pinker article is available here.

Daniel Goleman

Relatedly, Daniel Goleman wants to know what impels us to act morally. There is a nice talk by Daniel Goleman at TED (link below) on empathy and the good Samaritan with a good summary here.

Goleman hypothesizes, based on an incident with a homeless man in NYC and the fact that we are wired neurologically to empathize, that all empathy takes is us noticing others’ needs and “tuning in” rather than “tuning out.” Because of the outpouring of help that Goleman’s noticing of this Hispanic homeless man prompted, he is optimistic.

But Goleman doesn’t discuss why we don’t notice. Some of it surely is that we train ourselves not to notice, but it may also be a self-protection mechanism against feeling that there are too many needs out there and we can’t satisfy these needs, or a competition between our desire to meet the needs of family/friends versus the needs of strangers, or the fact that humans also don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and under-serve homeless for example, because the experience of getting tricked into helping someone who feigns homelessness or injury is greater than the joy that comes from helping another (even if 9 out of 10 beggars are legitimate).

Daniel Goleman TED talk available here.

Are social networks replacing search engines?

A comment here on Search Engine Journal suggests that social bookmarks like reddit, delicious, StumbleUpon, may replace Google as the search engines of the future.

The author hints to the advantage of these social bookmarks as incorporating human intelligence, but the author ignores the fact that Google is already powered by links incorporating human intelligence as well. The fact that Google ranks sites by (among other things) the number of external websites linking to those website URLs is already a social form of bookmarking or search. The sites that other people find powerful, influential or authentic get linked to and hence are listed higher in the Google rankings.

In Ian Ayres very interesting read, SuperCrunchers, he discusses Google’s beta search efforts as a way of using personalized information about searchers.

“Tera mining of customer records, airline prices, and inventories is peanuts compared to Google’s goal of organizing all the world’s information. … Google has developed a Personalized Search feature that uses your past search history to further refine what you really have in mind. If Bill Gates and Martha Stewart both Google ‘blackberry,’ Gates is more likely to see web pages about the email device at the top of his results list, while Stewart is more likely to see web pages about the fruit. Google is pushing this personalized data mining into almost every one of its features. Its new web accelerator dramatically speeds up access to the Internet–not by some breakthrough in hardware or software technology–but by predicting what you are going to want to read next. Google’s web accelerator is continually pre-picking web pages from the net. So while you’re reading the first page of an article, it’s already downloading pages two and three. And even before you fire up your browser tomorrow morning, simple data mining helps Google predict what sites you’re going to want to look at (hint: it’s probably the same sites you look at most days). “

I’ve long been interested in how websites can use network knowledge (the wisdom captured within its usebase). Slashdot.org found a way to do this in distributing the ability to praise or ding posts of members (without giving anyone veto power); Wikipedia does this through distributing editorial input; Craigslist does this by giving users the power to flag postings as spam.  And I’ve separately written about “viral popularity” as a way of using social networks to spread the popularity of interest in media of various sorts.

Viral popularity

We often assume that quality dictates popularity. Well not always. For sure, marketing can distort this hunt for quality: we buy a lower quality item because we heard about it first and not the better quality (less marketed) item or because the ads led us falsely to believe in its quality.

Now it increasingly looks like if one gets to be a front-runner in popularity, that begets itself. This might be called ‘viral popularity.’ Many search engines or sites produce lists that reinforce popularity. Google sorts items by which ones have been linked by others, making it more likely that others will link to them. Papers like The Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times lists the “most emailed articles.” YouTube lists a Viral Video chart (You Tube). You can see the Top Stories in the Blogosphere (also here at Tailrank or top blogs at BlogLines top1000). the most downloaded iTunes songs, the most popular bookmarks on Del.icio.us, reddit or StumbleUpon. And all these tools are augmented by social networks like MySpace and Facebook that can help speed the circulation of recommendations.

In some sense, these are examples of James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, but what if the front runners become the most popular over time just because they got an early lead?

This seems more likely because Power laws that shows that in many contexts (relationships, website hubs, roads, utility networks), the well connected hubs take on a greater central role in networks over time. This is because a node’s value in the network increases based on the number of links to it. And thus new nodes or actors increasingly likely to want to link to these nodes, making them more of a hub and further increasing their value. Hence the natural cycle perpetuates itself.

In contrast, as Super Crunchers points out, ‘nearest neighbors’ approaches that recommend works to you based on what others with your taste liked, lead users to engage with a wider % of video (through Netflix recommendations) or books (through Amazon’s ideas of other books you might like) or music (Pandora). In these cases, a piece of music or a video doesn’t necessarily become *more valuable* to the network as it becomes more linked to or watched, although invariably at some point there is a tipping phenomenon here too where people want to read a book, or watch a video just to be current with a piece of work that lots of others are discussing, and to be “cool” enough to be in the know.

Social network effects may originally induce a long tail — a phenomenon itself disputed by Chris Gomes in the WSJ and elsewhere — as users hear about works that they otherwise would never have heard about, but viral popularity in the main seems more likely to increase the warped distribution of popular videos, blog posts, and the like.

New Sweeping Interview with Robert Putnam in American Interest

The sweeping interview covers everything from Professor Putnam’s environment growing up, to the Saguaro Seminar, to comments on his recent diversity research, to a discussion of the decline of unstructured kids games like “Kick the Can”, Spud, among others. Putnam also discusses evidence of a widening class gap in America. The discussion of diversity research mentions George Gerbner’s “mean world” hypothesis, Jane Jacob’s research on Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Saguaro field studies showing how diversity plays out across generations in communities across America like Adrian, Michigan. Putnam also talks about how the mass migration of women from “kitchens to offices” has put enormous pressures on community life in America, even as it has infused extremely valuable talent into our economy; he notes that we have failed to view the public dimensions of this and still treat the ability of families to connect into community as purely a private issue to be negotiated within that family. And he reacts to the changing nature of politics today and talks about national service and its hope in forging stronger bridging social capital.

Read the interview here.

Power of God, why permanence makes us happier, and wikiscanning

There were several interesting stories in the NYT Sunday Magazine section “Year in Ideas” section.

We’ve previously reported on wikiscanning.

But the “God Effect” highlights something that we have observed in our work, the strong connection between religiosity and altruism and philanthropy, even if it is altruism or philanthropy for secular purposes. The “God Effect” suggests that those who are more religious are constantly in the background of their mind thinking “What would God do?”, “What would Allah do?”, etc. and this leads them to make more charitable decisions, or in the case of the “dictator game” experiment of Ara Norenzayan, fairer distributions with an opponent. [Interestingly, Norzenzayan, in a second experiment primed participants to think of police, contract and civil, and found that this also led to people proposing fairer distributions, although in this case for the religious and secular alike.]

In “Hope Can Be Worse Than Hopelessness“, the magazine summarizes research of Peter Ubel, of University of Michigan on colostomy patients (who had portions of their colons removed or bypassed). This condition is so unpleasant that many say that they would prefer to die. Six months later, the temporary patients who were likely to heal and have their bowels reconnected” showed worse quality of life and lower happiness than ones that expected their colostomy to be permanent.

This mirrors work done by Dan Gilbert (and reported here at 15:15). Harvard students in a photography course took photos of their favorite things of Harvard; they blew up their 2 favorite photographs into beautiful prints and were then told at the nth hour that they had to give one up permanently. A control group was told that they had 4 days to switch their choice if they changed their mind and staff would come to their dormroom for convenience to swap. Those who were stuck with their photograph liked it a lot more during these 4 days and afterwards. A “reversible condition is not conducive to happiness”, Gilbert says. But Gilbert notes that 2/3 of Harvard students choose to be in a course where they have a chance at the end to choose their photograph rather than have to pick one irreversibly, even though this ability to choose leads to lower happiness.

Viral RoadJoy to combat RoadRage

VW (Volkswagen), through the avant-garde advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, aims to counter RoadRage through advertisements that encourage viewers to commit to spontaneous acts of RoadJoy and register them on the website http://www.vwroadjoy.ca/. They offer 100 examples of this, including Guerilla Car Wash (getting some friends to wash an anonymous filthy car they see), Gridlock Bubble Brigade (stocking soap bubbles and wands to distribute to other drivers when there is a traffic jam), Jump Starting (carrying jumper cables to jump start a stranded motorist), Spot Donation (offering a choice parking spot to another motorist), The Wave (waving to someone who cuts you off rather than flipping them the bird — or elsewhere they suggest smiling at them or making a “peace sign”), Follow The Leader (telling someone who asks for directions to follow you there), or Rain Valeting (offering to bring a car around if it is raining). The website promises to feature RoadJoy activists in future commercials and also posts video or pictures of their acts.
For other ideas of spontaneous things you can do to build social capital, see 150 things you can do.

It is also reminiscent of the Pay It Forward movement which is based on the book and movie of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde; visit her foundation.

[Thanks to Lew Feldstein at New Hampshire Charitable Foundation for tipping me off to this.]