Monthly Archives: December 2008

Social scientist help needed for ‘commuting together’ proposal

(photo by cantmilla)

(photo by cantmilla)

James H. Morris, Professor of the Practice of Software and Dean, Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley is working on a ridesharing proposal to stop ‘driving alone’.  His web-based proposal aims to harness all available technology and reduce global warming and increase social capital built up while commuting.  If successful, it would reduce solo commuting by 50%.

Social scientists reading this blog are encouraged to be in touch with James Morris about SafeRide.  His e-mail is jim DOT morris AT sv DOT cmu DOT edu to offer their pro bono help on evaluating the idea from a sociological or cultural perspective.

Interesting series of articles on trust

(photo by A Stump)

(photo by A Stump)

In the current issue of “Greater Good” magazine, Pamela Paxton (sociology, Ohio State) and Jeremy Adam Smith have a cover story “America’s Trust Fall” about the declines over the last generation in social trust and trust in American institutions.  It’s a good overview of this topic.

But the issue also addresses other related issues of trust.

1.In Faces We Trust describes research of Alexander Todorov (psychology, Princeton) and colleagues showing how important gut instincts our to our trust judgments and to political decisions.

In one 2006 experiment, they gave participants small amounts of time—100 milliseconds, 500 milliseconds, and 1 second—to judge if a face was trustworthy. The researchers discovered that decisions made after 100 milliseconds were highly consistent with decisions made with longer time constraints, suggesting that …beyond those first 100 milliseconds, additional time for reflection doesn’t appear to change first impressions….

Follow-up research in 2007 tested whether these gut reactions had implications for politics.  They showed experimental participants pictures of the winner and runner-up of various Senate and gubernatorial races that participants were unfamiliar with and asked, “Who is more competent?”

After only 100 milliseconds of exposure to the faces, participants chose the winning candidate for about 72 percent of the Senate races and 69 percent of the gubernatorial races. In other words, gut instincts were highly consistent with actual votes cast after many months of supposedly rational deliberation.

Similarly, a 2006 experiment by economists Daniel Benjamin and Jesse Shapiro revealed that people were remarkably able to determine the election outcome from watching silent 10-second clips of political debates.   Ironically, experimental subjects were less likely to be able to predict the election outcome if they listened to the sound since it seemed to interfere with their gut instincts.

Researchers posit that these gut reactions and “thin slices” of information have deep evolutionary roots. “Neuroimaging studies reveal that trust evaluations involve the amygdala, a brain region responsible for tracking potential harm—something that probably came in handy on the prehistoric African savanna, where judging trustworthiness in a split second could well mean the difference between life and death.”

While these snap judgments appear to anchor our initial decision, experiments have shown that we engage in a series of internal subconscious arguments between rational thought and these gut feelings and that subsequent data can overcome our initial biases.

2. Brain Trust discusses what researchers know about the trust process from monitoring our brains.  They discuss experiments that show that we often do not behave in self-maximizing ways out of a sense of trust or fairness.

“Familiarity breeds trust—players tend to trust each other more with each new game. So does introducing punishments for untrustworthy behavior, or even just reminding players of their obligations to each other.”

“These studies have demonstrated the strength of human trust, and that humans are truly worthy of this trust from one another. They have also improved our understanding of the social factors that determine trust. But two important questions remain: Is trust truly a biologically based part of human nature, and if so, what is it in the brain that makes humans trust each other?”

The article discusses evidence that oxyocin “greases the wheels of trust” but only when humans are facing other humans, not when they are playing against computers.

3. In Can I Trust You? psychologist Paul Ekman (a pioneer in determining who is lying from facial cues) converses with his daughter Eve. He discusses how an expert on lying, deception, and truthfulness tries to foster trust and trustworthiness in his daughter, why it is important, and what it takes.

He notes that he tried to avoid putting her in a position where she would lie, but instead asked leading questions encouraging her to disclose (e.g., “”Is there something on your mind? Is there something you want to talk about?” or “What happened the other night? I heard you come in late.”)

He notes the difficult role of a parent:

[Y]ou have to keep moving backwards. When parents start out, they are completely responsible for their child, who is totally helpless. As that child grows, you have to roll back, you have to grant control; otherwise, your child can’t grow. You have to be able to live with the fact that as you grant the child more autonomy, they will get into all sorts of trouble. But you ultimately have to leave it up to them.

He notes the importance of not simply trying to rely on the authority inherent in the parental role, but explaining the basis for actions and appealing to higher moral principles.  And he urges parents to avoid “destructive compassion”: when you are so worried about your child that you over–control them and damage them.  He tried to set an example by never lying in his own life, and tried to make clear that disclosure about trouble that the kids got into was part of their responsibility.  Making obligations clear was important.  His wisdom is summarized in Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness.

4. Psychologist Joshua Coleman describes how to reinstill trust in romantic relationships of couples who have had a falling out in Surviving Betrayal.

Interesting links: Obama 2.0, craigslist for service, trust and voter turnout

(photo by remolacha)

(photo by remolacha)

I previously posted on how the economy depends so heavily on our trust.  Slate’s Anne Applebaum has a recent post on how the fraud of Bernard Madoff threatens to return us more to the creaky workings of the Polish economy c. 1990.

It is amazing the range of sophisticated and prominent investors brought down by Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme, including Stephen Spielberg, Dreamwork’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, ex-Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Elie Wiesel, Mort Zuckerman, and $3 billion invested by the Spanish bank Santander.

Obama 2.0: I was at an interesting roundtable yesterday on the Internet and Democracy where many in the group felt that as dramatic a role that the Internet played in the election of Obama, the potential for the Obama administration to take us to an entirely new level of citizen participation in governance, transparency and accountability is much higher.  One of the participants was Beth Noveck, pioneer of the innovative Peer-to-Patent system, who is on the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform policy working group helping to advise Obama on transparency and accountability.

- TechPresident also had this interesting post on the reports from the PA Field Director for Obama (Paulette Aniskoff) on feedback that the Obama campaign was hearing from their volunteer troops.

Craigslist for Service:  The Obama campaign has been advocating during the campaign that we need a craigslist for service and it is even in the Obama platform.  Craig Newmark, self-described customer service representative, and founder of craigslist partly says we have it already and it’s called VolunteerMatch, but he also talks about his vision of other ways people can serve.

Voter Turnout:  I previously posted updated turnout figures here, but Michael McDonald of GMU has slightly revised upward his turnout estimate to 61.6% to 131 million.  This still makes it the highest for 40 years, since 1968.   McDonald notes that these “preliminary” numbers could creep slightly higher but are essentially settled.  [See McDonald's blog post here.]  Curtis Gans, the other major scholar in this field, has not revised his earlier estimates, and McDonald continues to believe that 2008 represented more of an increase in voter turnout than Gans.  By Spring we’ll get Americans’ self-reports of voting on the CPS November supplement.  The Associated Press reports that early voting hit a new high, with about 41 million people, or over 31%, voting before Election Day (vs. 22% in 2004). Voter turnout increased substantially in newly competitive states like Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina, which all went for Obama for the first time in decades and turnout also rose in Republican states with large black populations, such as Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia.  North Carolina saw the biggest increase in turnout, rising from 57.8% in 2004 to 65.8% in 2008, driven by a large African American population, and competitive elections at the gubernatorial, Senatorial and presidential levels.

Dentyne hopes social capital message sticks

Dentyne’s latest commercial “Make Face Time” strives to associate gum chewing with connections with friends.  While it’s hard to see the connection (other than the appeal of fresh-smelling breath), their commercial is a nice wry twist on the limits of online connections and the strength of face-to-face connections.  They refer to a friend whispering to another in a pool as “voicemail” and a couple kissing as a real “instant message!.”  [It also has nice background music of Coconut Records, the moonlighting project of actor Jason Schwartzman, singing "Summer Day".]

Dentyne’s web campaign also gives you 3:00 on their website and then tells you to go out and do something.  And on the website you can say goodbye to emoticons (in the Smiley Chamber of Doom), go to the Face Time Finder (to find good local places to connect with others), and make a “Face Time Request” to someone you want to see in person.  While we applaud Dentyne’s connection sentiment, is the Internet really required for this?  How about a phone call? And do we really want to give Dentyne access to some information about our personal networks?

Interesting Obama links

First, TechPresident had several interesting blog posts on the efforts of the Obama campaign to figure out what to do with their 13 million person e-mail list and how to use this to spark greater civic engagement. See “The Other Transition: Whither Obama’s Movement?“, Report from Chicago: We’re Making This Up As We Go Along, and More Hints from Chicago on Obama for America 2. And see Gene Koo’s liveblogging of Marshall Ganz’s comments on the Obama campaign’s engagement strategy (part1) and part2, and Micah’s distillation of these remarks.

'Si se puede' in Guatemlan highlands (photo by Xeni Jardin)

'Si se puede' in Guatemalan highlands (photo by Xeni Jardin)

Second, Xeni Jardin, has an an interesting post in GOOD magazine on “Si Se Puedo” (Yes We Can): how Obama’s election has inspired hope even in a dirt poor, remote village in the Guatemalan highlands .  Here is a brief except:

The village where we spend most of our time is high in the altiplano, above Lake Atitlán, in the Sololá area. There are no black people here. Nor are there white people, other than occasional missionaries and Peace Corps workers. In fact, I don’t think there are really any ladinos (the Guatemalan term for people who consider themselves more Spanish than Indian) here. There are only K’iche Mayan people here.

They are extremely poor. Hunger and malnutrition are widespread. So are diseases caused by unclean water. Often, moms cannot afford the most basic medical care for sick kids, and the kids die of completely preventable or curable diseases. Many—maybe even most—of the adult men leave to seek work in the United States. Many of them die along the way.

So, despite many years visiting their homes and sharing their difficult life experiences, we were surprised by their reaction to the Obama election. It was of great symbolic importance. That sudden jolt of aspiration felt around the world? It struck here. Hard. It meant hope. It meant a renewed belief in change, for a people who have survived natural disasters, racism, and 36 years of civil war that many describe as the Mayan genocide. If a black man can enter the Casa Blanca, they are saying, maybe a Mayan person can one day become president of Guatemala. Maybe we will live to see a true democracy here, the thinking goes—a government that represents the rights of Guatemala’s First People, instead of representing their destruction.

There are no landline phones in this village. Some heads of households have cellphones (the inexpensive kind, called “frijoles,” because they’re cheap and bean-shaped), but not everyone has even this basic connectivity. Don Victoriano, the local leader of the international nonprofit…[sent this e-mail from the nearest internet cafe]:

“We are preoccupied with concern over the elections in your country. We are praying for you, so that your country doesn’t suffer such a horrible depresiòn caused by bad governments. We hope in Ajaw [the Mayan creator god] that Obama wins. I don’t know how you feel, but that’s how we feel.”

Here is the full post, “In the Highlands, Hope“.

The economy, the holidays, giving and social capital

Give reconciliation a chance  (photo by araleya)

Give reconciliation a chance (photo by araleya)

I heard recently of one school teacher reminding children that many parents are currently out of work.  The teacher asked her pupils to think of one gift that they got that they never used and one gift that they could give or ask for that doesn’t require any money. Then she asked the students to think about the economy and the fact that it is often hard to know whether parents are in good or bad financial shape in forming their holiday “wish lists.”  I learned of a mother that sometimes gives her children a birthday or Christmas “get out of jail card”.  It’s a card that has no expiration date and can be used once by her children to escape punishment/consequences on “non-federal offenses.”

I welcome thoughts from readers of “social-capital friendly” ideas for these financially stressed holidays.  Here are some starter ideas:

- Making gifts with others to share

- Giving Circles: where each person contributes a small amount of money and the group decides how to collectively use the money for good.

- Group volunteering projects for others inside or outside your community.

- Potluck holiday parties

- Finding an opportunity to do something nice to former friends with whom you have had a falling out or people with whom you are not now on speaking terms.  Give reconciliation a chance.

- And it’s not about finding financial alternatives to giving, but Changing the Present has a nice list of gifts one can give to help others.

Note: Caribbean Girl has a nice simpatico post talking about how “the long walk” is a more important part of holiday gift-giving than money.  Excerpts of her post (of relevance regardless of one’s religious beliefs):

An African boy listened carefully as his teacher explained why Christians give presents to each other on Christmas day. “The gift is an expression of our joy over the birth of Jesus and our friendship for each other,” she said.

When Christmas day came, the boy brought to the teacher a seashell of lustrous beauty. “Where did you ever find such a beautiful shell?” the teacher asked as she gently fingered the gift.

The youth told her there was only one spot where such extraordinary shells could be found…a certain bay several miles away. [T]he teacher was left speechless.

“Why…why, it’s gorgeous…wonderful, but you shouldn’t have gone all that way to get a gift for me.”

His eyes brightening, the boy answered, “Long walk part of gift.”…

While they [the magic] gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh…, they also gave another gift…a long walk. We don’t know how far the magi traveled, but we do know it took months, perhaps years, for them to reach their destination. Their long walk was part of the gift.

We ought to think about what we can give these holidays where “the long walk” (our efforts and care for another) shows our love more than what we spend.