Monthly Archives: November 2010

Socializing expands brain size?

Flickr photo by taod

This is by no means an overnight phenomenon.

Scholars at Oxford have refuted the notion that all mammals over time developed larger brains.  Instead Dr. Susanne Shultz and Prof. Robin Dunbar found over a span of 60 million years that more social creatures, among them humans, had the most rapidly expanding brain sizes to cope with the complexity of collaboration, social norms and coordination.

“The research team analysed available data on the brain size and body size of more than 500 species of living and fossilised mammals. It found that the brains of monkeys grew the most over time, followed by horses, dolphins, camels and dogs. The study shows that groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tend to live in stable social groups. The brains of more solitary mammals, such as cats, deer and rhino, grew much more slowly during the same period.”

They noted that the fact that cats’ brains did not expand while dogs’ and horses’ brains did, can be accounted for by the far more solitary lives that cats lead in relation to dogs and horses, which interact far more with humans.

Obviously, since these evolutionary anthropologists couldn’t go back in time to distinguish social cavemen from more solitary cavemen, it is impossible to tell whether the expansion of brain size was related to the average levels of socialization of a species or whether this same pattern would have held true at the individual level: with offspring of more social parents having larger brains than offspring of less social humans.

Nonetheless, food for thought…  The implication: get out and socialize and help our species to continue to grow our average brain size, although the results may not be noticeable within your lifetime.

See “Socialising led to bigger brains in some mammals

The study is called “Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality” (PNAS Journal, November 30, 2010, by Susanne Shultz and Robin Dunbar).  Abstract here.

Shultz and Dunbar’s center, Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, is here.

Companies using social capital data for betting on people’s lives

Flickr photo by idletype

The Wall Street Journal recently noted  how insurance companies (Aviva PLC, Prudential Financial, AIG) bet on whom to insure at what rates through data mining.  Much of the info gleaned from online purchases and other digital traces is more lifestyle: is the insurance applicant an athlete? a TV addict? a hunter?

But some of the information is social capital-related:

Increasingly, some gather online information, including from social-networking sites. Acxiom Corp., one of the biggest data firms, says it acquires a limited amount of “public” information from social-networking sites, helping “our clients to identify active social-media users, their favorite networks, how socially active they are versus the norm, and on what kind of fan pages they participate.”

For insurers and data-sellers alike, the new techniques could open up a regulatory can of worms. The information sold by marketing-database firms is lightly regulated. But using it in the life-insurance application process would “raise questions” about whether the data would be subject to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, says Rebecca Kuehn of the Federal Trade Commission’s division of privacy and identity protection. The law’s provisions kick in when “adverse action” is taken against a person, such as a decision to deny insurance or increase rates. The law requires that people be notified of any adverse action and be allowed to dispute the accuracy or completeness of data, according to the FTC.

The article also notes that Celent, an insurance consulting division of Marsh & McLennan, indicates that such online social-network data could be mined for policing fraud and in making pricing decisions: “A life insurer might want to scrutinize an applicant who reports no family history of cancer, but indicates online an affinity with a cancer-research group, says Mike Fitzgerald, a Celent senior analyst.  ‘Whether people actually realize it or not, they are significantly increasing their personal transparency,’ he says. ‘It’s all public, and it’s electronically mineable.’  “

We’ve written earlier about other life insurers using social capital data in making insurance decisions, but in those cases, the individual was being asked directly about his social and civic involvement.  [See also this blog post about social capital and healthcare.]

We applaud the life insurers for coming to the late realization that social capital data is strongly related to health, but strongly believe they should be more transparent about what they are doing.  Then it wouldn’t violate privacy concerns and it would have the added benefit of making the insured better aware of the positive health impact of being more involved civicly and socially, which might actually induce those who are less engaged to become more so.

See earlier blog post on loss of digital privacy and digital traces left online.

Read “Insurers Test Data Profiles to Identify Risky Clients” (Wall St. Journal, 11/17/2010, by Leslie Scism and Mark Maremount)

Happiness: how to increase it, UK Government measurement

Flickr photo by greeneydmantis

Two interesting updates on happiness research:

1) Being in the present increases your happiness.  A somewhat surprising finding since  one would think that daydreaming about a Tahitian vacation, a Carlton Fisk’s memorable 1975 world series home run for the Red Sox, or recalling something hilarious one’s children said, would increase your happiness.  But social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth (both from Harvard) found, using an iPod app called trackyourhappiness, that the Buddhists were indeed right.  Dwell in the present and be mindful.  Trackyourhappiness beeped 2,200 volunteer subjects at various times of the day and asked them describe what they were doing, with whom, and how happy they were.  The researchers analyzed the quarter of a million datapoints to determine what activities provided the greatest or least happiness.

Excerpt:

When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being ”very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.

When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).

On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time….

”I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there,” Dr. Gilbert says.

Of course, it might well be that the mind wanders because the underlying activities are less “scintillating”; it’s hard to say whether being in the present for commuting or grooming would dramatically increase the happiness levels of doing those activities, although it might reduce traffic accidents and grooming accidents…

See “When The Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays” (NY Times, 11/16/10, by John Tierney)

See here for a recent summary post on happiness research.

2) The British government has followed up on Prime Minister David Cameron’s interest in wellbeing and will begin measurement this year.  The UK government follows countries like Bhutan and Canada in regularly measuring this concept. France has also been recommended to take similar action from a high-powered academic commission advising French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Sarkozy announced in 2009 that he plans to measure happiness and wellbeing as part of France’s economic progress in the near future.

A Guardian piece notes that there is some ” ‘nervousness’… in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and last week’s riot in Westminster…”  Cameron has indicated that tracking wellbeing is as important as ever during a downturn, and his commitment to integrate wellbeing centrally into government policy.

The government is charging the national statistician Jil Matheson with crafting the exact happiness questions to add to the Office of National Statistics’ ongoing household survey. Cameron has asked for regular measurement of “subjective wellbeing” (including happiness) and how well Brits are meeting their “life goals”.

The new data, to begin being measured in Spring 2011, may be published quarterly like British crime data, and will be coupled with other social measures like social capital to provide data on Brits’ quality of life.

John Helliwell “told the Guardian: ‘The UK plans are putting into action the two most important elements of the Stiglitz/Sen report: systematically measuring subjective wellbeing as part of a broader national accounting system, and using these data to inform policy choices.’  “

See “Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood: Despite ‘nervousness’, David Cameron wants measure of wellbeing to steer government policy” (Guardian, Nov. 14, 2010, by Allegra Stratton)

See David Cameron’s November 25, 2010 transcript regarding UK measurement of wellbeing.

See how UK ranks to other countries in happiness

Datablog: see how our happiness rating compares

Import of best friends and socializing at work

Flickr photo by gwilmore

Bob Putnam and I were recently meeting with Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup.

Jim related an interesting “social capital” finding of Gallup.  That employees having a ‘best’ friend at work is vitally important to the success of a company.   Gallup faced considerable opposition to this question from CEOs who didn’t want Gallup asking this of their employees and who said they wanted their employees focused on doing their job, not developing a best friend at work.  Gallup tried reformulating the question to ask about ‘close friends’ at work, but found that this question was not nearly as predictive of a whole host of beneficial outcomes.

Those who had best friends at work (only 30% of Americans) were 7 times more likely to be engaged with their job, they exhibited higher sales and profitability, better engaged customers,  produced higher quality work, had greater commitment to the firm’s mission,  had better safety records (since friends often made sure they were complying with safety precautions), were happier at work, and had a higher chance of sticking with a firm.  If workers didn’t have a best friend, only 8% of them were engaged in their job.

Gallup also observed that employees who report having a best friend at work were:

  • 43% more likely to report having received praise or recognition for their work in the last seven days.
  • 37% more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development.
  • 35% more likely to report coworker commitment to quality.
  • 28% more likely to report that in the last six months, someone at work has talked to them about their progress.
  • 27% more likely to report that the mission of their company makes them feel their job is important.
  • 27% more likely to report that their opinions seem to count at work.
  • 21% more likely to report that at work, they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.

Gallup also found other social capital measures to be key to successful business organizations: having someone at work who cares about you, and having a mentor.

This finding gibes with workplace social-capital work that we have done and work of John Helliwell and Haifang Huang on the importance of trust of management in ensuring wellbeing of those at the workplace.

Two MIT researchers (Sandy Pentland and Benjamin Waber) also found using sociometers that even apparently idle workplace socializing increases productivity.  [Here's a link to earlier work of Sandy Pentland.]

Gallup also noted that they do 1000 US surveys a day and one question they ask is for people to give their weight, and they can actually see American obesity inching up day by day.

In two other social capital results, not focused on the workplace:

1) Gallup has also found that people need 6 hours of social time a day (on the phone, at work, at home, talking to friends, on e-mail) in order to “thrive”.  with no social time in a day, one has an equal chance of having a good or bad day, but with 3 hours of social time, the chance of a bad day drops to 10%.

2) Through Gallup we also learned of an experiment by researchers at Ohio State University  on the connection between stress and physical health.   42 married couples were given 8 tiny identical blisters; the skin was removed and a suction devices put on top that monitored the rate of healing. Researchers found that in marital relationships with hostility, wounds took almost twice as long to heal.  The magnitude was shocking; such hostility and lack of relational closeness could rival or exceed traditional physical factors.

For more background on some of this, see Gallup Management Journal piece or  Tom Rath, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Live Without or Wellbeing (with James Harter)

For the Ohio State University study, see Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K., Timothy J. Loving, Jeffrey R. Stowell, William B. Malarkey, Stanley Lemeshow, Stephanie L. Dickinson, Ronald Glaser, “Hostile Marital Interactions, Proinflammatory Cytokine Production, and Wound Healing,” Archives of General Psychiatry. 2005;62:1377-1384.

2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

Bowling Alone Down Under

Andrew Leigh, former economics professor at the Australian National University and recently elected as a Labor Member of Parliament, has published Disconnected.

He finds that Australians, like Americans, are increasing “bowling alone” and thinks the most likely culprits are long working hours, women’s entry into the paid workplace, increased commuting, television, diversity, technologies that discourage connection, and tipping points.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

Several measures of social capital are on the wane.

Organisational membership is down. We are less likely to attend church. Political parties and unions are bleeding members. Sporting participation and cultural attendance are down.

Volunteering is likely below its post-war peak, though it did record a rise in the late 1990s.

We have fewer friends and are less connected with our neighbours than in the mid-80s. Other measures have flatlined, but few have risen.

So what explains the trends in social capital? First, let’s exonerate one defendant. The character variously known as “economic reform”, “economic liberalism” or “economic rationalism” frequently has been blamed for eroding social capital.

For example, Australian sociologist Eva Cox takes the view that free markets undermine trust and reciprocity. She writes that “the idea of the social is losing ground to the concepts of competition, and the money markets are replacing governments. The social aspects of humanity have somehow disappeared and we are left with a more atomised image of individuals competing in an endless process of distrust.”

Cox argues that means-tested social welfare, privatisation of banks and airlines, user pays and private health insurance have contributed to a decline in social capital in Australia.

From a similar perspective, another sociologist, Michael Pusey, contends that the “aggressive re-engineering of our institutions [has] brought a decline in trust . . . There’s a tendency for people to view others as competitors rather than friendly strangers.”

What both these critiques miss is that when two people repeatedly interact with one another in a market, they are likelier to behave well towards one another.

A plumber who turns up on time and charges the quoted price is a guy you’ll hire again. A boss who encourages workers to knock off early on quiet days is likelier to find employees willing to stay a little longer when times are busy.

In my view, there are seven plausible explanations for the drop in some social capital measures in Australia: long working hours, the feminisation of the workplace, car commuting, television, diversity, impersonal technologies and tipping points.

* Working hours: When I ask friends why they think social capital may be declining, the most common answer is “everyone is working longer hours”. But the truth is a little more complicated.

Despite the oft-heard rhetoric about how average working hours are rising, the bare facts show average hours of work have actually declined since the late 1970s.

On average, employed men work about three fewer hours a week than they did in the late 70s, while employed women work about two fewer hours a week.

However, just looking at averages masks the major changes that have taken place in Australian work patterns in the past generation. While the average working week has shortened modestly, there has been a growth in both short-hour and long-hour jobs. There is an increasing proportion of workers in jobs that require fewer than 35 hours a week, and a higher proportion in jobs that take more than 45 hours a week.

The “regular job” isn’t so regular any more.

* Feminisation: In the 50s, if a classroom of children were asked what their mothers did, most would have answered that their mother was a homemaker; it would have been an unusual child who stated their mother worked.

By the 80s, the proportions with working and non-working mothers would probably have been about equal.

And today the children with homemaker mothers would be in the minority.

From 1978 to 2009, the share of women who were employed rose from 40% to 55%. The largest increase was in part-time work, which nearly doubled from 14% in the late 70s to 25% in 2009.

Not surprisingly, this increased participation in the paid workforce has led to women spending less time doing housework.

Acknowledging that rising female labour force participation may have reduced social capital outside the home is not to suggest Australia is worse off as a result. The increasing feminisation of Australia’s companies is the best hope for workplace social capital.

* Car commuting: Solo car commuting is the least social way of getting to and from work. Part of the reason for this is it takes a considerable amount of time out of the day. Over a given distance, a car will generally get you there quicker than public transport. As a consequence, a rise in car commuting has allowed people to choose houses even farther from their workplace.

* Television: Over time, some of us seem to have replaced friends with Friends, and neighbours with Neighbours. There is no shortage of programs about people doing active things, from sports to cooking to dancing. But the irony is these programs have become popular precisely when Australians are participating in fewer social activities.

* Diversity: A spate of studies suggests continued high levels of immigration will bring a raft of economic and social benefits to Australia. But we should not gild the lily. Most likely, higher diversity will lead to lower levels of interpersonal trust.

It will also create an opening for opportunistic political entrepreneurs. The challenge for policy-makers is how to maintain the present levels of immigration while mitigating the impact on our social and political fabric. When it comes to interpersonal trust, one useful strategy would be to focus more attention on the problem itself: building local trust in immigrant communities. It may also be that, through time, race and ethnicity become less salient divisions in Australia.

Harvard University professor Robert Putnam argues that diversity reduces trust since people “act like turtles”, hunkering down to avoid those who are somehow different. Yet he also sees hope in the declining importance of the Catholic-Protestant divide in the US over the past half-century.

* Impersonal technologies: In sentencing actor Charlie Sheen for using prostitutes, the judge reportedly asked why a famous man like him would have to pay for sex. Sheen’s answer: “I don’t pay them for sex. I pay them to leave.” Revolting as Sheen’s sentiments may sound, they reflect one way technology has changed our interactions with one another.

As Yale economist Ian Ayres has pointed out, many people may be willing to pay a premium to avoid human interactions. If you don’t like to chat with the person staffing the cash register, many large stores will let you scan your own groceries. If you prefer not to speak with the person at the service station, pay at the pump. If you don’t like dealing with lecturers and classmates in person, sign up for distance education.

In some cases, technologies have crowded out human interaction because the new machines are better. Who bothers popping to a bookstore when they can get the book on their Kindle in less than a minute? In other cases, companies offer discounts for customers who interact only online. Most banks levy a surcharge on over-the-counter withdrawals (essentially asking customers to pay for a face-to-face conversation).

Like physical fitness, our skill in chatting with others is a learned habit. Pay a visit to Manhattan, and you’ll be struck by how comfortably and readily most New Yorkers can chat with someone they have never met before. A Reader’s Digest survey of 35 cities ranked New York No. 1 for civility. It’s not because Manhattan residents have the gene for sociability but because when you share a small island with 1.6 million other people, helping one another and making conversation is what you have to do to get by each day.

The difficulty with these explanations is we can say good things about most of them. Australia is clearly better off for being a more ethnically diverse nation, in which more women participate in the paid workforce than in the past.

Long working hours mostly reflect the preferences of workers, not bosses. Few of us would voluntarily relinquish cars, televisions or ATMs. What this means is any attempt to increase social capital in Australia will not involve a backlash against the causes, but innovative strategies to make us more socially connected. We need to shape a better future, not simply try to revive the past.

Read Australian Prime Minister’s (Julia Gillard’s) comments on Disconnected.

Hear Andrew Leigh on  Oct. 8, 2010 ABC Radio National show “The National Interest.”

Read Andrew Leigh’s op-ed on the connections between social capital and the economy: “Connections Add Value“, Australian Financial Review, Oct. 12, 2010