Monthly Archives: December 2010

Doctors prescribing social capital?

Flickr photo by carf

I wrote earlier about some insurers using social capital in making decisions of whom to insure.

That post and a story sent to me by Lew Feldstein about doctors prescribing outdoor time got me thinking about doctors and social capital.  In the same way as doctors ask questions of patients around smoking, exercise, diet, etc., why shouldn’t doctors also ask patients to fill out a short survey about social capital activities they engage in:  number of confidants, how many of their neighbors’ first names they know, how often they go to friends’ houses or entertain others in their home, etc.?

These data could be used for 3 purposes:

1) to track real changes in the patient over time:  e.g., if a patient used to report 2 confidants and now reports zero it would be a chance for the doctor to find out what had triggered this (a friend moving, serious arguments, a close friend dying, etc.) that might help identify patients at risk of being socially isolated or going through stressful times.

2) to benchmark against others of the patients’ education, race and age.  In larger practices, or if this information was aggregated anonymously by affiliated hospitals, the computer could help patients understand the degree to which they far less involved in community or other associations or less trusting than comparable others nationwide or in their area.  If one was significantly below what others were, the doctor might want to bring this to the patient’s attention:  “did you know that most others like you are far more active in their community?”  or “did you know that most others like you volunteer much more their community?”  “This is something that has clear health impacts;  would you like more information about how to get more involved?”

3) to prescribe social capital “treatments”.  We’re far more used to a doctor prescribing an antibiotic or an aspirin than recommending that a patient get actively involved in a group (on a topic he/she cares about).  And some social capital deficits are more easily treated than others — it’s hard to suddenly develop a confidant.  But doctors might note to patients that there are real health consequences of being socially isolated and being socially and civicly uninvolved: i.e., getting sick more often and recuperating more slowly.  If acquiring a confidant in the next year is not a doable goal, maybe deciding which of ones’ friends have the potential to be confidants and taking some steps to start to deepen these relationships might be doable over the next 6-12 months.   Patients might agree to certain steps they want to take and put them on a card in a sealed and addressed letter that gets sent to them in 4 months.  Nudges can also be used to help people keep promises (through ongoing social groups that hold their members accountable for their promises, checks that go to disliked groups if commitments are broken, etc.).

And as to why?  Doctors might point out that they would rather be prescribing social capital now than prescribing hypertension drugs five years down the road.

[Read related story in NY Times about prescribing outdoor time: “Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space” (Jane Brody, 11/30, 10]

Walkable communities richer in social capital

Flickr photo by dePrefundis

A UNH study, utilizing the short-form Saguaro Social Capital Benchmark Survey, found that more walkable neighborhoods had higher levels of social capital in measures like trust of neighbors and participation in community events, such as entertaining friends in one’s house, working on a community project, volunteering or attending a club meeting.

Shannon Rogers, lead Principal Investigator for the study with UNH’s Natural Resources and Earth System Science (NRESS) program, based the results on surveys of  10 neighborhoods in Portsmouth, NH and 10 in Manchester, NH.

Rogers notes that other studies find that residents more social capital, have better health, higher levels of happiness and greater  economic success.

The study obviously can’t rule out reverse causality.  It’s quite possible that the people who choose to live in more walkable communities do so because they value greater levels of interaction and engagement and it is this predisposition rather than the layout of the city that drives levels of civic engagement.

The article, “Examining Walkability and Social Capital as Indicators of Quality of Life at the Municipal and Neighborhood Scales,” appears in the recent issue of Applied Research in Quality of Life.

Abstract: Walkability has been linked to quality of life in many ways. Health related benefits of physical exercise, the accessibility and access benefits of being able to walk to obtain some of your daily needs, or the mental health and social benefits of reduced isolation are a few of the many positive impacts on quality of life that can result from a walkable neighborhood. In the age of increasing energy costs and climate considerations, the ability to walk to important locations is a key component of sustainable communities. While the health and environmental implications of walkable communities are being intensively studied, the social benefits have not been investigated as broadly. Social capital is a measure of an individual’s or group’s networks, personal connections, and involvement. Like economic and human capital, social capital is considered to have important values to both individuals and communities. Through a case study approach this article argues that the generation and maintenance of social capital is another important component of quality of life that may be facilitated by living in a walkable community. Residents living in neighborhoods of varying built form and thus varying levels of walkability in three communities in New Hampshire were surveyed about their levels of social capital and travel behaviors. Comparisons between the more walkable and less walkable neighborhoods show that levels of social capital are higher in more walkable neighborhoods.

Social capital games

The New York Times Science Times section on Tuesday had an article discussing why real life couldn’t be as engaging as games.  One section referred to games designed by researchers to spark cooperative behavior or  get people to compete on being most helpful.

Excerpt:

…Dr. [Jane] McGonigal…has designed Cruel 2 B Kind, a game in which players advance by being nice to strangers in public places, and which has been played in more than 50 cities on four continents.

She and her husband are among the avid players of Chorewars, an online game in which they earn real rewards (like the privilege of choosing the music for their next car ride) by doing chores at their apartment in San Francisco. Cleaning the bathroom is worth so many points that she has sometimes hid the toilet brush to prevent him from getting too far ahead.

Other people, working through a “microvolunteering” Web site called Sparked, are using a smartphone app undertake quests for nonprofit groups like First Aid Corps, which is compiling a worldwide map of the locations of defibrillators available for cardiac emergencies. Instead of looking for magical healing potions in virtual worlds, these players scour buildings for defibrillators that haven’t been cataloged yet. If that defibrillator later helps save someone’s life, the player’s online glory increases (along with the sense of fiero).

[Fiero comes from Italian “pride” and refers to when the gamer lifts both arms above his/her head in triumph.]

Cruel 2 B Kind is interesting.  It takes place in a defined real world environment: e.g., it could be Central Park from 5-6 on 12/10/2010.  No one knows who is playing and who isn’t but all players have to remain in the open in that location for the entire duration.  Each player is randomly assigned a fatal weakness from a list of possibilities (e.g., being serenaded, being complimented, being cheered on). In order to slay your opponent, you have to engage in these acts of kindness frequently, willing to have complete strangers (not playing the game) be “collateral damage” in your effort to slay your fellow gamers. The result is a war of kindness within the “arena”.

Read John Tierney, “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming” (New York Times, Dec. 7, 2010)

See earlier blog post on The Extraordinaries (now renamed as Sparked)  and Thin-Slice Volunteering.

Praying alone is no fun; having friends at church makes you happier

Flickr photo by Shavar Ross

[Also cross-posted on the American Grace Blog]
American Grace research team members Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam have an article in the prestigious American Sociological Review demonstrating that religion actually makes you happier and it works through having close friends at church.

“Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “Listening to sermons or praying is not enough.  In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient that makes people happier.”

A host of studies have found a correlation between happiness and religiosity, but they suffered from the vulnerabilities of any single shot survey. Was religiosity truly causing happiness, was happiness causing greater religiosity, or was some third factor responsible (say an extroverted gene that made people both happier and more likely to go to “church”)? With the large nationally representative Faith Matters surveys, which interviewed the same Americans twice in a 6-9 month period, Lim and Putnam demonstrate that increased church attendance over that 6-9 month period increases life satisfaction. Surprisingly, they find that more overtly religious factors like theology (e.g., belief about the type of God or the afterlife or what religion you belong to) and private religious practices (e.g., experiencing God’s presence in your life or saying Grace or frequency of prayer) did not predict greater life satisfaction.

So what explained the power of religious attendance? Lim and Putnam found that it was having close friends in one’s house of worship. While friends in general cause people to have greater life satisfaction, friends at church serve as “super-charged” friends, with an even stronger impact on life satisfaction than secular friends.

It’s not clear exactly why close friends at church have such strong power. Lim and Putnam speculate that these church friends anchor “a strong sense of belonging in these religious communities” and provide parishioners with “morally-infused social support. In other words, if one seeks life satisfaction, it is neither faith nor communities alone that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems better than either bowling together or praying alone. These findings suggest that religious leaders should invest more of their time, treasure and talent in deepening the social dimensions of congregational life, such as through small support or worship groups, potlucks and choirs. This is likely to pay dividends to their congregants in making them happier and also benefit the religious leaders by making their congregants more likely to stay active religious members.”

Specifically, they find that those who attend church sporadically but nonetheless have close friends at church, likely working through religious spouses, are quite high in life satisfaction whereas those who attend church regularly but don’t have church friends are not. “According to the study, 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report that they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with their lives” (a 10 on the 1 to 10 question scale). “In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are extremely satisfied. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who attend religious services only several times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their congregation are extremely satisfied with their lives. Finally, 19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation, say they are extremely satisfied with their lives.”

Note: Putnam and Lim control for the all the natural demographic correlates that might be causing spurious findings.

The Faith Matters findings apply to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). “We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size,” said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.

It’s possible that there are other real-world secular examples of groups where in-group friendships provide the same level of ‘morally-infused” social support: e.g., 12-step programs, or zealous environmental activist networks, or uncorrupted unions, or MADD. Since these findings are relatively new, we haven’t firmly tested to find secular equivalents of these morally-infused networks although it is clear that there is nothing in the US that has anything like the frequency of friends of church, since so many more Americans are in the pews on a Sunday than participating weekly in an environmental group or a 12-step program. The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron has made clear to us in conversations, given much lower levels of religiosity in that country, that he is actively interested in finding out if there are secular takeaways from these life satisfaction findings that could be applied in the UK without exhorting more Brits to attend and make friends at church; Cameron’s interest is also sparked by his recent decision to actively measure life satisfaction in the UK as a key indicator of how well government is doing.

We’ll also be doing some further testing in additional surveying we are doing to try to understand more about what makes “close friends at church” so powerful. We welcome your thoughts…

CNN notes: “it is worth examining in the future why this study did not find the same link between happiness and spirituality that others did, the authors say. This may have to do with how different aspects of religion are measured. For example, those who reported that they ‘feel God’s love’ seemed to have more life satisfaction than those who did not, but this did not apply for similar questions about belief in God. Also, it is impossible to draw conclusions about whether ‘feeling God’s love’ causes happiness or vice versa. Could other networks of people have the same effect on happiness? The authors say that if this is possible, it’s hard to think of a non-religious context with a similar strength of identity, intensity of participation in ritual, and great scale and scope of the people in it.”

Cite: “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review, 75(6), December 2010.

Beyond CNN, see news stories in USA TodayNational Post, Discovery, Live Science, Science News, TIMES of India, Montreal Gazette, and Daily Mail.

Putnam and Jeb Bush discussing immigration in Denver

Welland Memorial to immigrant labor; photo by Bill Strong

Excerpt from Denver Post story:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said today that if his children walked the streets of Phoenix they might look awfully suspicious to police. His wife Columba is from Mexico.

Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam told the same crowd of city officials from across the country at the Denver Convention Center that his grandchildren might likewise draw suspicion. His daughter married a Latino man, he said.

“I think it’s not right that they could be picked up just because of the way they look,” Putnam said.

Bush and Putnam spoke and then fielded questions at a National League of Cities convention about immigration issues including the controversial Arizona immigration law.

The law aims to detain, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants. The federal government has won an injunction blocking parts of the law, including a section requiring police to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. Arizona has appealed.

A group of conservative lawmakers in Colorado is considering introducing an Arizona-style immigration bill in the legislature in January.

Read “Denver forum speakers question Arizona immigration law ” (Denver Post, December 4, 2010, by Kirk Mitchell)

Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam told the same crowd of city officials from across the country at the Denver Convention Center that his grandchildren might likewise draw suspicion. His daughter married a Latino man, he said.

“I think it’s not right that they could be picked up just because of the way they look,” Putnam said.

Bush and Putnam spoke and then fielded questions at a National League of Cities convention about immigration issues including the controversial Arizona immigration law.

Read “Denver forum speakers question Arizona immigration law” (December 4, 2010, Denver Post, Kirk Mitchell)

Will the real non-religious please stand up?

[also cross-posted on American Grace Blog]

Saguaro research team members Chaeyoon Lim, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam have an academic article out in the new issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion called “Secular and Liminal.”

In the study, using our two waves of Faith Matters panel data on religion (and other relevant data), they find that about 30% of Americans who appeared to have “no religion” when we surveyed them in 2006, claimed a religious affiliation in 2007 (just 6-9 months later), although their beliefs and practices had not significantly changed.

They point out that these “liminals” (with one foot in and one foot out of religion) aren’t captured by any one-shot survey of religiosity since by definition, liminals only show up when one can compare the religiosity of an individual at time1 and time2.  These liminals, as one might expect, are more religious than the truly and consistent secular Americans, but less religious than the truly and consistent religious Americans.  And in examining the social consequences of religion, the liminals exhibit less strong relationships with these social correlates of religion than the truly religious. They are yet another manifestation of the increasing American religious fluidity that is explored and described in American Grace.  [For more on American Grace, see the American Grace Blog.]

Abstract: This study examines the stability of religious preference among people who claim no religious preference in national surveys (i.e., religious nones). Using data from the Faith Matters Study, General Social Survey, and American National Election Study, we show that about 30 percent of religious nones in the first wave of the survey claim an affiliation with a religious group a year later. The percentage of religious nones remained stable in the two waves because a similar number of respondents moved in the opposite direction. Using various measures of religiosity, we show that most of these unstable nones report no significant change in religious belief or practice. We call them liminal nones as they stand halfway in and halfway out of a religious identity. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings on the controversies surrounding the rise of religious nones in recent years.

Cite: “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones” by Chaeyoon Lim, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(4):596–618, December 2010