Category Archives: social capital

Good places for kids’ social mobility

Scholars Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hedren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez (from Harvard and Berkeley) have garnered richly deserved  attention for their interesting retrospective look at which places were the best in America for low-income kids to be born in 1980 and 1981 to assure the highest rates of youth mobility.  [Amazingly, to do this, they were able to examine tax returns of all Americans and connect the youth with where they had grown up.]

Map of historic youth mobility in US

[To explore the above map where blue areas are areas of highest mobility and red areas are areas of lowest mobility, visit the New York Times site.]

Their work rhymes with two pieces of research that we have done.

First, they find that the places that promoted the greatest level of mobility were  places high in social capital.  [For an image of social capital by state in the US c. 2000 see here.] This is less surprising, since other scholars have found that places with high social capital were among the places historically to invest in public high schools (e.g., Larry Katz and Claudia Goldin’s work on the birth of American public high school movement in the American heartland).  Moreover, recent research by our research team, highlighted in Robert Putnam’s “Crumbling American Dreams” shows the changes in levels of community solidarity and togetherness, exemplified by the changes in his home town of Port Clinton, OH.

Second, they find that places with greater percentages of minorities were also places that afforded less social mobility for young people.  This resonates with work of Ed Glaeser and Alberto Alesina on how it is harder to foster public investments in places of greater diversity (in the US and Europe) and work that we did in “E Pluribus Unum” that also discusses the short-term challenges of increased diversity.

While their work is retrospective, we are actively involved in gathering data on social mobility for youth from the bottom third of American households (in income and education) that strongly suggests that whether levels of mobility that existed for lower-third youth in the past, future rates of mobility are likely to much lower.  Stay tuned for our evidence of this coming crisis and what we might do about it.

Nextdoor and NYC team up to enhance neighboring

Flickr/kiki99

Flickr/kiki99

I’ve written in the past about efforts to use 21st century technological tools to enhance neighbors’ connections with each other, the sort that are far less common today than in the 1960s or 1970s.

Nextdoor, a leader in this space, has partnered with NYC Mayor  Bloomberg to provide Nextdoor services in 1800 existing NYC neighborhoods.  It’s a win-win partnership.  The city gets a platform that enables them to pinpoint messages that need to get out to certain neighborhoods (such as upcoming events, programs, news, emergency bulletins), and NYC through NYCGov will let New Yorkers know how they can better connect with their neighbors through the Nextdoor platform.  (These Nextdoor networks are secure so users have to verify they actually live in a neighborhood to join and users get to control what of this information is public and what is shared privately between neighbors.)

Nextdoor makes it far easier to share information with neighbors (on mobile phones or computers), whether it is about a community issue, or finding a good painter or babysitter, or setting up a block party, or providing other advice or recommendations.  Nextdoor is also an example of what Bob Putnam and I call “alloy” social capital that combines virtual and face-to-face elements.  We believe that alloy connections are stronger than either the purely virtual social connections in an online gaming community (for instance) and also stronger than purely face-to-face connections.  The platform of Nextdoor also makes it more likely that one will meet new neighbors when one follows up on a e-post by inviting a neighbor to coffee, or start waving to or talking with a neighbor who one previously passed silently.  And for neighborly relations that already exist, Nextdoor can help strengthen them by increasing the frequency with which one connects with neighbors.

See earlier post about Nextdoor here.

The Nextdoor-NYC announcement, builds on similar announcements with 120 city governments over the last 12 months including cities like San Jose, Denver,  Dallas or San Diego.  New York City is an iconic city of 8.3 million people and this agreement offers the potential to unlock a lot of social capital so we’ll watch this with bated breath and hope that many other cities will follow NYC’s lead.

It will be interesting down the road to plot out the rise of Nextdoor usage by neighborhood with its impact on social capital measures (e.g., trust of neighbor or borrowing/lending from neighbors) and on putative downstream measures (such as lower crime rate, from the higher level of e-”eyes on the street” to transmute Jane Jacobs‘ pearl of wisdom into the digital age.

See earlier Social Capital blog post on Nextdoor.

See Wired story about this collaboaration of Nextdoor and NYC.

How loneliness kills

Flick/cc/ewixx

Flickr/cc/ewixx

Judith Shulevitz, in the May 13, 2013 New Republic has an interesting read “The Lethality of Loneliness.”

Excerpt:

“Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people….

“To the degree that loneliness has been treated as a matter of public concern in the past, it has generally been seen as a social problem—the product of an excessively conformist culture or of a breakdown in social norms. Nowadays, though, loneliness is a public health crisis. The standard U.S. questionnaire, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, asks 20 questions that run variations on the theme of closeness—“How often do you feel close to people?” and so on. As many as 30 percent of Americans don’t feel close to people at a given time….

“What He [God] wanted is for us not to be alone. Or rather, natural selection favored people who needed people. Humans are vastly more social than most other mammals, even most primates, and to develop what neuroscientists call our social brain, we had to be good at cooperating. To raise our children, with their slow-maturing cerebral cortexes, we needed help from the tribe. To stoke the fires that cooked the meat that gave us the protein that sustained our calorically greedy gray matter, we had to organize night watches. But compared with our predators, we were small and weak. They came after us with swift strides. We ran in a comparative waddle.

“So what would happen if one of us wandered off from her little band, or got kicked out of it because she’d slacked off or been caught stealing? She’d find herself alone on the savanna, a fine treat for a bunch of lions. She’d be exposed to attacks from marauders. If her nervous system went into overdrive at perceiving her isolation, well, that would have just sent her scurrying home. [John] Cacioppo thinks we’re hardwired to find life unpleasant outside the safety of trusted friends and family, just as we’re pre-programmed to find certain foods disgusting. “Why do you think you are ten thousand times more sensitive to foods that are bitter than to foods that are sweet?” Cacioppo asked me. “Because bitter’s dangerous!”

The article, well worth a read, discusses issues like that only about half of loneliness is hereditary, what areas of the brain light up when we are socially snubbed (the same portion that registers physical pain, i.e., the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), what has been learned about the impact of the absence of loving parents on loneliness from the isolating experience of Russian orphans; and how Nobelist James Heckman is finding that many low SES children bear loneliness scars from poor parenting growing up (that is akin to the impact found by Steve Suomi and Harry Harlow on isolated rhesus macaques).

See other posts about the negative health effects and contagion of  loneliness and social isolation here.

Nice graphic on rise of the “nones” (Americans saying they have no religious preferenc)

This graphic from Good magazine (zoomable version here) has a nice picture, using Pew data, of who the “nones” are in America but as Bob Putnam points out, mis-states  their lack of religiosity on the right hand side of graphic.

Over half of the nones in our Faith Matters Surveys (which we’ve done three times) express belief in God.  American Grace points out that the young have left houses of worship  not because they are Godless, but because they dislike the close intertwining of conservative politics and religion.

http://awesome.good.is.s3.amazonaws.com/transparency/web/1303/contrary-to-popular-belief/flat.html

Altruism the key to worker productivity and advancement?

The New York Times Sunday magazine (3/31/13) has an interesting long read by Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” focusing on research by Wharton (U. Penn) workplace organization psychologist Adam Grant who believes, originally based on personal experience and later supported by hard-headed quant studies that altruism both motivates workers to work harder and helps them to advance.

Snippet:

“For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity. In some sense, he has built a career in professional motivation by trying to unpack the puzzle of his own success. He has always helped; he has always been productive. How, he has wondered for most of his professional life, does the interplay of those two factors work for everyone else?

“Organizational psychology has long concerned itself with how to design work so that people will enjoy it and want to keep doing it. Traditionally the thinking has been that employers should appeal to workers’ more obvious forms of self-interest: financial incentives, yes, but also work that is inherently interesting or offers the possibility for career advancement. Grant’s research, which has generated broad interest in the study of relationships at work and will be published for the first time for a popular audience in his new book, “Give and Take,” starts with a premise that turns the thinking behind those theories on its head. The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

At a university call center, Grant tried reinforcing the ties to needy students to motivate callers and tested its effectiveness.  He found in 6 repeated tests that even a 5 minute speech by a scholarship recipient now working for Teach for America and testifying how the scholarship had changed his life, on average meant that even a month later fundraisers spent 2.5x as much time on the phone, nearly doubled the number of calls made per hour, and average caller brought in 5x as much money per week.  These results were achieved even though workers used the same script and consciously discounted the impact of the student’s talk.   He and others have found other productivity benefits from “gratitude journals” or “thank you notes.”

“Over the years, Grant has followed up that study with other experiments testing his theories about prosocial motivation — the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable payback. In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.”

Grant in his forthcoming book divides the world of workers “divides the world into three categories: givers, matchers and takers. Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders.”

Grant says that the key to successful givers is being strategic about doing nice things for others — what he calls the “5 minute favor” and asking if you can add unique value to the person requesting your time, and if not, strategically connecting the asker with other givers or with matchers for whom you have done past favors.  One can easily imagine that if one is strategic about doing favors for others, social capital theory would suggest that one builds up an informal “favor bank” that as the askers move up in the world, put you in a much stronger position to request favors of others.  It increases his pool of willing collaborators and puts him in a larger web of information flows in an era where expertise and knowledge is often distributed.  It is interesting that the motivation for Grant at least in being a giver is not at all about advancement — for him it is the key to doing what he can to conquer mortality.  He endorses William James’ view that  ‘The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.’

Grant also notes that takers succeed in the short-term but don’t do as well over the long-term perhaps because others use online social networks to punish takers [see e.g., Matthew Feinberg, Joey T. Cheng and Robb Willer, "Gossip as an Effective and Low-Cost Form of Punishment", Behavioral and Brain Science 25(1), Feb 2012.]

He talks about his experience with the University of Michigan fundraising call center about 4 minutes into the following video. One person had a depressing sign on his desk saying “Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit.  You get a warm feeling but no one else notices.”:

I wonder whether his strategy is equally effective for all social strata. Jean Rhodes and others found that post-Katrina low SES survivors  who were more connected with others suffered mental health losses in short-term because all their friends were making demands of them [discussed towards bottom of this blog post].  The workers, like Adam Grant, himself may be less surrounded by needy individuals and more likely to be providing favors to students who will go on to higher stations in life, but very interesting food for thought…

Read Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

Read Adam Grant’s new book, “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” (April 2013)

Skepticism about “on-line community”?

For those skeptical about whether on-line communities offer the same level of social capital as in person friendships, this cartoon is for you.

TedMcCagg "Modern Friendship"

 

Source: tedmccagg.typepad.com

Nextdoor: e-neighborhood networks

 

Sarah Leary, Nextdoor.com

I had an interesting conversation with Sarah Leary, co-founder of Nextdoor.

Sarah comes from having worked at epinions (with the other Nextdoor co-founder Nirav Tolia) and discovering how one could capture reputation and trustworthiness online (in terms of ratings) and how people thirsted to compete with one another to be helpful in their comments.

Nextdoor is now trying to localize social networks.  [A bit more at the bottom of this earlier blog post.]

Nextdoor’s approach is as follows:

1. Individual social entrepreneurs can apply to launch Nextdoor in a community.

2. The social entrepreneur fills out an application form and if he/she looks like they are serious about this and well integrated in the neighborhoods, they are invited to proceed.

3. The social entrepreneur self-defines their community (using tools that make it easy to incorporate parcels, census blocks, etc.).  Ideally a community is between 50 and 200 households.  And they are not allowed to choose geography that is already part of another active Nextdoor community.  And the social entrepreneur invites his/her friends to join.

4. The Nextdoor community is in a pilot period for 21 days, and if there are not 10 active users by then, the site goes dark and users are told that the site hasn’t achieved sufficient momentum.

4. Anyone joining can see a map of the “neighborhood” and see which houses have or have not already joined. Those on the site have the power to invite others in their neighborhood to join the site (by e-mail, postcard, etc.).  A lot of their growth comes from strong word-of-mouth.

They launched in October 2011 and are already in 2100 communities nationwide.  Surprisingly, they have found that in order for sites to be viable, it is less important that they get to some percentage penetration of the community but to get to a surprisingly small number of active users.

All users are verified (by phone, by postcard, by address from a credit card, or by neighbor confirmation) that they are in the relevant neighborhood.

As one would expect from social capital theory, they find that people do in general behave surprisingly civilly.  [This because participants are highly likely to encounter each other off-line, and those behaving dishonestly are likely to be ostracized or  sanctioned.]

Their original motivation for starting the site was to get individuals involved in civic issues, but they found that much of what people wanted to do was discuss crime, or get recommendations, or find local people to sell something.  But their anecdotal experience is that these exchanges help forge the social networks that can be activated when civic issues arise.  Moreover, they believe that these transactions help reinforce generalized trust of participants in their neighbors.

We’ll look forward to hearing about their lessons and what works well or doesn’t.  Obviously, it would be great if they and others succeed in building stronger neighborhood engagement for all the reasons noted in Bowling Alone: better health, lower crime rates, better performing schools and governments, and happier residents.

It remains to be seen what lessons they learn about how online social connections can be maximally used to spur and reinforce face-to-face connections as well.

Guest Post: Want to bridge? DISRUPT! (UPDATED 6/1/2013)

[Guest post by Patricia Brandes, Executive Director of the Barr Foundation. Brandes talks about the ways Barr has used disruption as a tool to spark bridging across difference among social change leaders – with clear positive effects for the leaders themselves, their organizations, and their city, but first a couple interesting videos about the Barr Foundation Fellows:

The first video discusses the network among  leaders, and the power of disruption (by fellows learning by exploring the less developed southern world) to accelerate relationship and trust building among members of a very diverse group.

The second video talks about the power of connectivity (social capital) – and what happens when it bridges boundaries of race, sector, geography.

+++

Patricia Brandes post: I met Tom Sander in June at the annual meeting of Associated Grantmakers in Boston. The topic was social capital and Tom keynoted. David Crowley of Social Capital Inc. was there too, moderating a panel to which I was a last-minute addition (you can find David’s excellent roundup here on the SCI blog). I was invited after the Barr Foundation appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review  – in a case study on the Barr Fellowship (see “The Currency of Social Change”), which is a story about the remarkable return we are seeing in Boston from an investment in social capital.

In his remarks, Tom reminded us that social capital comes in two types – bonding (i.e., with others like me) and bridging (i.e., across difference). Typically, building bonding ties are easier. Bridging is hard. Yet, bridging is vital. More often than not, new ideas, new approaches, and new solutions to persistent challenges come from leaders able to break out of silos and “groupthink” of homogenous networks.  Bridging is also an essential capacity for urban leaders of the 21st century, who must cross boundaries of race and class to create community. This is what makes the Barr Fellowship so special. It is a tightly woven network of bridging connections. After seven years and four classes of twelve fellows each, the Barr Fellowship network represents a remarkable cross section of Boston. Its members are diverse in age, race, sector, geographic focus, and more. Few even knew each other before being inducted as Fellows. The few exceptions were those who knew each other from being on opposite ends of pitched battles over neighborhood projects, or funding, or politics. Now, they know and trust each other deeply, and Boston is reaping the benefits of their boundary-crossing collaborations. Just to name a few examples, there are Barr Fellows behind the scenes of two exciting new Boston Public Schools opening their doors this fall (the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School and the Margarita Muñiz Academy), and behind the new community garden that opened in the Bromley-Heath Public Housing Project last year.

The secret to forging these powerful, bridging connections? In a word…disruption.

The Barr Fellowship begins with a three-month sabbatical. In itself, this is a beneficial disruption for social change leaders, who typically have never had such an opportunity for personal growth and rejuvenation. As the 2009 report, “Creative Disruption,” noted, sabbaticals turn out to be highly beneficial to leaders’ organizations as well. Yet from the perspective of social capital, it is critical that each class of twelve Fellows spends the first two weeks of their sabbatical traveling together to the global south (for example, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti).  In later, years, members of different Fellows’ classes come together for similar journeys – as this group who traveled together to Haiti in March, 2012:

Fellows Alumni group picture, March 2012, Haiti

Stefan Lanfer, who manages communications for Barr, traveled with an earlier group in January, and documented the trip here.

On these “learning journeys,” Fellows are immersed in experiences that open minds and hearts. They interact with social and environmental activists, who, despite scarce resources and great challenges, provide living examples that stir the imagination, inspire and confirm big aspirations, and bolster confidence for Fellows to achieve what they may never have considered possible. Conversations and connections happen among Fellows in many casual and unplanned ways during these journeys. A facilitator from Interaction Institute for Social Change also joins each group to provide more structured opportunities to debrief, reflect, and imagine together.

Barr has a detailed logic model (which you can see here) outlining our thinking for how this investment in disruption translates into big change for the leaders themselves, their organizations, Boston, and even the world. Here is the idea in brief:

When the boundaries are real and seemingly impenetrable, it takes disruption to get to authentic relationships. It takes authentic relationships to build trust. Only when you have real trust can people bridge across difference. And when you have a network of gifted leaders bridging across all kinds of differences, powerful change starts to emerge. This dynamic is best expressed in the words of one of the Barr Fellows, who shared this reflection on his first Barr Fellows learning journey with our evaluator, Claire Reinelt of the Leadership Learning Community:

We were able to open up to each other and state what we thought, what our fears were personally and professionally, where we thought we were going. That was fantastic! To have someone to whom you can say ‘I’ll call you at three in the morning,’ or ‘I’ll be over at your house,’ or, ‘I need some time to debrief, a mental health break,’ or ‘my spirits are low.’ Those are opportunities that were created. You can overcome any obstacle whatsoever if you have someone to fall back on.

 

Patricia H. Brandes is Executive Director of the Barr Foundation. To learn more about the Barr Fellowship, visit www.barrfoundation.org/fellows

The how of social capital

Flickr/drjausSocial capital is a powerful resource for individuals and communities.  For individuals embedded in dense social networks, these networks and the attendant norms of trust and reciprocity strongly shape individuals’ ability to land jobs, earn higher salaries, and be happier and healthier.  But, even for those not in the networks, having neighbors who know and trust one another affords benefits in some domains:  better performing local government, safer streets, faster economic growth and better performing schools, among other public goods.

For sure social capital can be used toward negative ends: Al Qaeda, the Crips and the Bloods, the Michigan Militia are all examples where group members can accomplish things that they could not accomplish individually (because of  group social capital).  That said, the literature supports that the vast majority of what social capital is used for is to produce positive ends, not negative ones.

But why?  What makes social capital so powerful?

Robert Putnam and I had always focused on information-flows as the key mechanism.  So these social networks:

  • enable individuals to access valuable information: how to get something done, hear of  job leads, learn how better to promote one’s health, find out what is happening in a community, etc.; or
  • help individuals find partners for joint economic transactions (e.g., to know with whom to partner  in business, to close a sale to a friend or a friend of a friend, to locate a neighbor with whom one can exchange tools or expertise); or
  • spread reputations of members (or neighbors or local merchants) which causes all people in these networks to behave in a more trustworthy manner and facilitates altruism.  There is always a short-term gain to be had from cheating someone, but if the social networks quickly spread the information that one cannot be trusted, this short-term gain is swamped by the lost future opportunity to do business with others; thus it becomes more rational to be honest and trustworthy in communities (physical or otherwise) with strong social networks. Individuals are also likely to be kinder and more altruistic toward others because they know that “what goes around comes around” in densely inter-connected networks and communities; and
  • facilitate collective action: it is easier to mobilize others around some shared goal like politics or zoning or improving trash pick-up if others in the  community already know and  trust you, rather than your having to build those social relationships from scratch.

But Connected (by Nick Christakis and James Fowler) raises a different frame for thinking about this issue: network effects or contagion.  Are there properties of the networks themselves that help spread practices, independent of the flow of information?  This is difficult to answer fully since much of their evidence comes from the Framingham Heart Study where  they know who people’s friends are but not what they are doing with each other or what they are saying to each other.

That said, some of their results can be explained by information flows (e.g., political influence, or getting flu shots), but some seem likely to be working through other channels and not through information-flows (e.g., happiness or loneliness cascades).

In these “network effects” or contagion, Fowler & Christakis typically find that the strongest “network” effects are directly with one’s friends (one degree of separation), but these effects also ripple out two more levels to  friends of one’s friends (two degrees) and friends of the friends of one’s friends (three degrees).  As one would expect, much like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples get smaller as one moves out.  In fact they refer to the “Three Degrees of Influence” Rule that effects are typically only seen up to three degrees out and not further: in the spread of happiness, political views, weight gain, obesity, and smoking.  For example, in happiness, if one is happy, one degree out (controlling for other factors), one’s friends are 15% happier, at 2 degrees of separation they are 10% happier, and they are 6% happier at 3 degrees of separation.  For obesity, the average obese American is more likely to have obese friends, one, two and three degrees of separation out, but not further.  Quitting smoking has diminishing effects out to three degrees.  For political influence, they note a “get-out-the-vote” experiment that shows that knocking on a stranger’s door and urging the resident to support a recycling initiative had a 10% impact on his/her likelihood to vote for the initiative; what was noteworthy to Christakis and Fowler is that the door-knocking made the spouse (who was not at the door) 6% more likely to support the recycling initiative based on communication with his/her spouse.  They conjecture that if this 60% social pass-through rate of political appeals (6% for spouse vs. 10% for person answering door) applied to one’s friends and if everyone had 2 friends, then one person urging friends to vote a certain way would have a 10% impact on one’s friends, a 6% impact on one’s friends’ friends (2 degrees) and a 3.6% impact 3 degrees out.  Multiplying these political effects all the way through, one vote could create a 30x multiplier. [The example is eye-opening and suggests that voting and political persuasion may be less irrational than thought, but also is based on a huge number of assumptions and assumes no cross-competing messages from friends.]

In an experiment on altrusim (explained in this post) Christakis & Fowler found that $1.00 of altruism, ultimately produced $1.05 of multiplier effect ($.20 one ripple out with 3 others and $.05 of altruism two ripples out with 9 others).

Christakis and Fowler, in their book, talk about contagion effects in voting, suicide, loneliness, depression, happiness, violence, STDs, number of sexual partners, binge drinking, back pain, and getting flu shots, among others.  [One summary of many of their findings, which they note, is "You make me sick!"]

Why do these effects only reach out 3 degrees of influence?  Christakis & Fowler suggest 4 potential explanations.

1) intrinsic decay: C&F liken this to a game of telephone where as the information gets repeated, the content gets lost, or the passion and knowledge of the initiator gets dissipated.

2) Instability of ties: because of what is known as “triadic closure“, if A is friends with B and B is friends with C, it is likely that A will become friends with C.  Because of this, closer-in ties between people have more routes connecting them, and further out ties are more dependent on only one pathway connecting them.  For example, assume Abby and Fran were friends 3 degrees removed via Bert and via Charles. If any of these intervening friendships end (say Bert is no longer friends with Charles), Abby loses her tie to Fran.  Thus, these outer ties are much less stable and averaged across all the “3 degrees of influence” friendships, many more may have zero effect because the path of influence dies out as friends change.

3) cross-information:  as one gets further out away from you, say the friends of the friends of your friends, all of these folks are getting lots of cross-stimuli from lots of other sources (many of which may come from different clusters with different habits or values) and these cross-stimuli start to cancel each other out.

4) evolutionary biology: C&F note that humans evolved in small groups that had a maximum of three degrees of separation so it may be that we became more attuned to being influenced by folks who were in a position to alter our gene pool.

So what are the network influences independent of communication.  There seem like 6 possible channels, and often it is hard to separate one from the other, although some may make more sense for the spread of behaviors and others may make more sense for spread of attitudes or emotions:

1) homophily: “Homophily” is the practice of befriending others like you — “birds of a feather flock together.” Being friends with people who are different than you can be stressful.  This is why in mates and in friends we are likely to choose others with whom we have a lot in common — think of arguments you’ve had with friends about where to go for dinner or what is right or wrong with the world when those friends have very different tastes or politics.  For this reason, one reason for increased clustering over time of obese people or smokers or binge drinkers is that it is stressful to be in groups where one is the minority and either constantly noodging others to change their behavior or else your finding yourself frequently doing what your friends want to and what you do not (e.g., eat fast food, smoke, or listen to heavy metal rock music).  As a consequence, people may vote with their feet and form new ties or strengthen ties with others with whom they have more in common.

2) norms/reference groups/culture/peer pressure:   we often measure the reasonableness of our behavior against our friends.  For example, if our teen friends have all had 6 sexual partners in the last year, then repartnering seems far more normal than if one is friends with a group that is heavily monogamous.  Ditto with obesity or smoking or other possible traits or behaviors.

3) subconscious/imitation:  as suggested with “emotion” below, sometimes we mirror others’ behavior or emotions without even thinking about it.  C&F say it makes sense to think of people as subsconsciously reacting to those around them without being aware of any larger pattern.  They talk about processes by which a “wave” at a sporting event takes place, or fish swim in unison, or geese fly in a V-formation, or crickets become synchronized — all of these happen by individuals mirroring those around them.  And in the process, emergent properties of the group arise (much like a cake takes on the taste unlike any of its individual ingredients).

4) emotions: C&F note that emotions actually affect our physical being — our voices, our faces, our posture.  In experiments, people actually “catch emotions”: others become happier by spending time around happy people or sadder by hanging out with depressed individuals.  In experiments, smiling waiters get bigger tips.  It seems quite plausible that cascades like loneliness, happiness, depression, etc. could spread simply from emotional states, independent of any information flowing through these friendships.

5) social invitations for shared action: friends often invite friends to do things — that’s part of friendship. For behaviors, one of the ways they can spread through networks is that, for example, thin friends could invite friends to exercise more, or obese friends could encourage friends to get ice cream together, or smokers could encourage others to leave the dance for a cig.

Connected notes that it is often hard, for example, to tell imitation and norms apart, “When a man gives up his motorcycle after getting hitched, is he copying his wife’s behavior (she doesn’t have a motorcycle) or adopting a new norm (the infernal things are unsafe?)”

Connected also notes how behaviors or attitudes can spread several social links out, even without the intervening link changing.  They suggest that Amy could have a friend Maria who has a friend Heather.  (Amy and Heather don’t know one another.)  Heather gains weight.  Maria, who really likes Heather, becomes less judgmental of her weight and gradually less judgmental of  obesity in general.  Maria doesn’t change her behavior but when Amy stops exercising with Maria, Maria is less likely to pressure her to resume.  Thus Heather’s obesity changes Amy via Maria (by Maria no longer urging her to keep exercising), but Maria doesn’t change her behavior and Amy and Heather don’t know one another.

It’s interesting stuff to ponder and makes one think more expansively about the role and mechanisms of social capital.  It also evokes a conversation with a Saguaro Seminar participant back in 1998 concerning whether black kids and white kids doing sidewalk painting together on the steps of an art museum could promote inter-racial trust, even if the black kids and white kids didn’t know each other, didn’t talk to one another and never met again.  [My hunch is yes, depending on the strength of their pre-existing beliefs about inter-racial trust, but that talking could make the exchange far more powerful.] Another Saguaro participant wondered whether singing together in a chorus helps build social capital, even if one never has a conversation directly with another member of the chorus.  (In the latter example, in addition to being highly unlikely, you are at least getting some non-verbal information over time from the other choral members about their trustworthiness: do they come regularly and on time, do they respectfully listen to and follow the choralmeister?)

I welcome your thoughts.

For more on the network effects, read pp. 24-30, 25-43 and 112-115 in Connected.

Gross National Happiness?

Flickr/smysnbrgThe United Nations held a historic UN Conference on Happiness on April 2 to discuss wide discrepancies in levels of happiness worldwide and whether countries should track happiness in addition to other more standard economic measures. The meeting drew 600 delegates, including leaders and scholars from around the world.  The main consequence of the meeting, in addition to exploring what is known about happiness research was to focus on happiness and wellbeing at the Sustainable Development Rio+20 conference in June.   It is also likely that when the new new Sustainable Development Goals come out in 2015 (a re-working of the Millennium Goals) happiness will be on the list of priorities, joining the stalwarts like anti-poverty  and educational goals.

The UN meeting follows on the visible efforts of Nicholas Sarkozy (the so called Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission) in 2009 and the decision in 2010 of the UK government to begin measuring happiness regularly.

Attending the conference were, among others, my colleague Robert Putnam, Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, Costa Rican president Laura Chincill, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley.

“The US has had a three time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn’t budged” [Jeffrey Sachs]

Sachs suggested that there were much more efficient strategies, as shown by other countries, for how to achieve higher levels of average wellbeing than to focus on boosting the size of the economy, as the US has done.

P.M. Thinley (whose country Bhutan has endorsed Gross National Happiness) suggested that focusing on happiness worldwide was essential if the world was to get on a sustainable trajectory.  Last summer, led by Bhutan, the UN unanimously adopted a measure “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.”

Sachs, John Helliwell (a friend and colleague) and Richard Layard, helped produce the interesting background World Happiness Report for the conference which both discusses worldwide variation in happiness and scientific evidence that happiness can be reliably measured and is meaningful.

The Guardian article by Mark Williamson also describes a conference the day before the UN Conference: “[G]lobal experts debated the cutting edge of wellbeing research. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist, had explained how happiness is a skill that can be learned; public policy expert Robert Putnam showed us the vital importance of social connections; economist Joseph Stiglitz highlighted the flaws with GDP; Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explained the reciprocal benefits of altruism; and Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, reminded us that there’s much more to a flourishing life than just the absence of misery.”

Excerpt from World Happiness Report:

We live in an age of stark contradictions. The world enjoys technologies of unimaginable sophistication; yet has at least one billion people without enough to eat each day. The world economy is propelled to soaring new heights of productivity through ongoing technological and organizational advance; yet is relentlessly destroying the natural environment in the process. Countries achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to new crises of obesity, smoking, diabetes, depression, and other ills of modern life.

These contradictions would not come as a shock to the greatest sages of humanity, including Aristotle and the Buddha. The sages taught humanity, time and again, that material gain alone will not fulfill our deepest needs. Material life must be harnessed to meet these human needs, most importantly to promote the end of suffering, social justice, and the attainment of happiness. The challenge is real for all parts of the world.

As one key example, the world’s economic superpower, the United States, has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry.  Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low. Perhaps for these reasons, life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.

The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities. They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history. If we continue mindlessly along the current  economic trajectory, we risk undermining the Earth’s life support systems – food supplies, clean water, and stable climate – necessary for human health and even survival in some places. On the other hand, if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment. “Sustainable Development” is the term given to the combination of human well-being, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. We can say that the quest for happiness is intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.”

Prince Charles, who attended and gave a talk, said: “The grim reality is that our planet has reached a point of crisis. The time for us to act is rapidly running out. We are facing what could be described as a ‘perfect storm’: the combination of pollution and over-consumption of finite natural resources; the very real risk of catastrophic climate change; unprecedented levels of financial indebtedness, and a population of seven billion that is rising fast.”

For prior reports on happiness, read here and here is a summary of recent happiness research.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his introductory remarks commented: ““Gross National Product (GNP) has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress. We need a new economic paradigm that recognises the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental wellbeing are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.” Read his introductory remarks here.

[BBC report on the conference here.]  NYT pre-Conference story here by Timothy Ryback.

For more on the link between social capital and wellbeing, read “Social Capital, The Economy, and Wellbeing” (John Helliwell).