Category Archives: social interaction

The science of friendship

Flickr/JimBoudThere is an interesting article by Robin Dunbar in The New Scientist: Dunbar’s Number was named after Robin, from his theorizing that humans only had the brain capacity to manage roughly 150 relationships, although depending on gender, social skills and personality, this number could vary from 100-250.  Dunbar observes that communication often breaks down when one exceeds 150 individuals (as evidenced in the Crimean War by the Charge of the Light Brigade) and the modern military and businesses only exceed these limits through strict hierarchies.

Dunbar theorizes that language, laughter and communal music-making evolved as a way to stay connected to a larger group of individuals than possible through physical acts like grooming. Dunbar: “[N]ot only can we speak to many people at the same time, we can also exchange information about the state of our networks in a way that other primates cannot. Gossip, I have argued, is a very human form of grooming.”  Christakis and Fowler (in the excellent book Connected) note that “…language is a less yucky and more efficient way to get to know our peers since we can talk to several friends at once but only groom them one at a time.  In fact, in a conversation with a small group, we can assess the behavior, health, aggressiveness, and altruism of several individuals simultaneously.  Plus, we can talk to someone else while engaged in another activity, like foraging for food in a refrigerator.”  Christakis and Fowler note how radical the idea is that language evolved not primarily as a way to exchange information but to maintain group cohesion.   “Dunbar estimates that language would have to be 2.8 times more efficient than grooming in order to sustain the [average] group size seen in humans” (one speaker per 2.8 listeners).

While language may have originally evolved, as per Dunbar, to maintain a slightly larger group size, once developed it was in principle possible to use language to maintain social relations on a tribal or national level.

A few other excerpts from Dunbar’s article:

Group living needn’t tax your intelligence too much. In a loose herd, cues such as body size or aggressiveness may be enough to judge whether you should challenge or steer clear of another individual. In bonded networks, however, you need to know each member’s personal characteristics and those of the friends and relations that might come to their aid. Keeping track of the ever-changing web of social relationships requires considerable mental computing power.

As a reflection of this, there is a correlation between the size of a species’ brain– in particular its neocortex– and the typical size of its social groups. In other words, brain size seems to place a limit on the number of relationships an individual can have. This link between group size and brain size is found in primates and perhaps a handful of other mammals that form bonded societies such as dolphins, dogs, horses and elephants. In all other mammals and birds, unusually large brains are found only in species that live in pair-bonded (monogamous) social groups.

As group size increases so too does the number of relationships that need servicing. Social effort is not spread evenly. Individuals put most effort into their closest relationships to ensure that these friends will help out when they need them. At the same time they maintain the coherence of the group. As a result, social networks resemble a nested hierarchy with two or three best friends linked into larger groupings of more casual friends, and weaker relationships bonding the entire group. This hierarchy typically has a scaling ratio of three– each layer of decreasing intimacy is three times larger than the one before it….

HUMAN SOCIAL NETWORKS

Our social networks can have dramatic effects on our lives. Your chances of becoming obese, giving up smoking, being happy or depressed, or getting divorced are all influenced by how many of your close friends do these things. A good social network could even help you live longer since laughing with friends triggers the release of endorphins, which seem to “tune” the immune system, making you more resilient to disease. So what factors influence the form and function that our social networks take.

In traditional societies, everyone in the community is related to everyone else, either as biological relatives or in-laws. In post-industrial societies this is no longer true– we live among strangers, some of whom become friends. As a result, our social circles really consist of two separate networks– family and friends– with roughly half drawn from each group.

Because the pull of kinship is so strong, we give priority to family, choosing to include them in our networks above unrelated individuals. Indeed, people who come from large extended families actually have fewer friends. One reason we favour kin is that they are much more likely to come to our aid when we need help than unrelated individuals, even if these are very good friends.

Family and friend relationships differ in other important ways, too. One is that friendships are very prone to decay if untended. Failure to see a friend for six months or so leaves us feeling less emotionally attached to them, causing them to drop down through the layers of our network hierarchy. Family relationships, by contrast, are incredibly resilient to neglect. As a result, the family half of our network remains constant throughout most of our lives whereas the friendship component undergoes considerable change over time, with up to 20 per cent turnover every few years.

More than 60 per cent of our social time is devoted to our five closest friends, with decreasing amounts given over to those in the layers beyond, until at the edge of the 150 layer are people we perhaps see once a year or at weddings and funerals. Nevertheless, the outer reaches of our social networks have a positive role to play. The sociologist Mark Granovetter at Stanford University in California has argued that these weak links in our social networks are especially useful in the modern world. It is through this widespread network of contacts that we find out about job vacancies and other economic or social opportunities. More importantly, perhaps, 70 per cent of us meet our romantic partners through these contacts.

Read “Getting Connected” by Robin Dunbar (New Scientist, 4/3/12)

Designing games to save the world

WoW game screenshot - Flickr photo by wynter

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, notes that the amount of time that young people spend gaming is already large and predicted to become extraordinary.  500 million people (mainly youth) worldwide spend more time gaming than in school and this number is projected to grow to 1.5 billion in a decade.  These 500 million noticeably already game enough to make them experts by age 21, according to Gladwell’s Outliers book that focuses on the importance of accumulating 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso.

So rather than wag our fingers at gamers, we should recognize what is great about game playing and why they do it, and then try to channel these skills and energy into saving the world.

Why they do it?

McGonigal cites an economist’s belief that youth are making rational choices to spend more time in virtual worlds since they are better than the real world.  She notes that there is no unemployment in World of Warcraft and hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators.  Youth can at any time participate in a mission that is constantly at the verge of what they can accomplish and be part of an inspiring story.  They get Plus-1 intelligence and Plus-1 feedback on their quests.

What do youth get extremely good at through video games:

1) expressing urgent optimism

2) forming a tight social fabric.  McGonigal believes that it takes a lot of trust to play games with people (since others stay in the games until they end, play by the rules, etc.)  [I’m not sure how solid this basis of evidence is, although McGonigal has interesting anecdotes and alludes to research, of which I’m unsure how scientific it is.]

3) gamers are in such blissful productivity that they are happier working hard than relaxing.

4) gamers take on an adventure with epic meaning.  [She notes that the second biggest wiki in the world after Wikipedia is the World of Warcraft wiki with almost 80,000 articles, which 5 million people access monthly.]

What is great about it?

“Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family. Studies show that we like and trust someone better after we play a game with them — even if they beat us. And we’re more likely to help someone in real life after we’ve helped them in an online game. It’s no wonder that 40% of all user time on Facebook is spent playing social games. They’re a fast and reliable way to strengthen our connection with people we care about.” [note: not sure what studies she is referring to, although apparently in some of her own games she has clearly observed such behavior.  McGonigal has said elsewhere that “Thirty minutes of playing a co-op game changes for an entire week how cooperative we are in real life….Just ninety seconds of playing with an avatar can change your odds for success in a real-world situation for 24 hours….The science shows that it doesn’t matter where you get your positive emotions; if you feel a positive emotion it has the same impact on your health and happiness regardless of where it comes from.”] From “REVIEW — Be a Gamer, Save the World — Videogames make players feel like their best selves; Why not give them real problems to solve?” By Jane McGonigal (Wall St. Journal, January 22, 2011, p. C3)  [essay is adapted from “Reality Is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, Penguin Press, 2011. ]

Elsewhere McGonigal notes generally that “Studies [again not sure what studies she is referring to] show that cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.”  McGonigal also states “research shows that social ties are strengthened much more when we play games in the same room than when we play games together online.”

How to use it to save the world?

The key is to harness all the positive parts of gaming – concentration, motivation, hard work, inspiration — for positive ends. The challenge is not to ignore games but design games that make the real world as exciting as games and in the process give us knowledge and skills useful to solving real world problems.  She says that maybe we should spur developers by offering a “Nobel”-like Prize to the best invention of a game each year that helps solve a really important social problem.

Superpowers add up to superempowered, hopeful individuals.    The challenge is to convince gamers that they are also empowered to change the real world.  We need to make people’s rewards, feedback, motivation be as high in the real world.  We have to make the real world more like a game.

One reviewer skeptical of games (Catherine DeLange) noted that games are everywhere in our life and can be a force for good; “Before writing this review, for example, I went for a run. I was tired and felt like giving up after 30 minutes, but stuck it out for 45. Why? Because I knew when I got home I’d be docking my iPod with my computer and logging my run on a website called Nike Plus. The site not only tracks my progress and records my mood, but also lets me “level up” the more I run. Since I joined up, I’ve run 858 kilometres, so I’m classed as a green runner. When I hit 1000 km I’ll move up to blue, hopefully ahead of my running buddies who joined up with me. I know every extra step I run will get me further in this game.”

McGonigal has tried at least 6 games (World Without Oil; Superstruct; Evoke;  Cruel 2 b Kind;  Chorewars and Jane the Concussion Slayer – the latter to deal with a brain concussion from which she was recuperating).

She also recommends games that others have created.  The Extraordinaries provides players with a mission and instructions on how to solve it; the mission is tailored to the needs of a non-profit and the public like tracking and photographing life-saving defibrillators’ location.  The information is then uploaded to a First Aid Corps database, that tracks the location of publicly accessible defibrillators world-wide, in order to be available to help save lives.  Elude is a game to help caregivers understand what depression feels like: players complete the various game levels twice, the second made significantly harder to mirror the difficulties of achieving tasks while depressed.

1) World Without Oil: piloted in 2007 with 17,000 players.  Gamers are forced to challenge themselves to survive in a world without oil.  McGonigal claims that most players are actively continuing many of the oil-free skills they learned or invented in the game.

2) Superstruct: a supercomputer has determined that world is coming to an end and players have to invent the future of energy, future of food, health, security, social safety net.    8,000 gamers played for 8 weeks and came up with 500 out-of-the-box solutions to these problems.

3) Evoke with World Bank Institute (March 2010).  WBI invited folks in sub-Saharan Africa and in the developing world to partner together and test and develop their social entrepreneurship skills. Over 10 weeks, the gamers worked on 10 missions  addressing  issues like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, water security, conflict, disaster relief, health care, education, and human rights. The stories were told in a graphic novel, that demanded local insight, sustainability, vision, and resourcefulness. WBI succeeded in attracting just under 20,000 young participants from over 130 countries. The collaboration among Evoke gamers in only 10 weeks led to more than 50 social enterprises being launched. “One example is this great project called Libraries Across Africa. The idea is basically a McDonalds of libraries that has money-making ventures (food, phone service) surrounding the library to make it self-supporting.

While McGonigal’s framing seems a bit pollyannish, for sure we should make lemonade of video games, even if we view them as lemons.  She notes that gamers are now gaming to escape from the real world. She observes that Herodotus said dice games were invented to distract Libyans from their famine; Libyans survived for 18 years, by eating one day and fasting the next all while distracted from their hunger by game playing.  Herodotus ultimately realized the famine was not ending so he directed the Libyans to play a final dice game and the winners were sent on an epic adventure to find a new place to live.  She notes that there is some genetic evidence that this is true: Etruscans appear to have left Libya to found Roman empire around this time.  McGonigal hopes and believes that we can empower young people to make an optimistic future come to pass.

See also earlier post on “Social Capital Games” where we discussed two of McGonigal’s efforts “Cruel 2 b kind” and “Chorewars.”

See also Gaming can make the world a better place (Jane McGonigal TED 2010 talk).

Postal service considering shutting many post offices: community implications

P.O. Boxes - Flickr photo by bryanpearson

“Now, with the red ink showing no sign of stopping, the postal service is hoping to ramp up a cost-cutting program that is already eliciting yelps of pain around the country. Beginning in March, the agency [the US Postal Service] will start the process of closing as many as 2,000 post offices, on top of the 491 it said it would close starting at the end of last year. In addition, it is reviewing another 16,000 — half of the nation’s existing post offices — that are operating at a deficit, and lobbying Congress to allow it to change the law so it can close the most unprofitable among them. The law currently allows the postal service to close post offices only for maintenance problems, lease expirations or other reasons that don’t include profitability.

The news is crushing in many remote communities where the post office is often the heart of the town and the closest link to the rest of the country. Shuttering them, critics say, also puts an enormous burden on people, particularly on the elderly, who find it difficult to travel out of town.”  [From Wall Street Journal, “Postal Service Eyes Closing Thousands of Post Offices” (January 24, 2011)]

As the article notes, post offices are often the social hubs of smaller communities and shuttering them has strong negative implications for social capital (chances for neighbors to see one another, renew ties, share stories, and help each other out).  It was a discussion of such a scenario that prompted the Saguaro Seminar to think about Social Capital Impact Assessment.

It makes one wish there could be a creative competition for how to turn around the fate of these post offices:  to enliven them and make them financially sustainable rather than closing them perhaps by leasing out some of the space.  For example, what if one could combine picking up one’s mail or delivering packages with some other really important function like a convenience store or a combination Starbucks and post office.  Other critics of the P.O. closings note that it is the excessive cost structure of the postal service that is to blame.

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]

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.

Train in vain

Australian designer Hamit Kanuni Kuralkan proposes a train with mini pods. The supposed benefit? Everyone gets their own personal space. But the design has a much larger social cost: no chance of building social capital on the ride with one’s train mates. Not to mention if the riders actually have to work together in the event of a crisis (someone having a heart attack, an accident, a terrorist attack,…)

Let’s hear it for progress (cue sarcastic background music!).

It does look cool, but why couldn’t he design something that would actually help society? Too much to ask?

[If you’re just into design, ignoring the social consequences, you can see other pictures of the “train to nowhere” here.]