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.

State of economy for less-educated young people compounds growing Opportunity Gap

Pell City 2007 HS graduation; Flick/kwsanders

Pell City 2007 HS graduation; Flick/kwsanders

While parts of the economy have rebounded since the Great Recession of 2008, the effects have been much worse for the poor, and especially the less-educated young Americans, and those not fortunate enough to graduate from college.

Since 2008, the housing market has started to bounce back.

The stock market, for those fortunate enough to have net savings rather than a negative net worth has more than recovered its recessionary losses (pictured is the S&P500 index).

Recovery in S&P500 since 2009 recession

The economy has created 6.15 million jobs from March 2010 through April 2013 (based on provisional numbers for March/April 2013), enough to lower unemployment but only through many people giving up on finding jobs.  The  percentage of Americans employed in the population hasn’t budged over the last 3.5 years and remains fixed at between 58% and 59%. Larry Summers thinks that the numbers of long-term unemployed is the biggest problem facing this country and is at historically unprecedented in the period since the Great Recession of the 1920s and 1930s.

Put this together with the data that David Leonardt released (“The Idled Young Americans“) showing that the impact has disproportionately fallen on young folks.  Moreover, levels of employment among 16-24 year olds, even as recent as May 2013 remain stubbornly at 45%, at levels not seen in the US since the early 1960s.

Our own research on the fact that children born to less educated families are facing a growing opportunity gap.  American young adults from the bottom socioeconomic quarter are graduating from high school or dropping out with less of the hard academic skills or soft non-cognitive skills necessary for life success.  [We find significantly growing gaps between children from the top third or quarter of socioeconomic families and the bottom third or quarter on measures as diverse as involvement in extra-curriculars, involvement in sports, K-12 test scores, obesity, social trust, involvement with religion, social connectedness, volunteering, college attendance, and college completion.]

And the intersection of these two trends — consequences of the current lackluster economy being borne by the young adults and the growing opportunity gap — means that these gaps are borne disproportionately by less educated young adults.

For example, if one looks at employment to population ratios for 25-34 year olds in 2012, it was only 69.8% for those with a high-school degree (but no college), whereas it was 84.4% for those with 4-year college degrees or more.  Another way of putting this is that only 16% of college-educated 25-34 year olds were out of the labor market versus 30% of those with only a high school degree.

And if that were not enough, there is growing body of literature suggesting that experiences of unemployment or involuntarily being terminated from jobs create long-term scarring effects both on the lifetime earnings of these young people, but also their civic and social connectedness throughout their lives.  [See for example Davis/von Wachter or Gregg/Tominey or Brand/Burgard.]

[There is also unpublished data on this scarring effect in: Laurence, James, and Chaeyoon Lim. “The Long-Term and Deepening Scars of Job  Displacement on Civic Participation over the Life-course: A Cross-National Comparative  Study between the UK and the US.”]

We are brewing a recipe for long-term adverse consequences for these young Americans, especially the less educated ones, and our government ought to be POUND-wise, even if it is “PENNY-foolish” in the eyes of others and invest in jobs for these young 16-25 year olds to avoid the much longer long-term adverse effects.

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

Macolm Gladwell: Goliaths beware?

Flick/cc/craigdamlo

Malcolm Gladwell’s next book will be  David and Goliath (2013, Little Brown).

I haven’t read the book yet, but he wrote a related article in the New Yorker entitled “How David Beats Goliath” detailing that Davids (underdogs) win a surprising 1/3 of the time against much stronger Goliaths.  The article highlighted a poorly-trained California girls’ basketball team who reached the state finals through unconventional  defense like the press. [The article generated some controversy with Gladwell responding to some concerns about Rick Pitino.] Gladwell might have, but didn’t discuss Grinnell Basketball’s innovative strategy to take on better teams of running all out, “run and gun” and substituting in new players every 5 minutes so the team was always fresh.

In an interview with New Yorker’s, Nicholas Thompson in Canada in October 2012, he noted that “Traits that we consider to be disadvantages aren’t disadvantages at all. … As a society, we depend on damaged people far more than we realize. … They’re capable of things the rest of us can’t do [because] they look at things in different ways.”

One key factor in underdog’s success (in business or in life) is employing disruptive strategies that exploit their stronger opponent’s weaknesses. They often move quickly, lay low, channel the opponent’s energy against him or herself, or figure out dimensions along which their Goliath opponent will be slow to change.   [Looks like it might help reprise some of the theories of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.]

He focuses on events like Americans and Soviets losing to Afghanistan. the Americans losing to the Viet Cong, or Steve Jobs vaulting out of nowhere and overtaking wealthy Xerox.  Or Cezanne, who originally was a “failed painter” but comes from behind.  His book relates a bit to Randy Pausch’s advice that barriers are not put up to keep people from their goals but to separate out those who really want something from those who don’t.  [He might also have added to his list the success of the American minutemen in defeating the much better trained and funded British troops through a combination of knowing the terrain, early guerrilla warfare [hiding behind trees and rocks], wearing camouflage rather than bright red uniforms, etc.]

His mantra is embodied in the bible:

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. [Ecclesiastes 9:11]

He believes that Americans shouldn’t focus on getting into the best colleges.  [More on that when books comes out, although maybe he's generalizing from his rise to stardom from a degree from University of Toronto's Trinity College...]

I haven’t read the book yet, but his book flies in the face of our research that suggests that over the last several decades, there is far less equality of opportunity in America than earlier.   These low-income “underdogs” seem to be far less likely to break out of  the low-education of the families they are born into than Gladwell’s optimistic statistics seem to assert.  Look forward to reading the book…

Here’s an interview of Gladwell with CBC’s Terry MacLeod.

Click here for interview with New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson on Underdogs.

For more on Outliers, his last book, click here.