Tag Archives: social cohesion

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)

Using evolution to improve neighborhoods: The Neighborhood Project

David Sloan Wilson is undertaking an interesting project to try to learn the rules for evolving cooperation while improving his community (Binghamton, NY), a city of 47,000 in upstate New York that has fallen on hard times with the industrial flight of corporate mainstays. A March 2011 Gallup poll found Binghamton to be one of the five least liked cities in the US.  His effort is change all that is called the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP).  It raises all the usual interesting questions about being dispassionate and objective in one’s research, and not attempting to alter the very metrics one is measuring.

BNP has done interesting mapping work (relevant to those of you that are interested in doing the same thing in your areas). For example, students dropped lost letters in different parts of the community and measured the percentage that reached their destination.  They charted the density of Halloween and Christmas decorations as an indicator of community pride, participation, and goodwill.  And they mapped their data in interesting ways, using krig maps to show pro-social peaks as well, peaks.  [See: Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations on a City-wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30: 190-200.]  [See great sample of 3-D visualization of crime data for San Francisco here.]

Efforts include: a design your own park effort, a Regents Academy for at-risk youth where students are incentivized for good behavior and cooperation, the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project to survey and map Binghamton’s religious diversity.

The Design Your Own Park initiative seeks to transform abandoned lots into community playgrounds. Groups submit ideas and the community votes on the idea the most like.  The United Way of Broom County helps secure funding for the transformation and community groups agree to maintain the park.  The goal is to foster parks throughout the city and there are 5 park projects underway including a BMX bike park and a dog park.

At Binghamton’s Regents Academy, a higher percentage of at-risk students took and passed state tests than in other Binghamton schools, but no formal assessment has been done of the school.  Moreover, at least as of June, the regime of rewards was still changing weekly and the principal, Miriam Purdy, while believing in the importance of the incentives, did not believe that the incentive program is about evolution.

The Religion and Spirituality Project is motivated by Wilson’s belief that religion can play a central role in producing community cohesion and giving residents a sense of life meaning.

Wilson believes that community residents (using his biological training) can behave either like water striders (which pursue their goals single mindedly, ignoring others) or wasps (which work together subconsciously for their collective good).  Pro-social groups can outcompete those lacking social cohesion, so he believes there is an evolutionary element to encouraging prosocial behavior.  He believes the seven key elements to more effective collective efforts are: 1) a strong sense of group identity; 2) proportional costs and benefits for all residents; 3) consensus decision-making; 4) monitoring those who are anti-social; 5) providing graduated sanctions (ranging from minor slaps on the wrist to more serious sanctions for chronic infringers); 6) fast, fair conflict resolution system; and 7) autonomy/authority, nested within polycentric governance (which links these localized efforts together).  Above and beyond these factors, he believes that residents need lots of practice at cooperating, and often our affluence buys us out of community, in the same way that David Brooks refers to the Haimish line.

Listen to NPR story ‘Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?

Interesting Nature story (9 June 2011) on this called “Darwin’s City

Read “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time”; excerpt available here.

Innovations in social capital and housing

Two interesting things to watch on the intersection of social capital and housing:

1) The claimed growth of “pocket neighborhoods” (a handful of houses around a shared common yard) to reduce the necessary land for a house but still leave homeowners and children with a safe outdoor space to play in and entertain in.  (See USA Today article.)  This obviously could increase social interaction since there is far less private space.  I haven’t seen any studies of this, but it would be hard to test, because families that move into pocket neighborhoods undoubtedly desire greater interaction than families moving into houses with private yards. So, even if there were more social capital in pocket neighborhoods, it is hard to disentangle how much is the shared yard and how much is the community-mindedness of the residents. [For more examples of pocket neighborhoods see Ross Chapin, Cottage Company, and this blog post.]  A wikipedia article describes pocket neighborhoods in other areas like Boston (MA), Duluth (MN), Beloit (WI), Redmond (WA), among others.  Pocket neighborhoods are somewhat related to other attempts to engineer more social capital through physical design, such as co-housing or New Urbanism.

2) Bob Putnam has written about the challenges of building social capital amidst greater diversity.  One interesting approach to this challenge, is Singapore’s policy of rough ethnic quotas in public housing at the block and neighborhood level, begun in 1989, In theory this policy could be quite successful in building social cohesion and trust across the 3 major community groups in Singapore: the Malay (14%), the Indians (8%) and the Chinese (77%).   Given the fact that 82-86% of the Singaporean population lives in public housing, the impact could be quite widespread.  We’re not aware of good, careful studies of the social consequences of this mixing, and one should be wary of declaring victory based on the chastening US experience with HOPE VI.  Mixed income housing under HUD’s HOPE VI program may be successful along some lines, but hasn’t led in general, in the studies we’re aware of (or see this report), to strong cross-class mixing in these neighborhoods.  Read this Singapore Online Citizen piece for an update on Singapore’s Housing Integration (2/17/11).

Home Alone II: NYT story on Robert Putnam’s diversity and social capital research

I’ve previously written one entry on our research on diversity and social capital research here.  This is a postscript of some interesting coda.

First, there is another interesting story on this research by Erin Hoover Barnett in Oregonian called “More Diversity, Less Trust” (6/18/07).

Second, there are two interesting posts about cognitive overload.  First, this Dartmouth study from 2003 that explains how cognitive overload (mental stress) can be a factor in coping in more diverse environments as people try to censor bias.

And Charles Kadushin, Visiting Research Professor Sociology at Brandeis University, writes in private communication:

Georg Simmel, a Jewish cosmopolite in Berlin in the 1920’s, wrote “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” He asserted that “in a metropolis we are so assaulted by diverse stimuli that we protect ourselves by building an insulating cocoon…. Simmel’s social circle idea in Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations (1922) is also germane. “In a metropolitan area we have a “do-it-yourself” construction of our social circles such that we may be the only intersection point for a circle of mountain climbers, Opera lovers, and Gay Orthodox Jews. Simple large categories of ethnicity don’t capture this. This is why people live in metropolitan areas and once you show them gay Paris you can’t get them back on the farm. As you probably know, I have written about this. The net result of this complex intersection of social circles is that universalism or rampant joining or perhaps even bowling in leagues is sharply inhibited because we can find a finely tuned circle just like the one we want and ignore the others. This is also a corollary of the small world hypothesis. Duncan Watt’s “cave” model of short circuiting which make the small world work which many now think is an unreasonable assumption, is actually a good one because of the Simmel phenomenon. The “caves” of relative dense interaction are social circles, but the metropolitan phenomenon means that a single member of the circle can serve as a bridge to one in which the members are quite unlike the those in the first circle.”

While Putnam’s E Pluribus Unum has already controlled for metropolitanism (by which we mean urbanism, like population density, your commuting time, census tract average community time, etc.), and we find an effect of diversity independent of an effect of urbanism. But Simmel’s argument about overload and assault of the senses may still be the mechanism that we are uncovering that link diversity with lower levels of social capital. So the research finds a similar effect of diversity in Yakima, WA (a small city c. 71k outside any major metro areas) as in L.A or Houston.