Tag Archives: social norms

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.

Peer pressure as social cure; Rosenberg’s “Join The Club”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, MacArthur “genius grant” winner and New York Times magazine writer Tina Rosenberg has a new engaging book out called “Join The Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” about how peer groups and their social ties can be used to cure social problems (“the social cure”).
She chronicles peer groups that spread information and promote positive lifestyles for group members; examples include how Florida fought teen smoking through teen groups taking on tobacco companies through the Truth Campaign; how students effectively protested against Serbian dictator Milosevic by using street theater in a group called Otpor; how LoveLife, a peer group in S. Africa, made AIDS awareness part of an aspirational lifestyle for teens; how the Chicago-based Willow Creek Community Church tries to change lives over small neighborhood-based Table groups; how a village-health worker group in Jamkhed, India is teaching Untouchables to have self-respect; how a peer-based group successfully taught calculus to poor Latino students (“Emerging Scholars“) through nightly study groups; and even how a community drop-in center in Brixton, England for Muslim teens might be effective in anti-terrorism efforts in the UK.
We applaud Ms. Rosenberg on her campaign although much of this “social cure” is old wine in new bottles. Sociologists have known for a long time how social settings can effect our choices for good or ill (see experiments of Asch or Milgram).  And many groups for a long time have thus used the power of peers to increase their effectiveness.
This is after all why many weight loss groups are formed (because the social bonds help people keep weight loss promises) or why Al-Anon uses 12-step group methods to overcome addictions; it is why micro-lending programs (like the Grameen Bank) are organized in groups (to increase repayment rates).
Basically these groups are using social capital.  Social Capital achieves its impact through five main paths: 1) providing increased access to information (like learning of potential project partners or job leads); 2) providing increased sense of meaning that individuals find from social engagement; 3) developing stronger group social norms (e.g., I do something that I might not on my own because I’m worried about my social standing in the group) that members feel pressure to conform to; 4) aiding reciprocity (e.g., I do something for someone else in the group now without expecting any immediate repayment because I expect that they, or someone else will do something for me down the road); and 5) the facilitation of collective action (just jargon for saying it makes it easier to do things that require collaboration and concerted response).  The power that Rosenberg finds in “peer pressure” in these various groups is primarily a function of these paths.
For example, people in a weight loss group stick to their weight loss regimen better because they care about others in the group and what they think and they worry that they will sacrifice these friendships or be embarrassed if they have to admit in the group what caloric foods they snacked on or how they missed their weight loss target.
What is perhaps new or unusual about the book is the acknowledgement of the role of marketing and Rosenberg’s belief that the message has to be positive.
First, marketing can be a powerful reinforcer of group ties and social norms and the desire to be in a group in the first place.  In the South African , although AIDS awareness was a primary goal of LoveLife, they didn’t wear this on their sleeve.  Countless billboards, public service announcements, games and concerts got teens convinced that being part of LoveLife was important.  Teens often exhibit flock tendencies, where the desire of doing something rises as the number of your peers are doing this as well.  LoveLife benefited from this, and AIDS awareness was a less visible but core part of the LoveLife message.  It’s unclear what the relative weights were on the attractive message and marketing, the friendships, and the social norms in what got people to join, stay with and achieve LoveLife goals.
A second one of Rosenberg’s messages is that the approach has to be positive and not based out of fear.  One has to make joining hip and fun rather than like castor oil or broccoli.   We argued something similar in the BetterTogether report.
As Rosenberg notes, “If you want to help someone change their behavior to accomplish a social goal, don’t give them new information and don’t use appeals based on fear. The most effective way is to provide them with a new peer group of people who they can identify with and who can hold them accountable. If you can get people to be active and to overcome their fear, fatalism and passivity, then you’ve gone a long way towards what you want to do.” Rosenberg acknowledges that she didn’t invent the power of groups, but she thinks they could be more widely used and enhanced with these positive lifestyle messages, maybe even for something like tackling global warming.  This approach has its merits, although it should be noted that there are many successful groups like “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” (MADD) that were not about forming a positive lifestyle “Mothers For Sober Drivers” but aligned in their opposition to an evil, so it’s not clear that Rosenberg’s “be positive” message helpfully describes what efforts succeed or fail.

Rosenberg believes there are limits to the “peer pressure” approach. It is time-consuming and she thinks it is less effective at persuasive education about societal facts and trends.

Rosenberg acknowledges that “peer pressure” has gotten its bad image because much of what teens use social pressure to enhance are negative goals: pressure others to buy Ugg boots or silly bandz, or bully an unpopular schoolmate, or pressure other teens to use drugs.  Although she stresses that outside groups (non-profits or government) could use this peer pressure for good, corporations or non-profits could just as well use it for negative ends, something that we openly admit in our writings and Bob (Putnam) has discussed in Bowling Alone.  And social groups might help promote goals about which there is societal disagreement:  teens might be urged to join small religious groups to promote”covenant marriage” (sticking with a marriage even when things get really bad) or to put pressure on teens not to get an abortion, or a corporation might use social networks to sell more products.

My review of “New Tech, New Ties”

Flickr photo by fensterbme

A review that I wrote about New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion for the American Studies Journal was finally published 3 years after I wrote it!

Rich Ling concludes that unlike cellphone ads would tell you, we can’t be both here and there.  Excerpt:

Cellphones exploded onto the U.S. scene, going from commercial launch in the mid-1980s to 88% penetration by 2008 and penetrating still further in Ling’s Norway. They clearly enable us to be in contact when we previously couldn’t. And they have become a cultural icon: cellphone-shaped balloons, parents hearing kids feigning adult cellphone conversations on their toys—“have your secretary call my secretary.”
Undoubtedly cellphones can challenge social norms. A few examples suffice:

  • A couple walking down street together with each talking to someone else on a cellphone.
  • A plumber summoned to Ling’s Oslo house for a leak strolled into Ling’s home as house guests were saying goodbye. The plumber’s refusal to interrupt his cell call to introduce himself, or ask permission to enter, violated Ling’s sense of social norms, not repaired by the plumber’s nodding to Ling and removing his shoes per the Norwegian custom.
  • Whether we should flush when someone in the adjacent bathroom stall is on an important call.
  • What cellphone conversations should be off-limits in public?

[Read rest of review.]

Socializing expands brain size?

Flickr photo by taod

This is by no means an overnight phenomenon.

Scholars at Oxford have refuted the notion that all mammals over time developed larger brains.  Instead Dr. Susanne Shultz and Prof. Robin Dunbar found over a span of 60 million years that more social creatures, among them humans, had the most rapidly expanding brain sizes to cope with the complexity of collaboration, social norms and coordination.

“The research team analysed available data on the brain size and body size of more than 500 species of living and fossilised mammals. It found that the brains of monkeys grew the most over time, followed by horses, dolphins, camels and dogs. The study shows that groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tend to live in stable social groups. The brains of more solitary mammals, such as cats, deer and rhino, grew much more slowly during the same period.”

They noted that the fact that cats’ brains did not expand while dogs’ and horses’ brains did, can be accounted for by the far more solitary lives that cats lead in relation to dogs and horses, which interact far more with humans.

Obviously, since these evolutionary anthropologists couldn’t go back in time to distinguish social cavemen from more solitary cavemen, it is impossible to tell whether the expansion of brain size was related to the average levels of socialization of a species or whether this same pattern would have held true at the individual level: with offspring of more social parents having larger brains than offspring of less social humans.

Nonetheless, food for thought…  The implication: get out and socialize and help our species to continue to grow our average brain size, although the results may not be noticeable within your lifetime.

See “Socialising led to bigger brains in some mammals

The study is called “Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality” (PNAS Journal, November 30, 2010, by Susanne Shultz and Robin Dunbar).  Abstract here.

Shultz and Dunbar’s center, Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, is here.

The Friendship Paradox: using social networks to predict spread of epidemics

Nick Christakis and James Fowler (whose research we’ve previously highlighted) is back with research that shows how one can easily use “sensors” in a network to track and get early warning regarding the spread of epidemics.

They took advantage of the “friendship paradox” to do so.  In any real-life network, our friends are more popular than we are.  [This is true mathematically in any group with some loners and some social butterflies.  If you poll members in the group about their friendships, far more of those friends who are reported are going to be the social butterflies.  If far more people reported friendships with the loners, they wouldn't be loners.  See discussion here.]

Thus by asking random people in a network, in this case Harvard students, about their friends, researchers know that their friends are more centrally located in these networks.    Then one can track behavior among the random group and their friends, in this case the spread of H1N1 flu (swine flu) among 744 Harvard students in 2009.

Those more central in these networks (the “friend” group) got the flu a full 16-47 days earlier than the random group.  Thus, for public authorities, monitoring such a “friend” group could give one early indication of a spreading epidemic; they could serve as “canaries in the coal mine”.  If the process of spreading was person-to-person rather than being exposed to some impersonal information (via a website or a broadcast), one could also track the difference between a random group and a friend group to predict other more positive epidemics, like the spread of information, or the diffusion of a product, or a social norm.

We write in general on this blog about the positive benefits of social ties (social capital), but Fowler and Christakis’ study also shows you that having friends and being centrally located has its costs: in this case getting the flu faster.  [In some ways, this is analogous to Gladwell's discussion in the Tipping Point of how Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen may be disproportionately influential in the spread of ideas through networks, although Fowler and Christakis are far more mathematical in identifying who these central folks are.]

The “friends group manifested the flu roughly two weeks prior to the random group using one method of detection, and a full 46 days prior to the epidemic peak using another method.

‘We think this may have significant implications for public health,’ said Christakis. ‘Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.’

‘If you want a crystal ball for finding out which parts of the country are going to get the flu first, then this may be the most effective method we have now,’ said Fowler. ‘Currently used methods are based on statistics that lag the real world – or, at best, are contemporaneous with it. We show a way you can get ahead of an epidemic of flu, or potentially anything else that spreads in networks.’

Christakis also notes that if you provided a random 30% in a population with immunity to a flu, you don’t protect the greater public, but if you took a random 30% of the population, asked them to name their friends, and then provided immunization to their friends, in a typical network the “friend” immunization strategy would achieve as high immunity protection for the entire network as giving 96% of the population immunity shots, but at less than 1/3 the cost.

The following video shows how the nodes that light up first (markers for getting the flu) are more central and far less likely to be at the periphery of the social network.  The red dots are people getting the flu; the yellow dots are friends of people with the flu and the size of the dot is proportional to how many of their friends have the flu.

Good summary of this research and its implications here: Nick Christakis TED talk (June 2010) – How social networks predict spread of flu.  Nick also discusses some of the implications of computational social science, which we’ve previously discussed here under the heading of digital traces.  Nick discusses how one could use data gathered from these networks (either passively or actively) to do things like predict recessions from patterns of fuel consumption by truckers, to communicate with drivers of a road of impending traffic jams ahead of them (by monitoring from cell phone users on the road ahead of them how rapidly they are changing cell phone towers) to asking those central in a mobile cellphone network (easily mapable today) to text their daily temperature (to monitor for impending flu epidemics).  Obviously these raise issues of privacy, which Nick does not discuss.

News release of study

Academic article in PLoS ONE

James Fowler on The Colbert Report discussing the book by Fowler and Christakis called Connected.


Nick Christakis presenting a talk at TED — The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. (February 2010).  In the talk he notes that while almost half of the variation in our number of friends is genetically-based (46%), that another equally large portion (47%) of whether your friends know each other is a function of whether your friends are the type that introduce (“knit”) their friends together or keep them apart (what they call “transitivity”).  About a third of whether you are in the center of social networks or not is genetically inherited.  Christakis believes that these social networks are critically important to transmitting ideas, and kindness, and information and goodness; and if society realized how valuable these networks were, we’d focus far more of our time, energy and resources into helping these networks to flourish.

Wired to cooperate?

An interesting article in the Science Times section of the NY Times discusses research by developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello (appearing in Why We Cooperate).

At 18 months of age, Tomasello finds that toddlers almost universally immediately help out an adult who needs assistance because his/her arms are full.  What Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, doesn’t know if altruism is innate; 18 months is typically an age before toddlers are taught how to behave.

Not so fast.  As the Times points out: “It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

But Tomasello observes these same helping behaviors across cultures, despite the fact that they teach social behavior on different schedules and may have different beliefs about appropriate social rules.  Moreover, the helping that infants observe is not enhanced by rewards, causing Tomasello to doubt that it has been strongly reinforced.

In some cases Tomasello observes helping behavior with regard to information in infants 12 months old, and even chimpanzees under certain conditions exhibit helping behavior at a young age.

More specifically related to “social capital”, Tomasello finds that age 3, children become less indiscriminately helpful and are more likely to reciprocate earlier helpful behavior from another person.  In addition, they start to develop social norms, like the reciprocity at the heart of social capital.  Parents can help foster these norms through “inductive parenting”, helping children to learn the consequences of their actions.

As the Times points out:  “The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.” [See discussion of dictator games and ultimatum games in this blog post.]

Read the very interesting article “We May Be Born With An Urge To Help” (NYT, Nicholas Wade, 12/1/09) about how humans try to sort out whether to behave selfishly or altruistically.