Monthly Archives: October 2007

Social capital makes you smarter?

“Spending just 10 minutes talking to another person can help improve your memory and your performance on tests, according to a University of Michigan study to be published in the February 2008 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

” ‘In our study, socializing was just as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise in boosting memory and intellectual performance,’ said Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and a lead author of the study with ISR psychologist Eugene Burnstein and psychologist Piotr Winkielman from the University of California, San Diego….According to Ybarra, the findings suggest that visiting with a friend or neighbor may be just as helpful in staying sharp as doing a daily crossword puzzle.

“The findings also suggest that social isolation may have a negative effect on intellectual abilities as well as emotional well-being. And for a society characterized by increasing levels of social isolation­a trend sociologist Robert Putnam calls Bowling Alone ­the effects could be far-reaching.”

For further briefing see this link. Podcast with Ybarra here.

For the moment, their evidence is correlational (and relies on pre-existing archival data), and they can’t rule out that it is the intellectual effort generated during the social activities (like playing games) that produces the increase in intelligence or conversely that it is caused by a third unknown common factor. They plan follow-up work to better understand the relationship and any causal mechanism.

P.S. Jane Brody recently reported on this body of research as well in “Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile
(NY Times, 12/11/07).  Brody reports: “Long-term studies in other countries, including Sweden and China, have also found that continued social interactions helped protect against dementia. The more extensive an older person’s social network, the better the brain is likely to work, the research suggests. Especially helpful are productive or mentally stimulating activities pursued with other people, like community gardening, taking classes, volunteering or participating in a play-reading group.”

Tough to centrally manufacture social capital as seen in Iraq

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s Washington Post detailing research that shows that centralized efforts to build more social capital in India were not very successful, and applying this research to an analysis of part of the reason why our Iraqi strategy has come acropper. 

Duke University political scientist Anirudh Krishna’ has conducted research (written up in a recent Journal of Politics article called “How Does Social Capital Grow? Comparing Levels across Seven Years in 61 Villages of Rajasthan, India”) that “tracked a number of indexes of social capital in villages in India and showed social interconnectedness growing in some places and fraying in others. Krishna asked villagers, for example, whether they would prefer to own 15 acres of land on their own, or 40 acres of land with another person. Villagers in areas with high social capital were happy to trust partners. Villages with high social capital made better use of their resources, because people cooperated with each other instead of wasting money guarding against each other.

“But Krishna also found that government aid and nongovernmental organizations could do virtually nothing to build social capital — contractors and aid agencies can build bridges, but they cannot build connections between people.

” ‘You cannot build social capital from above,’ he said. ‘It can only be built by the people involved.’ ”

In discussing Iraq, the Post quotes a U.S. army general based in Iraq, Joseph Kopser, a former student of Robert Putnam’s and someone who believes heavily in the importance of social capital, as saying that the efforts to build social capital centrally in Iraq had largely been unsuccessful and had led to greater mistrust.  Kopser believes that the most successful efforts have been ones working with local leaders to reinforce local civil society.  And Kopser believes that it is only by having local Iraqis making decisions and being empowered to carry them out (even if the execution takes longer) that more social capital, which is critical to build, will be forged.

Bob Putnam and Michael Woolcock (on leave from the World Bank and their chief point-person on social capital) agree.  Putnam related that his Italian research confirmed that it is hard to build social capital top-down, and Woolcock notes that the notable success of the World Bank in building social capital came from the The Kecamatan Development Indonesian Project which “aimed more than $1.3 billion at more than 40,000 villages, but every decision about how to use the money has come from democratic decisions at the village level, where funds are released only if diverse groups can show they are willing to work together. It has sometimes been described as a democracy project disguised as a development project.”

On the importance of social capital, the Post story begins with an anecdote from Columbia University sociologist Peter Bearman’s book (*Doormen*) that “dived into the world of the white-gloved workers who open the front doors of expensive New York apartment buildings, he found that most people who applied for jobs as doormen never got one. Most doormen, however, had not applied for their jobs. ”  In other words, Bearman found that doormen got their jobs through social capital (who they knew, not what they knew).  Much more can be seen on why social capital is important here or in Section III of Bowling Alone.

For the full article, see One Thing We Can’t Build Alone in Iraq by Shankar Vendatam (Washington Post, 10/30/07, p. A3)

Evolving to cooperate

Nowak points out that: “The most competitive scenario of natural selection, where everybody competes with everybody else, can actually lead to features like generosity and forgiveness….That I find great.”

Originally modeling cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma, he developed a theory that also applied to professional cyclists. “Last year, cyclist George Hincapie came to a professional road race championship with only one teammate to help him set the pace and battle the wind; and both Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie came alone. Even though they were some of the best cyclists in the world, it would be nearly impossible for any one of them to win facing teams with many more riders. So all four worked together trading the lead, so three could conserve energy while one battled the wind. Hincapie and Leipheimer finished one-two.”

“Cooperation means someone pays a cost and someone else gets a benefit,” Nowak said. “I study what makes cooperation a winning strategy. I analyze it using a metaphor that comes from biological evolution natural selection and mutation,” and these basic principles, he said, can be described by exact mathematical equations.

“Nowak defines evolution more broadly than simply the changing of genes, which is what brought him into the study of language. The Nature paper, researched by some of his students, concludes that most English verbs behave in an extremely regular way, evolving, for instance, to end in “ed,” such as “helped,” “laughed,” “reached,” “walked,” and “worked.” Certain irregular verbs, including “be” and “think,” haven’t made that transformation, even though they are 38,800 and 14,400 years old respectively, because they are used so frequently. “The study reveals a simple mathematical law of language evolution,” said Nowak. “If a verb is used 100 times less frequently, it regularizes 10 times faster.’ ”

“Human societies are made up of individuals that cooperate. Whenever evolution is doing something amazingly new, cooperation is involved,”  Nowak said.

“The most successful cooperators, his equations show, choose generosity over greed, forgiveness over retaliation, but there’s a message, he believes, that goes beyond his mathematical models.”

See Cooperation Counts for Math Professor (Boston Globe, 10/15/07, by Heather Wax)

Postscript: Inspiring Randy Pausch lives to fulfills dream of playing with NFL team, updated

I wrote earlier about Randy Pausch, dying of cancer, who gave an inspirational and wonderful ‘last lecture’ at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) where he taught. See blog post here.

He mentioned that the ONE dream that he hadn’t fulfilled was playing professional football, asserting that he had nonetheless learned many lessons from his football coach in the chasing of that dream. Now Randy has ‘played’ professional football, as he practiced recently with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He promised them that if they made it into the Super Bowl he’d still be alive to see it. [Randy fulfilled his end of the bargain; the Steelers however didn’t make it into the Super Bowl XLII which saw the scrappy NY Giants buck the heavily favorite New England Patriots, a thrilling game but one that left Pats fans wincing in the final seconds where the title miraculously slid from their certain grasp; Eli Manning eluded an all-but-certain sack and David Tyree made a how-did-he-do-it catch..]

See notable quotes from Randy here.  See Randy’s legacy for me in life lessons.

Read story “Dying Professor Tackles Final Dream” here.

Note: Randy Pausch is still alive but reports complications that required him to go back into the hospital on March 8, 2008. The great news is that he has beaten the 3-6 months that doctors gave him to live back on August 15, 2007; the bad news is that his body has hard a hard time tolerating the chemotherapy. Bad news: His pancreatic cancer has metastasized to his spleen and liver; doctors say he has a 100% chance of dying, it is just a question of when. Most doctors think he will be dead by the end of 2008. And the news as of July 24, 2008 is that the cancer is progressing as posted on Randy’s website. “A biopsy last week revealed that the cancer has progressed further than we had thought from recent PET scans. Since last week, Randy has also taken a step down and is much sicker than he had been. He’s now enrolled in hospice. He’s no longer able to post here so I’m a friend posting on his behalf because we know what many folks are watching this space for updates.”

He testified back in March 2008 in front of Congress on pancreatic cancer. Updates on Randy Pausch’s condition can be found here and his home page is here (which also has a video of him testifying before Congress on March 13, 2008). [Pausch notes that no progress has been made on pancreatic cancer research in the last 30 years and there is now a far better chance of living with AIDS than pancreatic cancer. His pancreatic cancer has metastasized to spleen and liver; doctors say he has a 100% chance of dying, it is just a question of when. Most doctors think he will be dead by end of the year. Randy notes that pancreatic cancer is a disease which strikes innocent victims: he exercised, ate right, didn’t smoke, but still contracted this disease. Randy Pausch thinks we can protect ourselves from this disease but not without dramatically increased funding for research. The disease is genetic and he goes to sleep at night fearing whether kids (ages 2-9) have this genetic marker although he hopes with dramatically increased funding for pancreatic cancer research that by the time any of his kids get this disease (which usually strikes later in life), doctors will know how to cure it through genetic treatment.]

Update: Randy’s book The Last Lecture (Hyperion Press) has now been released (April 8, 2008), co-written with WSJ reporter Jeff Zaslow. See Randy’s video about the book and preview of interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News special about the book (airing April 10, 2008).