Category Archives: research

Brooks’ The Social Animal: humans as social machines (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by wallyg

Here’s an excerpt from David Brooks’ “Social Animal“; [book here] it’s a research-based, slightly tongue-in-cheek, look at a possible dystopian future, where, for example, on a date, Harold and Erica were doing mate suitability calculations — like “weighing earnings-to-looks ratios, calculating social-capital balances”:

There’s a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy, which is summarized by, on the one hand, the book “On the Road” and, on the other, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The former celebrates the life of freedom and adventure. The latter celebrates roots and connections. Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social—having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends. Many of the professions that correlate most closely with happiness are also social—a corporate manager, a hairdresser…

[Quoting a fictional scientist in the story…] ‘I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.’

Read article “Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life” (New Yorker, Annals of Psychology, by David Brooks, January 17, 2011)

See Guardian article “What’s the big idea?: David Brooks’s theories on society were fashionable 200 years ago, he tells Stuart Jeffries. So why are British politicians such fans of his new book?

See also David Brooks’ Op-Ed in today’s NYT “Amy Chua is a Wimp” (January 18, 2011) where he chides Chua, the Chinese mother driving her children relentlessly to succeed, for being too soft on her children, by neglecting the arduous task of developing critical social skills in her kids.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together….

Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?

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Social capital games

The New York Times Science Times section on Tuesday had an article discussing why real life couldn’t be as engaging as games.  One section referred to games designed by researchers to spark cooperative behavior or  get people to compete on being most helpful.

Excerpt:

…Dr. [Jane] McGonigal…has designed Cruel 2 B Kind, a game in which players advance by being nice to strangers in public places, and which has been played in more than 50 cities on four continents.

She and her husband are among the avid players of Chorewars, an online game in which they earn real rewards (like the privilege of choosing the music for their next car ride) by doing chores at their apartment in San Francisco. Cleaning the bathroom is worth so many points that she has sometimes hid the toilet brush to prevent him from getting too far ahead.

Other people, working through a “microvolunteering” Web site called Sparked, are using a smartphone app undertake quests for nonprofit groups like First Aid Corps, which is compiling a worldwide map of the locations of defibrillators available for cardiac emergencies. Instead of looking for magical healing potions in virtual worlds, these players scour buildings for defibrillators that haven’t been cataloged yet. If that defibrillator later helps save someone’s life, the player’s online glory increases (along with the sense of fiero).

[Fiero comes from Italian “pride” and refers to when the gamer lifts both arms above his/her head in triumph.]

Cruel 2 B Kind is interesting.  It takes place in a defined real world environment: e.g., it could be Central Park from 5-6 on 12/10/2010.  No one knows who is playing and who isn’t but all players have to remain in the open in that location for the entire duration.  Each player is randomly assigned a fatal weakness from a list of possibilities (e.g., being serenaded, being complimented, being cheered on). In order to slay your opponent, you have to engage in these acts of kindness frequently, willing to have complete strangers (not playing the game) be “collateral damage” in your effort to slay your fellow gamers. The result is a war of kindness within the “arena”.

Read John Tierney, “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming” (New York Times, Dec. 7, 2010)

See earlier blog post on The Extraordinaries (now renamed as Sparked)  and Thin-Slice Volunteering.

Praying alone is no fun; having friends at church makes you happier

Flickr photo by Shavar Ross

[Also cross-posted on the American Grace Blog]
American Grace research team members Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam have an article in the prestigious American Sociological Review demonstrating that religion actually makes you happier and it works through having close friends at church.

“Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “Listening to sermons or praying is not enough.  In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient that makes people happier.”

A host of studies have found a correlation between happiness and religiosity, but they suffered from the vulnerabilities of any single shot survey. Was religiosity truly causing happiness, was happiness causing greater religiosity, or was some third factor responsible (say an extroverted gene that made people both happier and more likely to go to “church”)? With the large nationally representative Faith Matters surveys, which interviewed the same Americans twice in a 6-9 month period, Lim and Putnam demonstrate that increased church attendance over that 6-9 month period increases life satisfaction. Surprisingly, they find that more overtly religious factors like theology (e.g., belief about the type of God or the afterlife or what religion you belong to) and private religious practices (e.g., experiencing God’s presence in your life or saying Grace or frequency of prayer) did not predict greater life satisfaction.

So what explained the power of religious attendance? Lim and Putnam found that it was having close friends in one’s house of worship. While friends in general cause people to have greater life satisfaction, friends at church serve as “super-charged” friends, with an even stronger impact on life satisfaction than secular friends.

It’s not clear exactly why close friends at church have such strong power. Lim and Putnam speculate that these church friends anchor “a strong sense of belonging in these religious communities” and provide parishioners with “morally-infused social support. In other words, if one seeks life satisfaction, it is neither faith nor communities alone that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems better than either bowling together or praying alone. These findings suggest that religious leaders should invest more of their time, treasure and talent in deepening the social dimensions of congregational life, such as through small support or worship groups, potlucks and choirs. This is likely to pay dividends to their congregants in making them happier and also benefit the religious leaders by making their congregants more likely to stay active religious members.”

Specifically, they find that those who attend church sporadically but nonetheless have close friends at church, likely working through religious spouses, are quite high in life satisfaction whereas those who attend church regularly but don’t have church friends are not. “According to the study, 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report that they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with their lives” (a 10 on the 1 to 10 question scale). “In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are extremely satisfied. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who attend religious services only several times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their congregation are extremely satisfied with their lives. Finally, 19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation, say they are extremely satisfied with their lives.”

Note: Putnam and Lim control for the all the natural demographic correlates that might be causing spurious findings.

The Faith Matters findings apply to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). “We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size,” said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.

It’s possible that there are other real-world secular examples of groups where in-group friendships provide the same level of ‘morally-infused” social support: e.g., 12-step programs, or zealous environmental activist networks, or uncorrupted unions, or MADD. Since these findings are relatively new, we haven’t firmly tested to find secular equivalents of these morally-infused networks although it is clear that there is nothing in the US that has anything like the frequency of friends of church, since so many more Americans are in the pews on a Sunday than participating weekly in an environmental group or a 12-step program. The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron has made clear to us in conversations, given much lower levels of religiosity in that country, that he is actively interested in finding out if there are secular takeaways from these life satisfaction findings that could be applied in the UK without exhorting more Brits to attend and make friends at church; Cameron’s interest is also sparked by his recent decision to actively measure life satisfaction in the UK as a key indicator of how well government is doing.

We’ll also be doing some further testing in additional surveying we are doing to try to understand more about what makes “close friends at church” so powerful. We welcome your thoughts…

CNN notes: “it is worth examining in the future why this study did not find the same link between happiness and spirituality that others did, the authors say. This may have to do with how different aspects of religion are measured. For example, those who reported that they ‘feel God’s love’ seemed to have more life satisfaction than those who did not, but this did not apply for similar questions about belief in God. Also, it is impossible to draw conclusions about whether ‘feeling God’s love’ causes happiness or vice versa. Could other networks of people have the same effect on happiness? The authors say that if this is possible, it’s hard to think of a non-religious context with a similar strength of identity, intensity of participation in ritual, and great scale and scope of the people in it.”

Cite: “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review, 75(6), December 2010.

Beyond CNN, see news stories in USA TodayNational Post, Discovery, Live Science, Science News, TIMES of India, Montreal Gazette, and Daily Mail.