Americans love It’s A Wonderful Life but did not heed its main lessons, Part Two

Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Part Two today:

George spirals downward because of financial problems at the savings and loan. Additionally, he was not sure about a life running the family business (which he thought his brother Harry would do). In the end, he finds joy in his family and friends in the community. The local relationships, from the local girl he married to the people who utilized the savings and loan, provide him reasons to keep living.

Yet, since the film came out (1946), Americans have moved away from the close-knit relationships. This has happened in two noticeable ways. The shift to suburbs from both big cities and more rural areas led to different kinds of social ties. Suburbanites can be fairly transient and build relationships around avoiding open conflict (see The Moral Order of a Suburb) and through local institutions (like school districts rather than because of immediate geographic proximity.

Additionally, sociologists and others have suggested Americans have fewer close friendships. Even if our social media and online friends and followers have exploded, these are different kinds of relationships compared to close relationships with people with interact with regularly in-person. Furthermore, advice columnists regularly suggest seeing therapists or counselors, more impartial third-party professionals, to work out issues.

Clarence shows George that the lives of those who cares about would be markedly different if he was not around. The closing scene finds the townspeople rallying around George and a proclamation that he is rich because of his relationships. How many people today would hope for such an ending? (Granted, this is a film so how often such joyous community celebrations happened is unknown.)

Of course, the appeal of It’s A Wonderful Life may just be its nostalgia for an age that seems long gone. In an often harried and disconnected world, Americans may yearn for a (fictional?) world where the good guys win, local companies and residents help each other, people have rich friendships, and people live in small towns. But, if anything, our collective decisions since the release of the film have likely moved us further away from these realities.

Sociologist: white heterosexual adult men have the least close friends

Sociologist Lisa Wade argues white heterosexual adult men want more friendships but have a hard time finding them:

Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends. Moreover, the friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships. When men get together, they’re more likely to do stuff than have a conversation. Friendship scholar Geoffrey Greif calls these “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships, contrasting them to the “face-to-face” friendships that many women enjoy. If a man does have a confidant, three-quarters of the time it’s a woman, and there’s a good chance she’s his wife or girlfriend.

When I first began researching this topic I thought, surely this is too stereotypical to be true. Or, if it is true, I wondered, perhaps the research is biased in favor of female-type friendships. In other words, maybe we’re measuring male friendships with a female yardstick. It’s possible that men don’t want as many or the same kinds of friendships as women.

But they do. When asked about what they desire from their friendships, men are just as likely as women to say that they want intimacy. And, just like women, their satisfaction with their friendships is strongly correlated with the level of self-disclosure. Moreover, when asked to describe what they mean by intimacy, men say the same thing as women: emotional support, disclosure and having someone to take care of them.

Men desire the same level and type of intimacy in their friendships as women, but they aren’t getting it.

This seems to line up with research from sociologist Michael Kimmel in Guyland where he found that young adult, college-age, and teenage males generally wanted deeper friendships but the expectations about what it means to be a man, particularly in group settings, makes this quite difficult. Also, Grief’s description of “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships sounds similar to C.S. Lewis’ description of friends walking side-by-side in life as opposed to romantic partners continually looking at each other.

A note: I do wish Wade had more broad data to back up her argument. She cites the McPherson et al. 2006 ASR piece on friends but I remember seeing that one of the co-authors, Matthew Brashears, suggested the study may not have been conclusive.

Majority of Americans only have friends of the same race

New survey results from Reuters/Ipsos shows roughly 65% of Americans aren’t friends with someone of a different race:

About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race, according to an ongoing Reuters/Ipsos poll…

There are regions and groups where mixing with people of other races is more common, especially in the Hispanic community where only a tenth do not have friends of a different race. About half of Hispanics who have a spouse or partner are in a relationship with non-Hispanics, compared to one tenth of whites and blacks in relationships.

Looking at a broader circle of acquaintances to include coworkers as well as friends and relatives, 30 percent of Americans are not mixing with others of a different race, the poll showed…

Younger American adults appear to confirm this, according to the poll. About one third of Americans under the age of 30 who have a partner or spouse are in a relationship with someone of a different race, compared to one tenth of Americans over 30. And only one in 10 adults under 30 say no one among their families, friends or coworkers is of a different race, less than half the rate for Americans as a whole.

Given America’s racial history plus ongoing concerns like residential segregation and differences in educational achievement, is this much of a surprise? At the same time, it appears younger Americans are significantly different in this regard.

Another note: why not include some longitudinal data on this? This provides a snapshot and the percentages are high. But, is this more or less than 20 or 50 years ago? Even if policy is attempting to close the gap between groups, it may not be trickling down much to relationships where individuals have more control with whom they choose to interact with more.

Trying to disprove Dunbar’s number on Facebook

One writer tried to disprove Dunbar’s number on Facebook but found that Dunbar was correct after all:

Not for Dunbar, apparently. He was looking for individual interactions. Well, I thought, if that’s all it takes to disprove Dunbar’s number, then that’s what I’ll do: I’ll write personal letters to every one of my 2,000 Facebook friends…

I only made it through 1,000 of my 2,000 Facebook friends. But that was enough. My experiment’s outcome was crystal clear: Dunbar’s number kicked my ass.

In trying to disprove Dunbar’s number, I actually proved it. I proved that even if you’re aware of Dunbar’s number, and even if you set aside a chunk of your life specifically to broaden your social capital, you can only maintain so many friendships. And “so many” is fewer than 200.

Writing my Facebook “friends” had taken over my time. I was breaking plans with real friends to send meaningless messages to strangers. Some of the strangers didn’t respond, and many of those who did respond only confirmed Dunbar’s theory.

Quick examples: When I wrote A. F., a Malaysian magician, he responded: “hey rick i think you might’ve sent me this message by mistake lol.” And when I wrote A.D., a friend of a friend, and asked how things were going, she replied, “Sorrx but do i know you?:)”

The question I want to ask next: so did this writer lose friends over the course of this? If so, was it because the friends did the dropping or the writer decided to pare down his friends list?

While Facebook allows people to have expanded “friendship” networks, it is interesting to consider what would actually happen if someone tried to activate these networks. For example, the friend you once had in third grade and are now are Facebook friends with: what can you reasonably ask that person to do? Respond to a quick message you send them? Catch up with you and talk about what has happened in your lives since you last talked? Help you out of a tough spot? Join a cause you are interested in? Alert you to a job opening that would help you? My guess is that most of these online relationships rarely can be counted on even though they may have a semi-permanent status on Facebook. If this is the case, then perhaps you have hundreds upon hundreds of friends on Facebook but only 150 or so (Dunbar’s number) can be counted as actionable relationships.

This is not necessarily bad for Facebook: perhaps that 150 friends can shift rapidly over time meaning one week someone is a close friend while several months later it is someone else. Or perhaps you don’t actually know which of your friends is part of the 150 until you engage in deeper interaction. To have more social capital, it is helpful to have broader social networks that you can attempt to utilize. Without those connections at all, it is more difficult to find information or produce change.

Become friends with your Toyota

Companies are looking for ways to leverage social networking sites for their own purposes. Now Toyota announces plans to create their own social networking service where you will be able to become friends with your car:

Toyota is setting up a social networking service with the help of a U.S. Internet company and Microsoft so drivers can interact with their cars in a way that’s similar to posting on Facebook or Twitter.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. and Salesforce.com, based in San Francisco, announced their alliance Monday to launch “Toyota Friend,” a private social network for Toyota owners…

With the popularity of social networking, cars and their makers should become part of that online interaction, [Toyota’s president] said.

“I hope cars can become friends with their users, and customers will see Toyota as a friend,” he said.

There is the whole purpose of this: strengthen the relationship between customer and product. I wonder if Toyota owners would really flock to this concept. They might be loyal customers because of the value and reliability of Toyotas but is there a fervent fan culture that would want to be part of a social network?

But there is an interesting phrase in this article: “cars can become friends with their users.” Perhaps it was not intended this way but it implies that cars have agency. The article talks about how newer cars, such as plug-in electric vehicles, need more monitoring and so users will be open to getting more information from their cars. But in the end, these cars are just cars, machines that help people get around. We are a ways from having cars that could hold human-like conversations with their owners (see this recent piece on progress in tackling the Turing Test).

While some commentators have lamented the difference between off-line and online friends, perhaps this is the next controversial step forward: friendships with products. Right now, you can be a “fan” on Facebook but a friendship implies a closer and more interactive relationship.

An emerging portrait of emerging adults in the news, part 2

In recent weeks, a number of studies have been reported on that discuss the beliefs and behaviors of the younger generation, those who are now between high school and age 30 (an age group that could also be labeled “emerging adults”). In a three-part series, I want to highlight three of these studies because they not only suggest what this group is doing but also hints at the consequences. (Find part one here.)

In Sunday’s edition of the Chicago Tribune, there was a story citing research that shows emerging adults are more tolerant than previous generations on issues like intermarriage, gay marriage, other races, and immigration. Yet, at the same time, there is also research suggesting levels of empathy among college students are down about 40% compared to the 1970s:

“Millennials, A Portrait of Generation Next,” an extensive study of teens and 20-somethings released earlier this year, showed that members of the Millennial Generation, generally born between 1981 and 2000, are “more racially tolerant than their elders.”

More than two decades of Pew Research surveys confirm that assessment.

“In their views about interracial dating, for example, Millennials are the most open to change of any generation,” the report states.

The study goes on to report that nearly 6 in 10 Millennials say immigrants strengthen the country, compared with 43 percent of adults ages 30 and older…

The problem is that tolerance doesn’t necessarily mean understanding, researchers say. Adults working with teens say they see an unsettling strain of desensitivity among young people.

In May, University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research issued a report on an analysis of 72 studies on the empathy of nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009. The result: Today’s college students are about 40 percent lower in empathy than students two or three decades earlier.

The researchers suggested that disheartening trend may have to do with numbness created by violent video games, an abundance of online friends and an intensely competitive emphasis on success, among other factors.

This is a very interesting conclusion: the younger generation is more tolerant but less understanding and empathetic. So what exactly does this tolerance look like? The lack of empathy, in particular, is interesting as it is another step beyond tolerance. Empathy is the ability to understand and take on the feelings and perspectives of others. Is tolerance the end goal or is there more that we should be striving for as a society?

This conundrum reminds me of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the current topic of our Sunday School class. In verse after verse, Jesus suggests that Christians aren’t just supposed to put up with people: “loving your neighbor” means taking an extra step toward people, bringing reconciliation, peace, and blessings to other rather than just letting them be or letting them pursue their rights in their own space. Loving people means putting them above yourself, something beyond both tolerance and empathy.

One outcome suggested by this story is a meanness or harshness among high schools. Teenagers understand about respecting difference but this doesn’t translate as well into personal interactions where being mean is seen as being cool.

Another possible outcome is living alone, keeping people at a distance. I will consider this in part three of this series.