Gov’t report on declining civic life

A new government report summarizes a number of findings regarding the declining sociability of Americans:

What Lee is concerned about documenting is that this middle layer is thinning. Fewer Americans are getting married or living in families. We are going to religious services less often, and are less likely to consider ourselves members of a religious organization. We’re spending less time socializing with neighbors and co-workers, too. Voting rates have declined, and we’ve grown less likely to pay attention to news about government. We trust one another less: The percentage of Americans who thought most people could be trusted fell to 31 percent in 2016 from 46 percent in 1972, the report says, citing the General Social Survey.

There are some exceptions to the pattern. Rates of volunteering have increased. Some kinds of political engagement have also risen: The percentage of the population that reports having tried to influence someone else’s vote has gone up over the last few decades. The overall story, though, is one of fewer and weaker interpersonal connections among Americans. We are building less “social capital.”

Conservatives have historically been especially concerned about associational life, although they used different terms in prior eras, such as “civil society” and “mediating institutions.” These organizations both ensured the survival of worthwhile traditions and protected the individual from the state. It was no accident, conservatives thought, that totalitarian states ruthlessly suppressed all independent groups, even apolitical ones. And conservatives worried that even benign welfare states tended to displace social groups by taking over their functions.

Scott Winship, research director for Lee’s project, emphasizes a less ideological explanation for the trends the report describes: “We used to need our neighbors and our fellow church congregants more, for instance, for various forms of assistance, such as child care or financial help. Today we are better able to purchase child care on the market and to access credit and insurance. Freed from these materialist needs, we have narrowed our social circles to family and friends, with whom social interaction is easier — especially thanks to the Internet — and more natural. But the wider social connections filled other, non-materialist needs too, and those have been casualties of rising affluence.” The collateral damage, for many people, has been a loss of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

This is not news to sociologists and others who have viewed the trends for a few decades now. For example, see Bowling Alone. But, perhaps it is more interesting now to consider what kind of society we will have if more Americans are not involved with social groups, tend to retreat to private spaces, and don’t trust institutions. I’m sure some would say we are already at this point with the Trump era at hand but it could both get worse as well as possibly settle into some sort of agreement to leave each other alone.

Will smart cities necessarily be lonely cities?

This piece thinks about how smart cities might affect social relationships and the prognosis is not good:

By 2050, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in so-called “smart cities.” These are metropolitan areas where everything will be digitally connected. Today, some people have “smart” thermostats, refrigerators, or smoke detectors. Tomorrow, we’ll have smart hospitals, farms, and highways, and it’s likely they’ll all talk to one another. Connected devices will monitor everything from air quality to energy usage and traffic congestion…

We can also expect more part-time work, distance working, and the blurring of our work and personal lives. Some worry that the rise of robots could force governments to legislate for quotas of human workers.

But city-dwellers will see incremental changes outside of their workspace, too. Thanks to self-service checkouts and home delivery services, technology is creating less of a need for us to actually interact with those around us. Message bots, like Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa, will soon be able to suggest restaurants, hotels, and other local landmarks. This is already happening in places like Tel Aviv, where everyone over the age of 13 can receive personalized data, such as traffic information, and can access free municipal Wi-Fi in 80 public zones. Populations will be encouraged to make good use of these ever-personalized digital services, since this gives companies our precious data, which will be integral to smart cities…

But it’s doubtful that these interventions will be enough to counteract further encroachment of technology on cities’ infrastructure. Resistance needs to be on a grander scale. One solution may lie in the preservation of public spaces such as parks, community centers, cafes, and shops. “If cities are to remain viable places for people to develop the strong associational and social life fundamental to healthy human existence they must incorporate a range of public spaces and ‘third’ places outside of work and home, in which urban citizens can come together,” writes John Bingham-Hall, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science.

I’ll throw out two counterpoints that might lessen the concern:

  1. While new technology could move us toward more private lives, it doesn’t necessarily have to. We don’t have to end up in a futuristic setting and narrative as depicted in Her. Such claims have been made for centuries with the spread of industrialization and urbanization: new technologies would reduce the humanness of life. Think of the Luddites and their concerns about changes to manufacturing in the early 1800s. Marx was also worried about the alienation being brought about by the forces of industrialization and urbanization. At the same time, we could theoretically end up with more time for social interaction if these new technologies free us up. We’ve heard these promises for decades: people won’t have to work as much or take care of their possessions because it can be done for them. (Put it this way: what does it say about us that even though we have devices to help us reduce our labor, we continue to labor a lot? Are we trying to escape more social interaction?) I would ask: are we blaming the technology too much or should we think harder about how we could utilize what has been invented for our common good?
  2. Early sociologists were concerned about the individual being lost in the big cities of the modern world or noted that city life was a major change from small village life to which many in the world had grown accustomed. (See the work of Simmel, Durkheim, and Tonnies.) Yet, cities continue to attract people and social life continues – even if it has changed in certain ways. Still today, it seems that it might be important that people are around other people regularly (which commonly happens in dense cities), even if they don’t have strong relationships with many people. I would ask: is it really cities that are in danger of being lonely places or would the technology affect everyone in similar ways in coming decades?

Smart cities don’t have to be lonely cities. We could be lonely all over the place or we could make decisions about how to direct technology toward things we might want (such as increased or deeper social connections).

Nudging people for good or evil

Like much in today’s polarized world, perhaps you only like nudging when people are being moved in a direction you agree with:

We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.

The behavioral techniques that are being employed by governments and private corporations do not appeal to our reason; they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. Rather, these techniques change behavior by appealing to our nonrational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases. If psychologists could possess a systematic understanding of these nonrational motivations they would have the power to influence the smallest aspects of our lives and the largest aspects of our societies…

But in spite of revealing these deep flaws in our thinking, Lewis supplies a consistently redemptive narrative, insisting that this new psychological knowledge permits us to compensate for human irrationality in ways that can improve human well-being. The field of behavioral economics, a subject pioneered by Richard Thaler and rooted in the work of Kahneman and Tversky, has taken up the task of figuring out how to turn us into better versions of ourselves. If the availability heuristic encourages people to ensure against very unlikely occurrences, “nudges” such as providing vivid reminders of more likely bad outcomes can be used to make their judgments of probability more realistic. If a bias toward the status quo means that people tend not to make changes that would benefit them, for instance by refusing to choose between retirement plans, we can make the more beneficial option available by automatically enrolling people in a plan with the option to withdraw if they choose…

Lewis does not discuss the ways in which the same behavioral science can be used quite deliberately for the purposes of deception and manipulation, though this has been one of its most important applications. Frank Babetski, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence analyst who also holds the Analytical Tradecraft chair at the Sherman Kent School of Intelligence Analysis at the CIA University, has called Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow a “must read” for intelligence officers.

This seems like a reasonable point – people can be pushed toward positive and negative behavior – but it still leaves a crucial question: who gets to decide what is worth pushing people toward? Is it manipulation when it goes a direction you don’t want but progress when it goes your way? The two major examples of this playing out in society don’t help much; we may wish that big corporations and national politicians have less ability to sway people but this is also part of having a lot of power. (Similarly, power can be used to benefit people or harm them.) Are we more okay with an individual having biases rather than larger social actors (who can coerce a lot more people at the same time)? If so, then it may be harder to have a large society that functions well.

Reminder of Facebook’s goal: “to make the world more open and connected”

What exactly is the purpose of all these social media sites? A recent letter to a Senate committee clearly lays out Facebook’s aims:

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

The rest of the document provides insights into how Facebook selects Trending Topics but the reminder is helpful: the company has broad aims with the goal of having more and more interactions between people around the world. While Zuckerberg has been pretty open about this from the beginning, it is less clear whether this goal is accomplished. My own research with data from the mid to late 2000s suggested users primarily friended and interacted with people they already know or were in some proximity to. If users aren’t making personal connections, perhaps they are more aware of the world through viral videos, news stories, and information that rockets through networks. Does that make the world (1) more open and (2) connected or is there an element of personal connection that also would help?

The negative effect of loneliness on health

Loneliness is not just a social or emotional condition; it affects physical health.

The scourge of loneliness has been with us since time immemorial, but only in recent years has its toll on human health gained appreciation. New research shows that feeling lonely or socially isolated bumps up a person’s average risk for coronary heart disease and stroke — two of the developed world’s most prolific killers — by 50%.

As a risk factor for heart attack, clogged arteries or stroke, those statistics put loneliness on a par with light smoking, anxiety and occupational stress. And they make social isolation a more powerful predictor of such vascular diseases than are either high blood pressure or obesity…

The new research, published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal’s publication, Heart, aggregated the findings of 23 separate studies that asked people to characterize their level of social engagement. Each of those studies then tracked participants for periods ranging from 3 to 21 years and noted whether they had a first stroke or were newly diagnosed with, or died from, coronary heart disease…

As a result, it’s hard to know whether loneliness is a contributor to, the result of, or just another symptom of poor health. And for the same reason, it’s hard to know whether programs aimed at getting the socially isolated to re-engage will improve their health, and how.

Social relationships matter, not just for using weak ties to get a job but also to improve your health.

The article hints at interventions at the end, primarily suggesting that doctors can ask about social networks and relationships. However, how possible is it for doctors to incorporate more social factors into their analysis, whether that involves asking people about social behaviors or recommending treatment? Doesn’t a finding like this suggest we need a more holistic approach to health that would incorporate physical conditions as well as emotional and social conditions? Perhaps we need more of the biopsychosocial approach. Maybe this requires having multiple professionals – doctors, social workers, psychologists – working together as units to address conditions.

Can powerful storms improve neighborhood relations?

Amid the tremendous snowfall on the East Coast, one might wonder: does a storm of that size bring people together?

A 1998 study looks at the short- and long-term effects of a major ice storm in the northeastern New York community of Potsdam. The storm completely totaled the area’s electrical grid and left many homes without power for two weeks in the dead of winter. The sociologist Stephen Sweet compared a survey on community perceptions administered three years prior to the storm to one administered just one month after it. After the storm, Potsdam residents saw their town as a more caring, friendlier, and more interesting place. But perceptions of Potsdam quickly returned to normal.

“When structure changes out of its normal form, behaviors shift and new types of social relations quickly emerge,” Sweet writes. (Think: snowmen in Hell’s Kitchen; plows kindly swerving to avoid them.) “However, once structure returns to its customary form, perception of social relations shift back in accordance with the familiar,” the sociologist concludes. (Read: as the snow melts, New Yorkers will return to being buttheads.)

Other research suggests that the degree of post-storm kindness is entirely dependent on the preexisting cohesion of the urban community. In 2013, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg took a close look at a deadly 1995 Chicago heatwave, which killed 739 people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods that lost the most people were black and poor. But they were also markedly less socially cohered. The Englewood area, where the most people died, was one that had lost 50 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990…

In other words: Disaster preparedness helps, but whether a city can ride out a crisis also depends on interpersonal relationships. “Social cohesion is a critical component of building resilience,” Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic last year. “You can look at communities that are literally adjacent and see a difference. Resilience is about building these capacities before the storm, before the shocks, before the stresses.”

Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave is an interesting look at this topic. As suggested above, factors including prior social relationships, race and class, and the connection of particular neighborhoods to the larger community as a whole matter.One interpretation of the research presented above: nature might do its own thing but social interactions and community life are pretty durable.

But, I wonder if the kind of and scale of disaster also matters at all. One thing that is unique about storms is that everyone is affected and has little control over nature. The outcomes might be very different – think different neighborhoods of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina – but everyone had to respond in some way. If I had to guess, I would think neighbors of similar backgrounds – class, race, etc. – might be more neighborly in the wake of a storm. Does a larger storm lead to more community togetherness (even if the blip is temporary) as opposed to one that doesn’t do as much damage or where the effects are more localized?

And if there is any increase in community togetherness for a little while, what does this get translated into? It is very unlikely to overcome deep seated social divides. Does it lead to different policies? A few impassioned local news stories or editorials praising the efforts of neighbors to help each other? In Heat Wave, Klinenberg discusses the responses of the city of Chicago which includes city-coordinated cooling centers for the public to use. But, it is another matter to ask whether such centers improve community overall.

How many Facebook friends can you depend on?

A new study suggests most Facebook friends cannot be depended on in times of trouble:

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, undertook a study to find out the connection between whether people have lots of Facebook friends and real friends.

He found that there was very little correlation between having friends on social networks and actually being able to depend on them, or even talking to them regularly.

The average person studied had around 150 Facebook friends. But only about 14 of them would express sympathy in the event of anything going wrong…

Those numbers are mostly similar to how friendships work in real life, the research said. But the huge number of supposed friends on a friend list means that people can be tricked into thinking that they might have more close friends.

The last paragraph seems key: online or offline, people have a relatively small number of close relationships. As the saying goes, you learn who your friends are in times of trouble. Simply having a connection to someone – whether knowing them as an acquaintance or friending them on social media – is at a different level than having regular contact or providing mutual support. Using the words “real” and “fake” friends tries to get at that but it would be better to use terms close friend, acquaintance, family member, or other terms to denote the closeness of the relationship. Of course, when Facebook chose to use the term friends for everyone you link to on Facebook, this was very intentional and an attempt to prompt more connections and openness.

The Dunbar here is the same researcher behind Dunbar’s number that suggests humans can have around 150 maximum stable relationships.