Social science tips for “how to make friends in a new city”

An advice piece in Harvard Business Review about making friends in an unfamiliar place includes several connections to social science research:

Rediscover weak or dormant ties. As we go through life, relationships fade in and out of view. You may have stayed in the same city up until now, but your friends and  former colleagues may have not. As you look toward your new destination, consider the weak ties (acquaintances) and the dormant ties (old friends or colleagues) in your existing social circle. Check your social media channels and alumni databases from school or past employers. You may find that you already know someone who lives in your new city. With this knowledge, you’ll have the opportunity to reach out to them before you move, and set a date to reconnect once you arrive.

Ask existing friends and colleagues for help. This one may sound obvious, but many of us only reach out to our closest friends when we need help making new connections. To get the most out of your current network, make sure you cast a wide net. One of the most powerful questions you can ask is, “Who do you know in ______?” In this case, the blank space is your new city, but it can also be an industry, a company, or anything you’re looking to explore. Before you move, take the time to ask many friends and colleagues if they know anyone worth meeting in your new city. Most people will be able to think of a few names. Even if each person can only think of one, you’ll still walk away with a good list of potential contacts.

Seek out shared activities. Once you land in your new city, it may be tempting to seek out meetups, networking events, and the like. But research shows that events structured around meeting new people often fail. Attendees generally spend time conversing with people they already know, or with people who are similar to themselves. A better option is to participate in a “shared activity,” an event where there is a bigger objective at hand and achieving that objective requires interdependence. You’re much more likely to make new and diverse connections at events that give you a reason to get to know the person next to you. So, how do you find a shared event? They come in all shapes and sizes, from community service to classes to amateur sports leagues. Choose what you’re most comfortable with.

The key emphasis in the advice above is to activate old networks and work your way into new ones. Making use of weak ties, people you may know from the past or acquaintances or friends of friends, could help ease your way into new social circles. It may not necessary be easy to reach out to those weak ties, particularly the extent of a connection was a social media friendship or following, but this would still probably be preferable to cold calling people. To start participating in a new network, the advice suggests finding an activity which allows people to organize themselves by interest. This draws on the homophily often present in social networks: people tend to congregate with people like them. This particular advice about common interests is likely even more true today than in the past; rather than joining civic organizations or relationships based on geography and proximity, people today tend to sort by interests.

Even with these tips, it is likely a disorienting experience for many when they move to a new community. Americans are fairly mobile people and I wonder if the American tendencies toward extroversion and public friendliness are intended to help make these social transitions easier.

Solving traffic problems by developing resilient roads

A new study suggests cities and regions should think about their whole network of roads as resilient rather than focusing on main arteries:

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Maksim Kitsak, associate research scientist in the Department of Physics and Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, and his colleagues examine the resilience and efficiency in city transportation systems. Efficiency refers to the average time delay a commuter would face annually due to traffic. Resilience is the ability of road networks to absorb adverse events that fall outside normal daily traffic patterns…

“What we show is actually these two measures are not really correlated with each other,” Kitsak said. “One would think that if the city is bad for traffic under normal conditions, it would be equally bad or worse for traffic under additional stress events, like severe weather. But we show that is not quite the case.”

For example, the study found that the Los Angeles transportation network—while inefficient on a daily basis—doesn’t suffer much from adverse events. The road systems are resilient. They function more or less the same regardless of unforeseen incidents…

Why is the City of Angels more resilient than the City by the Bay? Kitsak said there are many factors that influence transportation resiliency, but one of the most important ones is the availability of backup roads. Los Angeles has many, while San Francisco does not. San Francisco also relies heavily on bridges, which separate the city from other parts of the Bay Area where many commuters live.

This is more evidence that simply adding lanes to major highways or even constructing more major roads is not necessarily the way to go to solve traffic and congestion issues. All the roads (plus other transportation options) work together in a system or network.

Speaking of Los Angeles, this reminds me that the region can illustrate both the good and bad of having a more resilient road network. On the good side, concern about potential Carmageddon and Carmageddon 2 were overblown as the closing of a major highway for repairs was not as disruptive as some thought. On the flip side, a few years ago some Los Angeles residents complained about Waze rerouting cars through their quiet neighborhood to avoid backups on the main roads.

Finally, this study could also be related to claims by New Urbanists that the best option for laying out roads and space is on a grid system. Grids allow drivers and other easy ways to get around problem spots. In contrast, subdivisions (common in suburban areas) that include quiet and occasionally winding residential roads that dump onto clogged main arteries do not contain many alternatives should something go wrong on the main roads.

So is the trick in the long run to create a resilient road network within a region that is not totally dependent on cars? Los Angeles might come up looking good in this study but not everyone would agree that sprawl and lots and driving is desirable.

Social networks of corporate elites have become less dense

Two researchers suggest that the board members of major American corporations are now less connected to each other:

The dense web of connections allowed the inner circle to police the corporate ranks and present a unified, middle-of-the-road message to policymakers. Our own research, forthcoming in the American Journal of Sociology, finds that board ties are now too sparse to provide a means for business executives to forge common ground.

CEOs today rarely serve on two or more boards, and, as a result, they no longer have monthly opportunities to hear what peers who support another point of view might think. Those board connections turned out to be a force for political moderation, and annual gatherings in Davos are not enough to replace them.

These researchers argue this weaker network is not necessarily good:

When a single network connected corporate America, executives were forced to listen to opinions from a range of peers. And although the group skewed Republican on average, individual directors held a range of political opinions.

The most well-connected leaders converged on a preference for more moderate candidates and policies and often ended up donating to both parties’ candidates, not just one. The support of this group was useful, if not absolutely essential, for potential presidential candidates, and it is hard to imagine that a putative anti-establishment candidate like Trump would have passed muster.

This seems like a counterintuitive finding: even as academics like C. Wright Mills worried about the power elite, breaking up these networks can also have negative consequences. Many may not like the image of a good old boys network but that group could get things done. This reminds me of some of the research on term limits: many might want more turnover in political offices in order to limit corruption but such efforts can also limit effectiveness of politicians who no longer have the deep knowledge or connections built up over years. What if it turns out that neither outcome – dense corporate board networks or weaker networks – is particularly good? It is probably going too far to suggest that corporate boards should go all together…

Your friends have more friends that you

A sociologist discovered a law about how many friends your friends have:

Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true…

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing Maine. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

See the abstract of the 1991 article here.

It is interesting that this newspaper piece focuses on the dangerous aspects of this. Danger and death are needed to catch the attention of readers who might not otherwise care about sociological findings? What about normal life when it seems your friends are more popular than you? Rest assured; that is just the way the math works out.

First Medicare patient was in Naperville

Edward Hospital in Naperville will on July 20 celebrate the first Medicare patient in American history:

A Chicago Tribune reporter informed 68-year-old Avery she would be the first citizen to have her bills paid under the then-new program. Her amused reply, “Oh boy! Now I can go to New York and get on the television program ‘I’ve Got A Secret.'”

It was no secret when Avery signed her Medicare forms in her hospital bed on July 1, 1966, the day the program went into effect for nearly 20 million Americans age 65 or older. In addition to front-page coverage in the Tribune, an Associated Press photographer snapped Avery’s picture, which made its way across the country and into numerous other newspapers and publications…

“Edward Hospital, birthplace of Medicare” is how Carlson wryly refers to the event. Carlson is the one who chose Avery for her distinction.

“The reason I was given the right to choose was that I was a member of the communications staff at the national Blue Cross Association,” Carlson said. He and the head of communications at the U.S. Social Security Administration coordinated Avery’s form-signing and photo opportunity.

Although Naperville was still a small town at the time – under 10,000 residents – this illustrates how social networks can help push small communities into the spotlight. Even large bureaucratic programs have to start somewhere and a personal connection between the Blue Cross Association and the Social Security Administration made this possible.

The article says the hospital will dedicate a plaque and hold a small ceremony to make the anniversary. Is this the best way to mark social welfare programs? How many people will know that the plaque exists and view it? The United States regularly crafts memorials for particular people, whether notable leaders (like the proposed Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C.) or collections of soldiers, but doesn’t mark government programs as well. A memorial to the New Deal? The Monroe Doctrine? The Interstate Act? All of these were incredibly consequential yet it is more difficult to envision where and how these should be marked.

Explaining Americans’ decline in geographic mobility

Derek Thompson highlights a decline in movement and summarizes what might be behind it:

Between the 1970s and 2010, the rate of Americans moving between states fell by more than half—from 3.5 percent per year to 1.4 percent. “It’s a puzzle and it’s the one I wish politicians and policy makers were more concerned about,” Betsey Stevenson, a former member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, told The New York Times this week. Fewer Americans moving toward the best jobs and starting fewer companies could lead a less productive economy. On Thursday, the Financial Times reported that productivity “is set to fall in the U.S. for the first time in more than three decades.”…

Every dimension of declining American dynamism is connected. The slowdown in most areas’ business development comes from a shifting tide in American migration. For 100 years, population flowed from poor areas to rich areas. Now the trend has reversed. Land-use policies prevent more middle-class families from living in productive areas, because housing becomes too expensive. Meanwhile, the rich can afford to cluster in a handful of metros where entrepreneurship is a norm, while business dynamism falls in the rest of the country. There used to be too much land to settle. Now there’s not enough land to share.

Two quick related thoughts:

  1. You regularly see people make the argument that people should just pick up and move to where there are more opportunities, meaning jobs and a cheaper cost of living (generally referring to housing and maybe taxes). There is even a single case in Evicted where a person moves from a poor Milwaukee neighborhood to a southern city and seems to be doing well. However, moving is not necessarily easy (see #2).
  2. Why are economists the only ones summarized here? Are sociologists not paying much attention to this? On one hand, I can see how economics would drive decisions about moving. Yet, it is not the only factor. People have social connections wherever they live and it can be difficult to form new social networks. While Americans always have prized mobility, don’t they also celebrate finding your roots and being a presence in your community? (Granted, Americans may be doing neither: moving less and being less engaged in civic life.) This reminds me of some public housing residents who didn’t want to leave pretty bad conditions in high-rise buildings. Or, what about explanations like those in The Big Sort or The Rise of the Creative Class where people choose to live near people like themselves.

Scientific misinformation flows through online echo chambers

New research examines how scientific misinformation is dispersed:

Research published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences maps out the factors that influence the spread of scientific misinformation and skepticism within online social networks — and the findings were disturbing.

“Our analysis shows that users mostly tend to select content according to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest,” Dr. Walter Quattrociocchi, a computer scientist at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Italy and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. Users are driven to content based on the brain’s natural confirmation bias — the tendency to seek information that reinforces pre-existing beliefs — which leads to the formation of “echo chambers,” he said…

For the study, the researchers conducted a quantitative analysis of articles shared on Facebook related to either conspiracy theories or fact-based science news. They found that users tended to cluster within homogenous, polarized groups, and within those groups, to share the same types of content, perpetuating the circulation of similar ideas.

Is the problem echo chambers or believing misinformation (when certain people want you to believe something else)? The way this article in the Huffington Post is written, it suggests that conservatives get stuck in these echo chambers – particularly for an issue like climate change – and don’t have a chance to engage with the real information. Something then needs to be done to break into or out of these echo chambers. Once people are exposed to ideas beyond the cluster of people like them, they will then find the truth. But, it may not work exactly this way:

  1. What if people actually are exposed to a range of information and still believe certain things? Exposure to a range of ideas is not necessarily a guarantee that people will believe the right things.
  2. How does the echo chamber participation on the conservative side compare with the echo chamber influence on the liberal side? The research study found echo chambers on both sides – the conspiracy and the science sides. Humans tend more toward people like them, a phenomenon called homophily, as found in numerous network studies. Are we worried generally that people might be too influenced by echo chambers (and not figuring out things for themselves) or are more worried that people have the correct ideas? Depending on one’s perspective on a particular issue, echo chambers could be positive or negative influences.