How people we hardly know cause us to have more serendipitous, lonelier, busier lives 

April 11, 2014

Imagine you live in a small town, circa 1750. Your daily life is spent working – maybe farming, or maybe you make shoes or are a teacher. You eat, drink, sleep, look after children, and socialize. Your social circle consists of others in the same class and gender, for the most part, and you will most likely spend your whole life living with, farming with, marrying into, reproducing with, and dying with the other families that live in your village.  You know these people really, really well.

Perhaps someone in your family emigrates – to London, or to one of the settlement colonies, say – and so you spend a bit of time every month writing letters to them, but know that it’s a bit pointless, because anyone who had moved more than a few hundred miles away would likely never come back. Every so often a traveller or vagrants will come by, and sometimes people will move in or away, but for the most part social circles are set. There is no networking to change your lot in life, or make new friends, just living.

Now imagine the richness and diversity of your current social circle. It is probably more like a multi-national organization than a village. It probably includes people living in several countries, from different backgrounds. It is probably quite large. You probably don’t know many of them very well, but may spend a lot of time, like I do, writing emails, talking on the phone, or communicating in other ways with them. I spend much of what time I have leftover in my day feeling guilty that I haven’t spent more time writing more emails or making more phone calls. When I lived in Toronto, I must have had 25 people at any given time that I had honestly been meaning to “catch up” with for about six months. Now I live further away, it is even more important (and time-consuming) to keep up links with everyone back “home.” (I am that immigrant mentioned above! Doubly so. So many letters.)

Of course, this doesn’t even include time spent on the more common definition of “networking” – the kind that makes me want to take a shower – which is to purposefully make connections with the hope of them being useful at some point hence, in a search for a new job or piece of advice.

Network Proliferation

The abundance of methods of communication and social networking technologies has made all kinds of networking almost unconscious, but quite time-consuming. Modern networks are kept alive by either the acceptance of an inferior means of communication (email, letters, FaceTime) as satisfactory grounds to sustain them, or the faint hope of a better way of interacting occurring again in the future. But it appears that quality decreases even as time spent increases, and we are left accepting many more threads of connection without time to forge many into lasting companions.

If we are being honest, it is highly impractical to spend so much time maintaining friendships with friends of friends, those who live outside of our immediate geography, or people who were major players in our lives years ago but no longer cross our minds very often. So why do we do it? What is so inherently appealing about having far-flung networks of others who share our interests and experiences?

I see the main points of the cost-benefit analysis as follows:

  • The social inclusion high. With the breakdown of actual barriers of geography through telecommunications and easier global travel, and imagined barriers of social class, we are much more likely to find others who share commonalities with us. And most of us are willing to spend time and energy building a social circle of like-minded peers, over and above the time and energy required to simply exist in the world with those who may not necessarily (e.g. colleagues, extended family members, baristas at the coffee shop, the mailman, etc.).
  • Imagined future benefits. Slightly more self-serving, but no doubt also a factor is the potential usefulness of knowing an old travel companion who lives in Auckland, NZ in case you ever need a place to stay, or a contact in the federal government in case of a future career change. This is, basically, the only reason LinkedIn exists.
  • Guilt. It’s harder to terminate a relationship than keep it vaguely open-ended. It is much easier to have friends from elementary school connected by a thin thread on a Facebook feed than acknowledge that there is no real reason to be part of each other’s lives. In this case the cost may be low (provided they don’t constantly spam us with game requests or multiple smarmy medical school acceptance status updates), but it also makes me wonder if our village-dwelling ancestors were more comfortable with saying goodbye and just letting go of outdated relationships.

Dunbar redux

There are very real advantages to having large, loose networks of connections, but the cost of all of this network upkeep is time and anxiety. According to a well-known study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the optimal size of a human’s social network is about 150. This number refers to how many people we can cognitively sustain stable relationships with, and is directly related to the size (and thus functionality) of our neocortex. (For a fantastic and hilarious illustration of Dunbar’s number, see this piece.)

Dunbar’s number has obvious applicability to real-world organizations, but has more recently also been found to apply to our online social networks, in the number of people we frequently interact with online. But with ever-larger networks to maintain, something has to give: the quality of the relationship, the amount of time humans are willing to spend communicating with others, or a shift in our physiology so that we are able to cognitively adjust to a greater size of stable connections.

It seems that quality is the first thing to go. A 2007 study showed that Facebook has many positive social attributes, in that it enables us to “keep tabs” on others very easily, thus “convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,” increasing the serendipity factor in our lives. As is already widely known, however, it also carries costs. The constant identity curation necessitated by Facebook and similar social networks is exhausting. We want to project an image of ourselves as (relatively) happy, successful and social. It’s stressful, and it also makes us lonely.

I pick on Facebook, but we use the same techniques to keep up appearances across networks with all of our weak ties, and this is facilitated by not being near people for sustained periods of time in person. And it isn’t just in our personal lives. Image production has become an increasingly useful skill for knowledge workers who have to justify the value of their work through self-promotion or “personal branding,” either within an organization to get that excellent performance review, or to win more business as a sole proprietor. Such conscious displays of our better sides (I won’t go so far as to say artifice) would have been impossible to keep up in the village with so many strong ties and so few weak ones.

Back to the village…

Perhaps it is a symptom of our modern greed that we expect to have so much capital interpersonally and intellectually, as well as physically. Since we have “progressed” beyond the village, we can now create and maintain more opportunities: opportunities for more knowledge about the world, more interesting friends, better social activities, and better jobs. This is good news if you don’t want to be a shoemaker who sees the same 50 people every year for the rest of your life, but bad news if you want to have an empty inbox and be ulcer-free.

I see it as a social manifestation of the “paradox of choice” (a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling swamped by choice). Having more options actually makes us less happy, because the stress inherent in choosing between them, and the time it takes to do so, often outweighs the potential benefits of a better choice (if there even is a better choice). More weak ties naturally means more choice, and more stress.

So maybe those who withdraw from frequent socializing are (intentionally or not) limiting their options, and maybe they are happier for it. They moved back to a slightly bigger village, and they’re enjoying the lifestyle.

Greater Understanding but Less Choice? The Decline of Free Will

March 18, 2014

Every human’s behaviour is constrained. Legal or social censure, theological or other conceptions of morality, and physical restrictions all affect our agency. The idea of any of us having true free will is contested.

Technology and biological research have just accelerated the debate. For example, in less than six months, you will likely have advertising delivered to your cell phone based on your geographical position. (“Did you know that sweaters are on sale at the Macy’s you just walked past?”) In less than a year, service alerts and other helpful information will likely be added. (“Don’t take King Street on your way home; there is a traffic snarl up by the freeway entrance.”) If you use Google as your primary search engine, you already see only a fraction of all the search results available for your query, because predictive search technology has selected only the ones it thinks will be most relevant to you, based on your location and search history.

If not direct constraints, these are certainly strong determining factors in our behaviour. It’s the world, curated especially for us. Choices are made for us, about what we want, and should do and see, that are continually narrowing our conceptual field of vision. Spontaneity, and serendipity, in an online world where our doings are tracked and analyzed, may be a thing of the past.

Nudge, Nudge

Greater understanding of human brains and decision-making also explain the choices we make, and can be manipulated to affect them. The nudge theory of behaviour – popular with the Obama and Cameron governments, who think of it as a way to combine paternalism and libertarianism – advocates providing incentives to subtly change behaviour toward a more rational course. Give people tax credits for eco-friendly home improvements, and they’re more likely to go with the low-flush toilet and reflective window coating. Place the salad bar in a prominent location closer to the entrance of the cafeteria than the mac ’n’ cheese and you may end up with diners making healthier food choices. There is even a group dedicated to implementing such “nudges” within the UK government.

Recycling bins

Here’s a nudge toward recycling more – in Toronto, recycling and organics bins are free, while larger garbage bins cost more money

Successes claimed by nudge theorists include everything from a reduction in traffic fatalities (on curves where the lines are pained in such a way as to unconsciously encourage drivers to slow down) to less urine in public toilets (where an insect is painted on the men’s urinals to attract attention). And yet nudge theory has come under fire from various libertarian groups, who believe we should at least be aware of having our perception manipulated so it is less of an infringement upon our conscious choices. Some philosophers even argue that free will is not free without knowledge of the potential outcomes from different choices.

And yet, so many of our choices seem to be unconscious. Recent neurological research into what is called “haptic sensation” has inexorably chipped away at any concept of free will we may have had. Studies indicate that holding a warm mug of tea or coffee while interviewing a candidate, or having his/her resume presented on a heavy clipboard, can lead to a more favourable outcome for the interviewee than iced tea and a flimsy page. Soft furniture in a conference room can lead to more harmonious meetings than wooden benches. Sitting in a hot room can amplify anti-social tendencies like aggression.

Similarly, priming female students before math tests to consider their gender results in a much poorer performance than prompting them to consider more positive characteristics, such as their attendance at an elite school. The fear of conforming to gender stereotypes (“women are worse at math than men”) affects performance, in a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” The same effect has been shown on test-takers who are members of visible minority groups.

Why bother studying those limit laws when a few spoken words or a poorly placed demographics question before an exam can have significant negative effects?

Who is guilty when nobody is responsible?

Better understanding of human emotions and the human brain has already significantly affected our conception of human accountability and the choices we make. So what happens when everything can be explained away, or rationalized with a new theory of behaviour? The first verdict of “diminished responsibility” paved the way for a trend of exculpatory evidence that now encompasses hundreds of conditions rendering us unaware of, or unable to control, our actions. Everything from brain tumors to hormonal imbalances have been shown to lead to often drastic, out-of-character bevahiour.

This is often where politics draws a line between more conservative advocates for “punishment” and liberal advocates for “rehabilitation” of anti-social behaviours. And free will is an essential part of the argument, mainly because it is often linked with morality. Kant says that actions cannot be moral without being free: if we are not in control of our own actions, how can we choose to be moral or otherwise?

If you fail to slow down where nudging lines have been drawn closer together on the road, are you an unsafe driver, or merely someone on whom the psychological trick didn’t work? Should a manager be sued if he failed to hire the “better” candidate because he was sitting on too firm a chair during the interview? If two medications interact in an unprecedented way and you assault someone, are you culpable?

3d speed bumps

Slow down for the fake speed bumps! Or else?

A middle path

Perhaps there is a way to be somewhat but not entirely responsible. Many people view free will as an illusion, and consider the lack of it as a freeing, positive experience. The well-known atheist writer Sam Harris, who wrote a book on free will in 2012, argues on his blog  that in fact believing in the absence of free will lessens unhelpful emotions like pride and hatred by chalking up a good portion of the cause of our actions to unconscious reflexes and brain chemistry. If we focus less on hating “bad” people for their actions, he argues, we can spend more time meting out appropriate punishments to ensure they do not reoffend. And yet, he still leaves room for persistence, hard work and other actions that enable success and prosperity in the longer term.

The theme of intentional long-term, repetitive choices being a proxy for free will (if not the same thing) jives with another discussion I read researching this post. It mentioned religion, still the prevailing global codification of human morality, as essentially acting in one’s long-term self-interest (that is, ensuring one’s place in heaven). And really, this is what almost all morality comes down to: ensuring the harmonious relations of the species so we don’t all kill each other, couched in terms of individuals keeping those around them happy by not stealing from them, lying to them, killing them, deceiving them, etc. It is enlightened self-interest to foster mutual support networks. In this light, all historical constraints on free will (such as laws) are for “our own good.”

Perhaps the increasing awareness of the restrictions on our consciousness – and manipulations of them – are actually prosocial. Perhaps they, like morality, have given us a way to preserve the real-life networks by encouraging rehabilitation over punishment and understanding over mystery. It is certainly possible that as more behaviours are justified or explained (away), society will become more liberal in meting out criminal “justice”. Many will consider this moral progress.

Will the passage of time and progress of science eventually explain all actions we take? Will we be living in some real-life version of “Minority Report”? Will Google ever be able to know when I need a good game of trivia and be able to tell me where I have the most fun (and win)?

Perhaps – the jury is still out.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments below – do you think free will exists? Does it matter?