Monkey brains grow bigger with every cagemate they acquire, according to a new study showing that certain parts of the brain associated with processing social information expand in response to more complex social information.
“Interestingly, there are a couple of studies in humans by different research groups that show some correlation between brain size and the size of the social network, and we found some similarities in our studies,” study researcher Jerome Sallet, of Oxford University in the U.K., told LiveScience.
“[Our study] reinforces the idea that the human social network was built on something that was already there in the rhesus macaques.”
Looking more deeply at the invisible forces that link one human being to another helps us see something even more profound: our brains and bodies are designed to function in aggregates, not in isolation. That is the essence of an obligatory gregarious species. The attempt to function in denial of our need for others…violates our design specifications. The effects on health are warning signs, similar to the “Check Engine” light that comes on in today’s cars with their comptuerised sensors. But social connection is not just a lubricant that like motor oil, prevents overheating and wear. Social connection is a fundamental part of the human operating and organising system itself.
- Alan Moore via
Lehrer takes a look at David Romer’s analysis of fourth down decisions by NFL coaches and discovered that they don’t go for the first down enough, and opt for kicking way too much: about twice as much as they should, statistically.
Jonah Lehrer via Wired
If kicking a field goal or punting on fourth down is such a bad idea, then why do coaches always do it? To explain the consistently bad decisions of NFL coaches, Romer offered two different answers. The first is risk aversion. If coaches followed Romer’s strategy, they would fail about half the time they were within ten yards of the endzone. This means that instead of kicking an easy field goal and settling for three points, they would come away empty handed. Although that’s a winning strategy in the long-run, it’s hard to stomach. (As Daniel Kahneman notes, “Worst case scenarios overwhelm our probabilistic assessment, as the mere prospect of the worst case has so much more emotional oomph behind it.”) After a long drive down the field, fans expect some points. A coach that routinely disappointed the crowd would quickly get fired.
The second reason coaches stink at making decisions on fourth down is that they stink at statistics. As Romer politely writes, “Many skills are more important to running a successful football team than a command of mathematical and statistical tools…It may be that individuals involved want to make the decisions to maximize their teams’ chance of winning, but that they rely on experience and intuition rather than formal analysis.”
So firms don’t always maximize profits, if only because coaches aren’t rational agents. But I’m most interested in what happens next. Can coaches learn from their mistakes? Can a rigorous analysis of flawed behavior help us correct that flaw? This is the optimistic hope behind much of behavioral economics, which assumes that identifying the irrational quirks of humans allows us to escape those quirks. Thanks to Romer’s analysis, it’s now easy to make the right decision on fourth down.
So how have coaches reacted to this data? In 2001, before Romer published his findings, the average team went for it on fourth down 15.1 times per season. During the 2010 season, the average NFL team went for it on fourth down…15.125 times. Perhaps 2011 will be the year coaches start to maximize profits. But I’m doubtful.
There are a few sad lessons here. For one thing, it appears that NFL teams don’t closely follow the behavioral economics literature, even when it directly involves the sport. But the lack of change in fourth down decision-making is also a depressing reminder that human biases are exceedingly hard to fix. When the game is on the line we default to our lazy hunches and instincts, even when the rational choice couldn’t be more clear.
What is the equivalent of the fourth down bias in your world, or business? Can we learn from the cognitive biases of football coaches, even if they can’t, or are we just as stuck as they are?
And the lesson to learn isn’t the stats, or just that you should look at the objective reality of things: we need to be able to break out of the social conventions that ensnare us, even if it leads to others questioning our judgment.
This reminds me of the John Holt definition of leadership:
Leaders are not what many people think — people with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. The include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, determination, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head even when things are going badly. This is the opposite of the “charisma” that we hear so much about.
[Holt cited by Caterina Fake]
More proof that stress in the workplace — particularly the stress caused by workplace powerlessness — is killing people, one petty indignity at a time:
Jonah Lehrer, Are Your Co-Workers Killing You?
[…] the only thing worse than an office full of assholes is an office full of assholes telling us what to do. Furthermore, this model of workplace stress being driven by the absence of control has plenty of empirical support. The most impressive support comes from the Whitehall study, an exhaustive longitudinal survey launched in 1967 that tracked some 28,000 British men and women working in central London. What makes the study so compelling is its uniformity. Every subject is a British civil servant, a cog in the vast governmental bureaucracy. They all have access to the same health care system, don’t have to worry about getting laid off, and spend most of their workdays shuffling papers.
The British civil service comes with one other feature that makes it ideal for studying the health effects of stress: It’s hierarchical, with a precise classification scheme for ranking employees. This hierarchy comes with dramatic health consequences. After tracking thousands of civil servants for decades, the Whitehall data revealed that between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top. Even after accounting for genetic risks and behaviors like smoking and binge drinking, civil servants at the bottom of the pecking order still had nearly double the mortality rate.
Why were people in the lower ranks of Whitehall dying at a younger age? The Whitehall researchers, led by Michael Marmot, eventually concluded that the significant majority of health variation was caused by psychosocial factors, most notably stress. People of lower status in the Whitehall study experienced more negative stress, and this stress was deadly. (To take but one data point: Fully two-thirds of an individual’s risk of stroke was attributable to the person’s socioeconomic status.) However, the Whitehall results aren’t a straightforward analysis of stress, at least not as it’s usually defined. After all, people in leadership positions often describe their jobs as extremely stressful. They work longer hours and have more responsibilities than those at the bottom of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Consider the self-report of Nigel, a high-status administrator: “There were 2,000 people, and I was responsible for all the personnel aspects, contracts, and all the common services … It had every sort of challenge that you could ever wish to meet. A very active job and a lot of stress, but a very enjoyable job, and you got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from doing a good job.”
Notice the reference to stress; undoubtedly Nigel thought of himself as a person under lots of pressure. In contrast, here’s the self-report of Marjorie, a lowly typist: “I went to the typing pool and sat there typing documents. Which was absolutely soul-destroying … The fact that we could eat sweets and smoke was absolute heaven, but we were not allowed to talk.”
The recurring theme in the self-reports of people like Marjorie isn’t the sheer amount of stress – it’s the total absence of control. This led to the “demand-control” model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands. “The man or woman with all the emails, the city lawyer who works through the night has high demands,” Marmot writes. “But if he or she has a high degree of control over work, it is less stressful and will have less impact on health.” The Whitehall data backs up this model of workplace stress: While a relentlessly intense job like a senior executive position leads to a slightly increased risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control is significantly more dangerous.
In a typical turnabout, I see the results of this study as showing that stress in the workplace leads to higher mortality, while the author of the piece — or the editors — make the backwards analysis:
Anahad O’Connor, Friendly Workplace Linked to Longer Life
Researchers at Tel Aviv University [Arie Shirom et al] found that people who felt that they had the support of their colleagues and generally positive social interactions at work were less likely to die over a 20-year period than those who reported a less friendly work environment. Over all, people who believed they had little or no emotional support in the workplace were 2.4 times as likely to die during the course of the study compared with the workers who developed stronger bonds with their peers in other cubicles.
To study how office politics influenced health, the researchers recruited 820 adults who visited a local health clinic in 1988 for routine checkups, then interviewed them about their jobs, asking detailed questions that delved into whether they found their supervisors and peers approachable, friendly and helpful to them. The subjects worked in a variety of different fields — like finance, health care, insurance and manufacturing — and ranged in age from 25 to 65. People who were suspected of having physical or mental health problems at the start of the study were excluded.
Over the next 20 years, the researchers were able to follow the participants and monitor their health through their medical records. That gave them the chance to look for risk factors that could influence the results and allowed them to control for things like blood pressure, obesity, drinking habits, smoking, anxiety and depression.
By the time the study ended in 2008, 53 of the workers taking part had died; most of them had cast their work support networks in a negative light. Though correlation doesn’t equal causation and it is difficult to tie the causes of those deaths to specific factors in such a study, the researchers discovered some findings that surprised them.
One thing they noticed was that the risk was only affected by a person’s relationship with his or her peers, and not with that person’s supervisors. The way people viewed their relationships with their bosses had no impact on mortality.
The researchers also found that a person’s perceived level of control at work also influenced risk. But it had differing effects for men and women. Men who reported that they were allowed freedom over their daily tasks and could take more initiative at work had a lower risk of dying during the study period. But women who reported more control had an opposite outcome: Their risk of death over the course of the study rose by 70 percent.
This lines up with so much that we know about the value of friendliness to counter stress, like Oscar Ybarra’s work that demonstrates that friendliness can counter the impacts of stressful situations, like testing, and actually boost performance.
Or again, Alexander Pentland’s study with the employees at a Bank Of America call center, where restructuring breaks to allow more social interaction and denser social connections had enormous benefits, including less reported stress.
The bottom line: management has a huge incentive to decrease stress in the workplace, since the benefits to performance as so significant. And it steals years from working people’s lives.
Recent Pew research that shows that those that use the web more, trust people more:
The typical Internet user is more than twice as likely as others to feel that people can be trusted,” with regular Facebook users the most trusting of all. “A Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day is 43% more likely than other Internet users and more than three times as likely as non-Internet users to feel that most people can be trusted.
Adam Pennenberg connects the dots between this and conventional, face-to-face trust bonding:
Adam Pennenberg, Digital Oxytocin: How Trust Keeps Facebook, Twitter Humming
[…] trust goes to the heart of our economic and social systems. Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont College and author of the forthcoming book, The Moral Molecule: Vampire Economics and the New Science of Good and Evil, says that trust is the lubricant that makes economic transactions possible. […]
In his own research, Zak and a co-researcher found that nations with higher levels of trust (Sweden, Germany, the U.S.) have stronger economies than those on the other end of the spectrum (the Congo, Sudan, Colombia). “Where there is more trustworthiness, there is more prosperity,” Zak says. This trust also influences what we buy. A 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey study found that shoppers value the opinions of people they know the most, followed by online reviews written by strangers or in online communities.
There’s a good reason for this. We humans are hard-wired to commingle with one another offline and on-, and the web and its platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it more efficient than ever. That’s because virtual relationships can be as real as actual relationships. The truth is we’re all one step removed from reality, living life through the prism of our own minds. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found when they scanned the brains of fiction readers that they reacted as if they were actually living the events in the story.
Zak has traced much of our behavior to oxytocin, a single neuropeptide he’s dubbed “the moral molecule” because it appears to shape much of our better nature. Also referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is the same chemical that forges that unshakeable bond between nursing mothers and their babies. Women have 30% more of it than men, but men have plenty, too, and in a spate of experiments spanning a decade Zak has linked oxytocin to all manner of human behavior—from empathy to generosity to trust. And when we believe that someone trusts us, we trust them back, and this alters our behavior: It makes us more generous, for one. Ultimately, oxytocin is, Zak says, the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, and societies while simultaneously acting as an “economic lubricant” that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions.
It turns out that oxytocin is not all sweetness and light: it is also associated with xenophobia and tribalism. Nonetheless, it is certainly at the root of our commitment to others, and our sense of trust, which arise from various sorts of friendly interactions, and these can happen just as well in general online as off, in general.
(Turns out there is a big surge in oxytocin after various sorts of intimate touching, both sexual and asexual. But that’s not the only pathway to intimacy.)
So, once again, our online relationships are as real as those formed offline, and the trust that accompanies them is too.
Short piece from last year on work that Alexander Pentland is doing at MIT. One project maps how people interact at work:
Andy Greenberg, Mining Human Behavior At MIT
Pentland’s lab put sociometers on 80 employees at a Bank of America call center in Rhode Island. The inconspicuous badges used Bluetooth and infrared signals to measure which co-workers the test subjects talked to every minute for a month and, later, another period of six weeks. After the first month the MIT researchers could see that individuals who talked to more co-workers were getting through calls faster, felt less stressed and had the same approval ratings as their peers. Informally talking out problems and solutions, it seemed, produced better results than following the employee handbook or obeying managers’ e-mailed instructions.
So the call center tried its own experiment. Instead of staggering employees’ coffee breaks as it had previously, it aligned their breaks to allow more chatter. The result, Bank of America told MIT a few months later: productivity gains worth about $15 million a year.
Let people form their own denser social networks and — surprise — happiness, knowledge, and better performance follows.
Throw away the manuals, fire the managers, get out of the way: let people figure out how to invent their own work, cooperatively.
Jessica Stillman writes about recent research by Gerban van Kleef and colleagues from two Amsterdam universities, that suggests that rule breakers are perceived as more ‘powerful’ than rule followers:
Their series of four studies appears in Social Psychological and Personality Science and was recently written up on the British Psychological Society’s Occupational Digest blog. To test their hypothesis, the researchers presented study participants with two written scenarios, one narrating the coffee snatching behavior described in the first paragraph and another telling the tale of a bookkeeper who brushes aside a trainee’s concerns about an anomaly in a financial report. The participants then decided how well various adjectives described the rules breakers, while a control group was asked to rate a similar scenario with a more polite protagonist. Unsurprisingly, rule breakers were seen as ruder, but they were also definitely rated as more powerful.
Maybe we just find rule breakers powerful on the page, you might object, so the researchers also tested our reaction to renegades captured on video. They came to the same conclusion — viewers didn’t like the guy in the video ashing on the floor or putting his feet up on a chair, but they did see him as more powerful than when he behaved politely.
The conclusion: powerful people break more rules and rule breakers are seen as more powerful, which suggests a nasty feedback loop, according to the researchers:
Because power leads to behavioral disinhibition, the powerful are more likely to violate norms. Doing so in turn leads other people to perceive them as powerful, as we have demonstrated. As individuals thus gain power, their behavior becomes even more liberated, possibly leading to more norm violations, and thus evoking a self-reinforcing process. This vicious cycle… may play a role in the emergence and perpetuation of a multitude of undesirable social and organizational behaviors such as fraud, sexual harassment, and violence.
The backdraft of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn hoohah has all the moralists droning on about the misadventures of the powerful, and how they break the social sexual norms.
I have to say I am more interested in the small-r rule breaking here: a manager deciding to use some web software product to coordinate with his project team instead of waiting for the IT staff to conduct a 3 month investigation. Or the time a friend of mine found an American Airlines VIP card in the airport, and used it so that we could spend a layover in their lounge (and then left it with the receptionist).
Some rules are begging to be broken, at least to the sorts inclined to intolerance of petty, inhibitory dicta. And I admit that I respect people who can’t put up with chickenshit, and that translates to a sort of social power that redounds to those that cut corners and pay the maître d’ $50 to get a table ahead of all the folks waiting in the bar.
But I am uncertain if these examples prove that breaking petty rules are some sort of gateway drug, and that they inevitably lead to our society’s propensity for rape, fraud, or misuse of authority. My hunch is that sociopathic behavior is unrelated to this small-r rule breaking, but this research doesn’t dig into that supposed association, aside from the parting pot shot of the researchers about small-r rule breakage fueling a vicious cycle that culminates in violence or sexual misbehavior.
People are social animals. That is widely understood, at least at a superficial level. But the degree to which social interaction influences us is an intense area of research, constantly yielding new insights. And some of those findings counter deep-seated beliefs and cultural norms.
There was quite a stir recently when new research emerged that shows that IQ is less important in group effectiveness than social sensitivity:
Recent research has shown that that raw intelligence is not the most critical factor in group productivity. Adding a highly intelligent person to a group involved in a difficult task does not increase the likelihood that the task will be accomplished. It turns out, according to Anita Wooley of CMU:
What mattered instead was the social sensitivity of individual members, the proportion of women (who tend to be more sensitive) in each group, and a balanced participation of conversation.
So the capability of a group to assimilate a challenge, and effectively respond to it — or, social cognition — depends on many factors, and less on individual IQ than we might assume.
The proportion of women aspect turns out to be social sensitivity again, not some other psychological or physiological attribute. And, again, balancing participation of the parties involved is significantly easier in groups with higher numbers of people with greater social sensitivity.
Along these same lines, Oscar Ybarra has shown that people’s individual cognitive performance increases after having 10-15 minute friendly conversation. Friendly give-and-take seems to help people think more clearly, independent of domain. This is a wonderful and strong argument against stress-inducing work contexts, and suggests that brain chemistry is involved. The friendliness side effect of regular conversations with people that are interested in you, and make you feel like you matter, actually makes you smarter. So the extra bang that comes from the extra time at the espresso bar with a friend might be because of the talk, and not the extra shot of coffee.
In the world of learning, new evidence suggests that socially connecting students — using tools like Twitter — not only makes a class more fun, but can improve grades. Reynol Junco led a study at Lock Haven College, where the students were required to use Twitter, and to participate socially, for example, commenting on class readings. Not only did the tweeters get twice the improvement in engagement than the control group, the twitterers also hit a half grade point increase on their overall GPA for the semester. Once again social connection and friendly interaction has really tangible results. What would have happened, I wonder, if they were doing the same in all their classes? With all the students tied in?
And perhaps the most interesting of all, is the impact that certain sorts of social interaction have on our perception of time. We have all experienced the sensation that time ‘flies’ when we are engaged in something fun or exciting, and drags when we are doing something boring or annoying. It turns out that Robert Meade studied this and determined the duration of tasks, or the work day as a whole, is perceived as being shorter when people believe they are making progress against goals. I believe that is one of the reasons people are adopting streaming applications for business — like Yammer, Socialcast, Podio, IBM Connections, BantamLive, Salesforce Chatter, and dozens of others — is because they support Meade’s observation.
As I recently wrote,
Simply by providing a context in which users establish what they are working on, and posting notes about their progress — or asking other for help to make progress — and receiving feedback as they make progress, workers using streaming apps are likely to experience time as moving more quickly. This is either associated in our minds with other experiences that make us happy, or directly makes us happy. In either case, it seems fairly obvious that users are happier when exposed to social work contexts with these characteristics.
Management may have a hard time accepting the soft benefits of time compression and the way that tools modify our consciousness, but they will readily accept improvement in productivity and work attitudes.
Note that incentives can be amazingly minimal: just the positive regard of close contacts can be enough.
We are in a time of great research on social cognition, but the biggest testing ground is on the web, where literally billions of people are connecting on an unprecedented scale. All too often we try to reduce what is happening there to ‘collaboration.’ But calling what goes on when people are connected by social tools to ‘collaboration’ is like calling the experience of going to college ‘studying’. There’s a whole lot more going on, and we are seeing all sorts of research that challenges conventional wisdom about what works best in business, media, education, and on the personal level.
The most fundamental change in our thinking is about thinking itself: we are not at our best when we are sitting alone, thinking deep thoughts. On the contrary, our greatest contribution, inspiration, and learning are likely to come from close interaction with others. And it makes the time pass quickly, as well.