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The Village Effect
The Village Effect
Why face-to-face contact matters
Submitted by Francesca R
6th August 2017
The Village Effect

It is sometimes assumed that in today's modern age it is far easier than before to spend a day not meeting anyone in person, or even speaking to anyone, without feeling lonely and without cutting oneself off, thanks to online connectivity. Indeed a case often made is that modern media have made things easier for chronically shy types, introverts or those with autism. Susan Pinker, a Canadian psychologist, disagrees with almost all of this. The internet is no substitute for face to face interaction and "meatspace" social bonds, she says, and where it does become substituted anyway it makes people unhappy, ill and less likely to live as long. In one of many references to "female effects", Ms Pinker argues that the longer life expectancy of women--(almost everywhere except in some "Blue Zones" such as a featured Sardinian mountain village chock-full of centenarians of either gender)--is due mostly to their greater proclivity to form close social ties (usually with other women).

The power of friendship bonds can be practical; many of those who died in Chicago's lethal 1995 heatwave simply didn't have anyone who thought to check up on them. Or they can be deeply mood-enhancing and bolster self-esteem; 101 year old Teresa Cabiddu attributes her age to her descendent family members who all live nearby, or with her, and love her. Epidemiologists have known that community cohesion is correlated with longevity for several decades. Religious communities often achieve demonstrable results along these dimensions, regardless of whether their deity exists or not. Inclusion is apparently something that people are hard-wired to seek out. Nobody is an excludovert.

Except that we don't have limitless capacity for interpersonal connections. Ms Pinker brings in Robin Dunbar's sociologically recurrent number, though this supposed upper limit on group size (150) is at least an order of magnitude higher than the number of real friends many quiet folks would max out at. But practically what this means is that creating and maintaining distance from outsiders is, actually, often as central to people's behaviour as is keeping proximity to insiders. Part of ensuring cohesion, in other words, resides in enforcing exclusion too. This was not just used by the rulers of Nazi Germany or South Africa's apartheid regime. Social ostracism, again practised more by females (to whittle down their group size, and perhaps to give it stronger social glue), is the downside counterpart of their better network building in the first place.

This is magnified in younger generations where online networks (typically affording friend pools in the thousands; many times larger than the Dunbar number) work to amplify the euphoria-trauma experience of upsize-downsize swings. And the round trip is negative according to all the research the author cites--the more time spent online interacting with more strangers, the lonelier people report to feeling. (And most virtual connections are, in aggregate, either with strangers or between people who probably would not spot each other passing in the street, even if they have met before). Ms Pinker doesn't believe that online networks are themselves creators of meanness, but they do allow it to propagate free of the checks and balances that limit it in face to face contexts. Something similar to what cars do to the cooperative temperament of their drivers. It's more of a jungle in there than out here.

Traditional heterosexual marriage can allow men to plug into the networks their wives have crafted, and benefit from those. Ms Pinker reports bullish statistics on marriage correlating with lifespan for both genders and including same sex couples, but it's bigger for women than men (except in very poor countries where childbirth/pregnancy is a far more lethal hazard). Living together is second best. Your reviewer learned that her situation (unmarried and living alone) was most hazardous--on the bright side this perhaps gives her more incentive to take up dangerous sports. Actually this is not entirely true--miserable unions are even worse.

Susan Pinker's advice is that we all need some strong real life social bonds, a spouse being not enough on their own anyway ("You're one person away from having nobody, immunology speaking you're almost naked"). And that nobody got better at doing this by spending more time online (she is convinced most get worse at it doing that). Precisely how much face time with how many depends on temperament, some people don't need much, others do. (Ms Pinker's claim to be introverted wasn't convincing against her admission that she would much rather dine with friends than alone when on a business trip, but hey). And how strong that face to face contact is would also appear to be fungible (Your reviewer works in a pretty quiet office and can shut her door if she wants to completely block out her colleagues, who like her are not famously talkative either. But she is often outside it at an open plan desk instead, and she has no desire to work remotely which she could do much of the time if she wished). "The Village Effect" is a useful balance to other texts that big up solitude, and the net. Even if it wasn't this reviewer's favourite book this year.
Susan Pinker

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