Thursday, March 31, 2011

The "Arab Spring"

The paper that I referred to in my previous post also has a remarkable prediction of the Twitter revolutions that we are seeing in the Middle East and North Africa. Sternberg (1980) found that the sudden connection of previously unattached individuals or small groups can lead to widespread protest. Sound familiar? I think the introduction of Facebook and other social networking has allowed lots of small communities that were all oppressed but isolated to become suddenly connected. And just what Sternberg predicted came to pass.

But he also predicted that sustaining the protest requires strong ties within the group. If the protesters in Egypt, Libya, etc. don’t develop strong ties, then it remains to be seen if they can keep up the momentum needed to create working democracies. In Egypt, luckily Mubarak stepped down quickly. But a new dictator can easily step in if society lets its guard down. In Libya, a lot more dedication will be necessary. Even with NATO’s no fly zone, the Libyans will have to get a lot more organized if they want to take Tripoli.

The power of weak ties

Today I read an old sociology paper that has some very interesting insights that are remarkably relevant today. The paper is from 1983 and yet it predicts some of the benefits, challenges, and implications of the spread of social networks on the web. The basic premise is that our close friends (or close coworkers) tend to all know each other. This creates dense networks that tend to assimilate with each other. The benefits of diverse thinking (as I have blogged about previously) are lost.

But some people have weak ties to other groups. These weak ties can be either acquaintances of acquaintances (and therefore not very useful) or what he calls local bridging ties which connect groups that have complementary skills, knowledge, or other important attribute. Local bridging ties create many benefits for individuals, organizations, and societies.

Individuals benefit through upward mobility. Weak ties can help out with job searches, mobility, and developing extensive professional and social networks.

Organizations benefit because weak ties facilitate the diffusion of innovation, ideas, and tacit company practices. They loosen up cliques that can hurt morale and lower productivity. They allow companies to develop stronger links to other companies in the value chain. Weak ties can create a nice balance between specialized division of labor and interdisciplinary work and innovation.

For societies, weak ties allow subgroups to integrate without assimilating. They create macrosocial cohesion. It helps to diffuse things that are controversial (as illustrated by how fast dirty jokes and urban myths spread despite not being covered in the media).

I can see some recommendations coming out of this.

· Individuals should find and nurture weak ties that are bridging to higher status and diverse groups.

· Organizations should create a culture with dense clusters within departments and weak ties that provide local bridges between them. This maximizes the tradeoff between specialization and interdisciplinary innovation.

· Organizations/communities should develop/nurture several ways for individuals to establish weak bridging ties. This increases the chance they will develop naturally, which is important because you can’t effectively force weak ties on people in either context.

The paper also describes some benefits of strong ties and how the balance is important. But I will let you read the paper to get these.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Heisenberg Free Will

There was an article in the NY Times last week that got me thinking. The article was about some recent research on people's understanding of free will and moral responsibility.

From my cognitive science background, I know that everything we do and think is a product of what we are perceiving from outside our brains in combination with what is currently active in our brains in a not-always-predictable interaction. But not predictable is not the same as free will.

Everything going on in our brains is a product or what we have recently perceived along with what was in our brain before that. What was in our brain before that is a function of what we were perceiving before that and what was in our brain before THAT. And so on back to birth, and to some extent to conception. That part is defined by genetics.

So in sum, what we are thinking and doing right now is a direct result of genetics plus the sum total of everything we perceived outside our brains since conception - again in some unpredictable combination/interaction. The only place that variation occurs is at the atomic level due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Our atoms have some free will, but we don't. As Schopenhauer said (to paraphrase), we can do what we will, but what we will is predetermined.

But the article in the NYT makes some important points. Society depends on us believing that we have free will. People who doubt free will, even temporarily due to extenuating circumstances, are less honest, less ethical, do worse at their jobs, do worse in their relationships, and are more forgiving of other people's transgressions.

So even if what I argued above is true, don't tell anyone about it, don't believe it yourself, and continue along as if it were not true. At least that's what I CHOOSE to do.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Candy and Memory

I had a Japanese hard candy last night that was starfruit flavored. It brought back lots of memories of eating starfruit when I was in Thailand. I love when that happens.

It also made me think of the nature of memory. When there is something you experience all the time (like a standard peppermint candy), it can’t bring up special memories because you have so many different memories that could be associated with the flavor. They all just blend together and the associations blur together. The trick to having great memories is to make sure that when you have an enjoyable time that you want to remember, associate it with something unique. Keep a starfruit candy in your pocket in case of emergencies.

Risk taking when you are sleepy!!!!

A study just out of Duke has some findings that are important to all of us. When we are sleep deprived, even moderately so, it changes the way we make decisions. We tend to be more optimistic and therefore take greater risks to achieve benefits that seem better than they really are. This is why Vegas casinos make so much money late at night. But it could also be a problem for anyone in business who gets to work in the morning still sleepy and has to make important decisions. The gains will seem better than they really are and you will take more risks.

What makes it worse is that caffeine and other stimulants don’t help. They keep you awake, but don’t fix your decision making. So in fact, you are even worse off because being awake allows you to get more done, so you will make more bad decisions than if you just stay sleepy.

Literally Figurative

Many people misuse the term literally when they mean figuratively. A common one is "that literally blew my mind!" Clearly, they meant figuratively. Literally/figuratively are not true opposites, but they are on opposite poles of a semantic differential (like modern-traditional). I have some friends that are particularly sensitive to this misuse. I am usually on their side. It’s not that hard to learn the difference.

But I heard an example yesterday that got me thinking. Maybe there is a middle ground. The example I heard was someone referring to an activist in Libya as “literally one of the lions of women’s rights in North Africa.” Clearly, this activist was not literally a lion. She was figuratively a lion. But what I think the speaker meant was that many people are referred to as a “lion” of this or a “lion” of that and they really don’t warrant such as a strong characterization. So what the speaker meant was that the activist’s status “literally” rose to the level of a figurative lion. This may not be exactly right, but it is not exactly wrong either.

Maybe we can attribute this same “partially correct” status to other misuses of this semantic differential as well. When someone says “that literally blew my mind” maybe they mean that the amount of surprise and wonder they felt “literally” rose to the level of figuratively blowing their mind as opposed to rising to a moderate level of wonder and surprise that many people mischaracterize as ‘blew my mind.”

I wonder if my friends who are sensitive to this misuse can chime in. Do you think I have a point here?

Monday, March 07, 2011

The power of framing

A recent study looked at the impact of how problems are framed on the solutions that people selected. They created a scenario in which a city had an increasing crime rate. They created two groups of matched participants and the only difference was that one scenario called the problem “the beast of crime” and the other one called it the “virus of crime.” Both groups had to look for relevant data and come up with solutions.

They found significant differences in the approach of these two groups. The beast group looked for information on law enforcement and proposed solutions that were more punitive-oriented (more cops, jails). The virus group looked for information on underlying causes and proposed solutions that were more treatment-oriented (more education, mentoring).

Just one word had this effect. Imagine how much we are influenced by the news sources we rely on. You would be amazed at how much your world view depends on whether you watch Fox or MSNBC. Or Drudge/Huffington Post. Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow.