Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Are We Bowling Alone?

Bowling Alone The most influential book I have read in the past 10 years is Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0743219031). I'm aware of some of the criticism which has been leveled at Putnam's work, but for me, as for many others, Bowling Alone provides a description of the society I see around me. The problem I've always had, and which Putnam does not fully address, is why has there been the erosion of social capital that he describes?

Last weekend I read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Penguin UK, 2012. ISBN 0141033576). Kahneman's book does not have the impact of Putnam's and while not undermining the overall corpus of his work, comes across as rather superficial in many ways. But one aspect that Kahneman discusses definitely struck a chord, the issue of money priming:
“Reminders of money produce some troubling effects. Participants in one experiment were shown a list of five words from which they were required to construct a four-word phrase that had a money theme (“high a salary desk paying” became “a high-paying salary”). Other primes were much more subtle, including the presence of an irrelevant money-related object in the background, such as a stack of Monopoly money on a table, or a computer with a screen saver of dollar bills floating in water. Money-primed people become more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenter for help, a crisp demonstration of increased self-reliance. Money-primed people are also more selfish: they were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experimental task. When an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils. In another experiment in the series, participants were told that they would shortly have a get-acquainted conversation with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to retrieve that person. Participants primed by money chose in the exto stay much farther apart than their non-primed peers (118 vs. 80 centimeters). Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.”
Reading this instantly bought Bowling Alone to my mind. I spent a happy/unhappy 24 hours reflecting on this new knowledge (depending on how you want to look at it). Sadly, the next day I read Michael Kraus's post, A Social Priming Finding with Direct Replications, which is another take on the recently discussed "Replication Problem" in psychology.
"Social priming researchers are faced with the public perception that our field lacks methodological rigor. In the past, the dominant reaction has been to simply downplay these concerns and assure people that our findings replicate."
Together with the rather glib tone of Thinking, Fast and Slow, this has somewhat undermined my confidence that I have finally found a reason we are bowling alone. But I can't shake the gut feeling that affluence must be at least part of the explanation for the accelerating enclosure of public goods and the continued decline of social capital.


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