Friday, June 23, 2006

Are Americans Dangerously Isolated?

The Washington Post covers the relaease of McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears' new article on growing social isolation in the US. Using a question from the General Social Survey that was asked in both 1985 and 2004 about how many friends the respondent had in whom they could confide, they argue that Americans have become more isolated over the past twenty years:
A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.
These results are startling. One of the authors is even quoted arguing that lack of social ties were responsible for people being left behind in New Orleans to face Katrina.

While these results are certainly accurate (the GSS is a high quality survey), I am not sure I interpret them in the same way the authors do -- i.e., that this reflects greater isolation from other people. As I have discussed previously, the long term trends in the costs and benefits of social interactions move in a variety of directions leading to no clear prediction of greater isolation. If I have a prediction, I guess it is adequately summed up by this:
People are likely to (and do) spend as much or more time engaged in social activities as they used to. They are likely to have as many or more social ties then they used to. However, who they are tied to, what ties them together, and the social skills necessary to make and maintain useful social ties have probably changed.
Indeed, this interesting paper from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, takes a much broader view of core ties ("people whom Americans' turn to discuss important matters, with whom they are in frequent contact, and from whom they seek help") and significant ties (weaker then core ties, but more than acquaintances) and finds that the people have an average 23 core ties and an additional 27 significant ties. Personal introspection about my own social network and those of other people I know suggests that these numbers are not crazy. While the study lacks comparison data for a previous period, even if Americans have fewer core and significant ties than they used to, I find it hard to look at these numbers and conclude that Americans are extremely isolated.

Still, should we be concerned by the decline in propensity for people to have confidants? I am not yet concerned because it is not clear that the evidence presented reflects a real trend. The specific question asked in the GSS in 1985 and 2004 is this, "From time to time, most people discuss important matters with other people. Looking back over the last six months—who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?" There are several ways to interpret changes in the distribution of responses to this question.

First, one could observe the fact that respondents list fewer confidants and that 25 percent of people list no one as a confidant and infer, as the authors do, that people have no friends -- they are sad and alone. Advocates of this view, essentially make supply argument. Lurking in their argument is an assumption that demand for confidant services is constant, and the lack of confidants stems from supply problems. Somehow the price of connecting with other people has gone up, so people have fewer confidants and are more isolated.

However, one way for the price of confidant services to increase is for people to become less isolated. For instance, if technology increases the frequency of social contact among members of a social network, people may expect that their confidants are more likley to be tempted to reveal their secrets. While factors other than technology may drive such a change, any increase in the probability that private information will be distributed widely may reduce individual's willingness to discuss important private matters with others. Indeed, the growth in reliance on one's spouse for confidant services documented in the paper (see Table 2) may be driven by lower expectations of confidentiality outside the marriage unit.

Alternatively, one might argue that (for whatever reason) the norms of social behavior have changed and, in spite of the fact that people have a similar number of social ties, they are now less likely to "confide" in people. This may reflect either a shift in supply (social ties "charge" more for dealing with the burden of others social problems) or demand (individuals may have decided they prefer not to discuss some matters with other people).

Further, the observed trend could be explained by a fall in the price of substitutes (that are not captured by the survey). E.g., people may now choose to discuss some important matters with professional counselors or in anonymous internet discussions (instead of with friends and family). If people are also unwilling to disclose these connections or if they simply don't think of these connections in this context, then the data my under-report people's ability to confide in other humans. The fact that the proportion of people discussing important matters with advisors fell (in spite of growth in the use of mental health professionals) and the proportion having discussions with "other" (the only place that seemed likely to capture discussions with relatively anonymous on-line personas) fell (in spite of the fact that many people are obviously choosing to discuss important personal matters on the internet) seems to suggest that the survey may be failing to capture how people are dealing with important personal issues in the modern environment.

Finally, you could question if, when reflecting on "matters important to you", people living in 2004 think of a different set of topics (which naturally tend to be discussed with a smaller group of people) than people living in 1984. This may reflect an actual decline in the number of really important topics or merely a decline in the number of topics people think of as important. Either way, the trend may reflect a basic decline in the demand for confidants.

Without a better sense of what this trend really means, I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions from this paper about the state of American’s social ties (much less argue that Americans are now in some sort of increased danger).

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