Sunday, August 06, 2006


Another big article, this time by the AP, about American's growing loneliness drawing on the same study about the number of confidants I discussed previously here and here. This article augments the confidant finding by pointing out that the fraction one person households has increased from 10 percent to 25 percent since 1950 (a fact related to the facts that people remain unmarried longer and that people live longer now), by discussing psychologists experiences confronting loneliness, and by discussing various groups' responses to the issue.

I still don't get the alarmist tone of these articles. On Friday, Tony V sent me a link to a post by a sociologist at Columbia who's done work trying to estimate the number acquaintances people have that shows that the median person knows approximately 600 people. While I wouldn't argue this is a highly accurate estimates of the number of people we know, the estimates pass my sniff test.

Note -- Since directly asking, "how many acquaintances you have?" is unlikely to produce meaningful responses, the social network analysts ask people a bunch of questions that are more easily answered like "how many people named Nicole do you know?" or "how many do you know who died in an auto accident last year?" Then they use the true distribution of the number of Nicoles in the population to estimate the how many people a person knows. They obviously define clearly what they mean by "know someone" ("you know them and they know you by sight or by name, that you could contact them, that they live within the United States, and that there has been some contact (either in person, by telephone or mail) in the past 2 years"), and they ask a number of the "how many" questions and then average the results together in order to reduce the noise in such an obviously noisy measure.

If the median person knows 600 people, is it really plausible that there are loads of sad lonely people out there?

It is possible, but to convince me I need to see some evidence that the "price" of translating acquaintances into more substantial friends has increased substantially. Otherwise, why do the sad and lonely remain sad and lonely? If there is demand for companionship, what is the source of the supply failure?

This is not to say that I oppose efforts to improve social capital. Quite the contrary, I am firmly in favor of efforts to make forming social ties easier. In particular, I would like to see more effort devoted to formal social skills training. I find it baffling that we spend enormous resources training people how to do math, write, and reason, but basically expect that people will just figure out how to interact with others on their own. Training people how to initiate and maintain social ties hopefully would reduce the biggest price associated with social interaction -- simply dealing with the other person. But I favor such programs not because I think we face a crisis of loneliness, but rather because I think that social capital is an important (and often overlooked) factor in production (in both regular and social markets).

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