Are you uncouth?
If so, it’s probably because your kith are not doing their job properly. It’s not your fault. You’re just running with the wrong crowd.
As Alex Pentland has pointed out, the words kith and couth are very much related. One is the input; the other is the output. Your kith – as in kith and kin – are close friends and neighbors that form a fairly cohesive group. Your kith – along with your kin – are the people who teach you how to behave couthly. If you’re uncouth, you might want to choose some new kith.
Pentland is generally regarded as the founder of social physics which (in my opinion) is an old idea that has been re-energized with big data and mathematic modeling.
The old idea is simply that the people around us influence our behavior. My mother clearly understood this when she told me, “Don’t run with that crowd. They’ll get you in trouble.” It’s also why you shouldn’t have a heart attack in a crowd. It’s also why you’re better off alone when shot down behind enemy lines.
But how much do the people around us influence our behavior? How much do we decide as individuals and how much is decided for us as members of a group? Are we individuals first and social animals second? Or vice-versa?
This is where Pentland and the social physicists come in. Using mathematical models and tracing communications via mobile phone, the social physicists start to quantify the issue.
For instance, Pentland and his colleagues studied income distribution in 300 cities in the United States and Europe. They concluded that, “variations in the pattern of communication accounted for almost all of the differences in average earnings – much more important than variations in education or class structure.” The more you share ideas, the more rapidly your income grows. Yet another advantage for living in cities.
Pentland also experiments with incentives. Let’s say you want to incent me to lose weight. You could pay me a bonus for each pound I lose. Or you could pay the bonus to a close friend of mine, while paying me nothing. Which works better? According to the social physicists, paying my friend works four times better than paying me.
The social physicists demonstrate over and over again that it’s the sharing of ideas that counts. Creativity in isolation generates little to no benefit. It’s only by putting creativity in circulation that we gain. It even works for financial traders. Pentland studied 10 million trades by 1.6 millions users of a financial trading site. “He found that traders who were isolated from others or over-connected did worse than those who struck a balance. The former group was deprived of information and the latter became stuck in an echo chamber.”
What’s it all mean? First and foremost, choose your friends wisely. Pentland concludes that, “The largest single factor driving adoption of new behaviours was the behaviour of peers. Put another way, the effects of this implicit social learning were roughly the same size as the influence of your genes on your behaviour, or your IQ on your academic performance.”