Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Are Your Kith Couth?

Get some new kith.

Get some new kith.

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.”

Culture — I versus We

I'm the center of the universe.

I’m the center of the universe.

What’s more important: you or the group you were born into? According to Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, the answer to that question is a basic dimension of culture and can be measured and compared. (I introduced the Hofstedes’ intercultural research last week, with a discussion of the Power Distance Index).

The Hofstedes refer to this second dimension of culture as the individualist/collectivist continuum. In cultures that lean toward the collectivist end of the spectrum, “… the interest of the group prevails over the interests of the individual.” In individualist cultures, it’s just the opposite: “…ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family.” In collectivist societies, you give your “unquestioning loyalty” to the group in exchange for protection, status, and general welfare. As the Hofstedes point out, a great majority of the world’s population lives in collectivist cultures.

The Hofstedes created an Individualism Index (IDV) and applied it to 74 countries. The most individualistic countries were: United States (IDV = 91), Australia (90), Great Britain (89), and Canada, Hungary, and the Netherlands, tied at 80. The least individualistic countries were: Colombia (13), Venezuela (12), Panama (11), Ecuador (8), and Guatemala (6).

Broadly speaking, the Individualism Index is inversely related to the Power Distance Index. In other words, individualistic countries tend to be relatively egalitarian. Collectivist countries, on the other hand, tend to rely upon powerful individuals, “imbued with strong moral authority”, to lead the group. The leader might be the head of a family, an ethnic group, a religion, or a country.

The difference between individualist and collectivist cultures can be quite subtle. In collectivist societies, a great deal of information is simply “understood” and messages are relatively brief, a phenomenon known as high-context communication. The context of the message is understood; it doesn’t need to be explained. In individualist societies, low-context communication is more typical. Messages need to be explicit, since individuals are loosely joined. The Hofstedes point out that “American (IDV= 91) business contracts are much longer than Japanese (IDV = 46) business contracts.”

In collectivist societies, “harmony should always be maintained”; in individualist societies, “speaking one’s mind” is admired. In collectivist societies, “resources should be shared with relatives”; in individualist societies, individual ownership is the rule, even for children. This dimension even affects walking speed. In individualist societies, people walk faster. In collectivist societies, they walk slower.

In business, the individualist/collectivist continuum can create significant misunderstandings. In individualist societies, “business is done with a company.”  In collectivist cultures, business is done “…with a person whom one has learned to know and trust.” Employee relations are also affected. “Management” means management of individuals in individualist cultures but management of groups in collectivist societies. Occupational mobility is higher in individualistic cultures and companies strive to treat every customer equally. In collectivist societies, in-groups may (should) be given preferential treatment in hiring, promotions, and customer care.

Perhaps as a consequence of all this, per capita GNP tends to be lower in collectivist societies. Individualist cultures tend to be wealthier. Does wealth cause individualism or vice versa? The Hofstedes makes a strong argument that rising wealth leads to individualism rather than the other way round. They conclude that poor countries, “…cannot be expected to become more individualist as long as they remain poor.”

You can learn more in the Hofstedes’ book: Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.


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