Drilling Deeper

Published: May 11, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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The political blog Think Progress reported (Apr. 1), “In March alone, 111 people died during police encounters… As in the past, numerous incidents were spurred by violent threats from suspects, and two officers were shot in Ferguson during a peaceful protest. However, the deaths follow a national pattern: suspects were mostly people of color, mentally ill, or both.”

With misconduct and questionable tactics found in numerous episodes with police, the national conversation has shifted to relations between communities and the police who are charged with protecting them.

Jamie O’Boyle is a senior analyst for The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, “a think tank that decodes how consumers determine value in products, concepts, and ideas.”

O’Boyle and Director Margaret King, not only study how people think, they examine the things people think they’re not thinking about. In a recent paper, entitled Hidden Systems, O’Boyle and King write, “A set of hidden systems operates deep in our minds; hidden because they run beneath conscious awareness. We use them every day. We use them to make decisions, choose our friends, find our way, plan our future, and find value in products, services, and ideas. These systems are powerful because we don’t even realize they influence every aspect of what we do and how we make decisions.”

The paper helps us understand the important difference between community and diversity.

“ ‘Community’ and ‘Diversity’ are generally considered good to have. Cities need both. So do universities. Even commercial enterprises recognize the value of building virtual “communities” around their brand. The question to be answered is this: How are communities actually formed?

“In our work with municipalities, we show them the hidden systems that drive the formation of communities. Cites need and want both diversity and community. But there is an inherent tension between these two constructs because communities form in one of two ways. There are two hidden systems at play here – the subconscious drivers of both Affinity and Proximity. Cities experience tension between diversity and community caused by the strong human preference to live among people like ourselves. It’s called homophily (HO-mow-fil-ee) — an unconscious but powerful driver of behavior. It is also an ungainly, difficult to pronounce — and in these gender-sensitive times — often misinterpreted word, which is why we prefer the more accessible term affinity.

“Affinity is the tendency to associate and bond with others similar to ourselves. Race is the trait we talk about the most because skin color is our most visible attribute. But the more active factors are actually social markers such as socioeconomic status, age, gender, values, beliefs, or political attitudes and lifestyle. Although we rarely talk about class in America, class is the center of gravity in where people choose to live.

“Age is a key variable when you look at community. In diverse neighborhoods people relate by virtue of proximity, which is the tendency of people to bond with those nearby. Diversity provides opportunities for inter-group contact and new experiences, which is why emerging or revitalized areas of a city are heavily populated by the young – who are still building their personal and social identity. At least until the neighborhood becomes desirable enough to drive up property values and force them to move on (as in Brooklyn) as older, more prosperous homebuyers displace them. The more diverse the neighborhood, the less socially cohesive it becomes, while the more homogenous  (or the more segregated) the neighborhood, the higher the levels of social cohesion and civic engagement. These are opposing forces, so efforts to merge the two are destined to meet with resistance and low success rates. The hidden systems override our conscious attempts to circumvent them.

“The upside is that people in diverse neighborhoods learn to respect, if not other values, then at least others’ boundaries. The downside is that because of those boundaries, diverse neighborhoods don’t tend to develop the dense interpersonal networks essential to a strong sense of community. In other words, you get respect but you don’t get trust; people trust people who are like them, because they believe they can project their own values to predict the behavior of ‘like’ people.

“Predictability is critical to trusting. When predictability fails, even small variations in how people think about the world can appear magnified; which is why arguments between colleagues are taken as differences of opinion, but family rifts are interpreted as betrayal. It is easier to understand, if not accept, that another person holds worldviews different than yours when that person does not look and behave as you do.

“Not understanding that there was a hidden system that caused Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s Race Together program to flounder. His company had held open forums for workers to talk about race in cities where racial tensions ran high and at his corporate headquarters in Seattle. He said these forums were ‘not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.’

“Schultz doesn’t think of race and poverty as theoretical concepts. He and his siblings grew up poor in a New York Housing Authority project. He developed a strong work ethic from childhood and became the first person in his family to go to college. He knows what he is talking about.

“What he didn’t understand was the hidden system. Schultz wanted to expand the race conversations outside the closed (and affinity-based) system of his company. Starbucks ran full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today announcing the Race Together program in selected cities. Baristas began writing the slogan on cups, hoping to extend the conversation to Starbucks customers. The program lasted one week before pushback from customers quickly forced the company to pull the plug on the program.

“What happened? People float between hidden systems depending on the context where they are operating. Outside their own neighborhoods, people’s social nets are almost exclusively proximity-based; respect for boundaries is high, so trust is low. In the absence of an Affinity relationship, customers would be courteous but unresponsive.

“The race topic is so socially and politically loaded that we discuss it only with those we trust implicitly. Even regular Starbucks customers don’t have that depth of trust relationship with their barista. In fact, the act of trying to start that sensitive conversation in Starbucks placed baristas in the position of seriously violating customer boundaries, putting both in an embarrassing position. Hidden systems can be understood, managed, and even used to advantage, but they can’t be beaten even by the best intentions.

“When trust is low, precision must be high; when trust is high, precision can be low. As people age, of the two hidden systems, affinity is preferred over proximity as a basis for determining where to live. Basically over time, people sort themselves into like-minded groups, and they do it unconsciously. Affinity as a driver of cohesive communities has been duplicated many times with computer modeling. Thomas C. Schelling, an economist, was the first to do this in the 1960s. The process was ridiculously simple—so simple that generations of social scholars had missed it in favor of far more complex theories.

“He noticed that complicated and unanticipated social patterns emerged when individuals are following very simple rules. The question was, how simple can these rules be? The answer turned out to be: very, very, simple.

“Schelling began by working out his solutions on paper, then pushing disks around a tabletop, graduating to computer models populated by randomly distributed red- and blue-dot ‘people.’ Working on the premise that people need to be close to someone like themselves, the only programmed instruction in the simulation was for each dot to move around until at least two of its six nearest neighbors were of its own color.

“The result was the development of segregated ‘neighborhoods,’ red and blue, in a simulated environment totally devoid of human bias and emotion. 1 Cities say they want both diversity and community, and they can always have both—just not in the same neighborhood. When you factor in how people grow their own personal social network over time—from the inside out—you find that the mental community populates at about 160 people. This is in the same range as Dunbar’s Number. This is the theoretical limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity for the number of contacts with whom a stable interpersonal relationship can be maintained. It is no coincidence that 160 is the size of the traditional village for most of human history. It is also the minimum number NASA estimates for sufficient genetic diversity to support a sustainable colony on another planet. This number, as an outcome of human factors—our subconscious mental default systems—is reliably constant over time and space.

“Marshall McLuhan was wrong—we don’t live in a global village; we live in a globe of villages. Cities are federations of small individual social networks overlapping and interfacing by multiple points on other social networks (my cousin is someone else’s friend/parent/son/colleague/etc.) Each point enjoys a different trust level depending on individual placement and perspective. Charted, it looks like a bull’s-eye target with the highest trust levels closest to yourself in the center. At root, we are all self-centered.

“Affinity (homophily) is the hidden system that drives people to fill their social net with as large a membership within the inner circle as possible. The closer to the center of the circle, the higher the intensity of defense of the whole system; more aggressive community involvement comes with lower tolerance for other ideas. This is fine as long as these shared values suit the entire circle. Breaks emerge when the system becomes so heavily defensive that it gets inflexible and breaks apart, leading to splits in believership and generating splinter groups as they become outliers to the hard-core true-believer center.

“Observing the history of religion—any religion—shows the same centrifugal force, another hidden system that still surprises new religions that expect to expand without sacrificing unity.

“Hidden systems are variables critical to our work with universities on recruitment and retention. Universities can use these frameworks to structure their intake and orientation process to build strong ties in a relatively short time and structure their student-life programs to upgrade new students from proximity-based, low-trust social nets to affinity-driven, high-involvement, community nets—that then can promote the induction and retention of the next generations of students. This approach is closely tied to the way groups naturally coalesce and evolve.

“Theme parks are another environment where the rules of the hidden systems of Affinity and Proximity come into play. We look at theme parks as urban labs because they deal with the same issues as cities – traffic flow, crowding, competition, wayfinding, diversity, etc., within a controllable bounded system.

“Each day a different group of visitors (most parks call them “guests”), numbering in the tens of thousands, with no previous social contract, work their way through an intensely competitive environment by subconsciously accommodating and adjusting their behavior to the cues in the built environment and the equally subconscious behaviors of the other guests. (Short form: we unconsciously model our behavior on what the people around us are doing.) By the end of the day they have worked out a complex set of mutually understood rules, behaviors, expectations, and understandings shared by the group. Without any explicit instruction, they have formed a community—even if just for the day. …

“Hidden systems are critical drivers of the most complex of cultural organizations– cities–where most of us will be living, working, and playing in the future.

“So what? What can I do with this?

– Hidden systems operate beneath our conscious awareness.
– Two hidden systems building social nets are Affinity and Proximity, but with very different outcomes.
– Affinity drives us to bond with others similar to ourselves in cohesive communities.
– Proximity drives us to associate with people nearby in diverse neighborhoods.
– Communities feature high social cohesion. Diverse neighborhoods feature low social cohesion, but more respect for difference and boundaries.
– You can have either community or diversity, but not both in the same location.
– Hidden systems can be understood, managed, and used to advantage, but not overridden.”


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