Smaller and Smaller Circles
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How many close friends would you say you have? That’s a question the Survey Center on American Life recently asked of more than 2000 respondents across all 50 states. Numerous news outlets have reported on the results of that survey. Of the ones I have read, Damon Linker for The Week provides the most disturbing analysis.

That survey suggests most Americans have far fewer close friends today on average than Americans did on average 30 years ago. Previous survey results suggest that back in 1990 at least 40% of Americans had 10 or more close friends. Today, survey results suggest that percentage has fallen to 15%, while the percentage of respondents reporting “no close friends” has gone up from 3% to 15% among men and up from 2% to 10% among women. In his analysis, Mr. Linker rather persuasively suggests those survey results provide compelling correlation with the current state of political polarization and crumbling institutions in this country, and possibly portend increasing political and governmental rigidity and harshness that greatly devalues individuality. But, while that particular correlation is scary to think about, it might be more productive to ask: “What is the cause of this apparent trend to disengage with one’s fellow human beings?”

Assuming the biology of American cognitive and emotional functions has not changed significantly over the past 30 years, what has changed? Certainly, the information environment Americans swim in these days is significantly different from what it was 30 years ago. Many would suggest the current information environment has become far more polluted with “bad information”, although superstition, invalid, and intentionally subversive information has apparently been a staple of human discourse for thousands of years. Still, one might ask: is “bad information” the cause of Americans now pulling away from each other and adopting increasingly more rigid systems of ideation involving harsher and harsher stereotypes and more threatening demonizations of others? A disturbing number of politicians and media commentators are suggesting exactly that, and not only in this country. Seemingly en masse, their suggested remedy would be to cleanse the media and educational environment, by legislative, judicial, and military force if necessary.

But getting back to that initial question posed by those survey takers, what exactly does the indicator “close friends” mean with respect to function, function meaning consequence for human cognitive and emotional health?

Human brains process information, information in the form of recognized patterns. Human brains also relate differing informational patterns to each other. In other words, they perceive and try to make sense of correlations between patterns. Patterns that reliably correlate with each other on a regular basis become larger readily recognized patterns. Hence, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson recognized long ago in an unpublished manuscript housed in the University of Chicago Libraries, the perceived repeated correlation of recognizable informational patterns forms the basis of humankind’s ability to acquire both language and culture, and to form mutually beneficial behavioral associations with one another.

All well and good, but problems arise when the information environment humans find themselves swimming in becomes overwhelming to their capacity to process all the new information coming their way in a manner that provides for or increases healthful stability to their existence. Natural defense mechanisms kick in and it’s fight or flight time: either withdraw to safe and quiet ground or lash out in harsh destructive anger at anything and anybody that appears to be causing the increasing flood of unrecognizable and destabilizing information patterns impinging upon us from every direction. Smaller and smaller circles of friends, or no friends at all, then becomes the safest direction to take for both self-preservation and stability. Today’s political problems would seem to be not too much “bad information”, but too much information in total for the human brain to process toward healthful self-preserving outcomes.

On the other hand, practicing psychologists have noted for years that starving the human brain of both familiar and novel informational patterns has hugely deleterious consequence for the mental and physical health of individuals.

With those analyses in mind, maybe the best remedy for all of us is to gradually increase our small circle of friends, and not just to include completely like-minded people. In doing so, we might rediscover that joining forces and comparing notes in trying to make sense of this currently overwhelming, or maybe underwhelming, informational world we find ourselves in becomes a bit more tasty, easy to swallow, and more amenable to finding viable footing within.

May the new friends you make this summer calm your emotions, stimulate both your minds, and greatly enrich the zest you all have for the possibilities inherent to life on this planet.

Friday, August 31st, 2018
Los Angeles/Hollywood
CA
USA