Popularity Sans Teeth

IMG_3281Mitch Prinstein’s New York Times op-ed “Popular People Live Longer” bounces between conflicting conceptions of popularity and fails to establish a working definition. For this reason I trust neither the premise nor the conclusions. Moreover, it relies heavily on Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s meta-study, which examines the relationship between the quality and quantity of one’s relationships (not popularity exactly) and one’s mortality. But what is popularity anyway? Some clarity would have helped.

In the fourth paragraph, in passing, Prinstein seems to define lack of popularity (“being unpopular”) as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.” This conflation of the subjective and objective confuses the issue. If “being unpopular” is the same as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely,” then “being popular” would be the same as “feeling included, connected, fulfilled.” Yet there are plenty of people with few but strong friendships who feel “included, connected, fulfilled.” Does having just a few good friends, then, make you popular, if you feel good about the situation?

If so, then standards definitions of popularity go out the window. In dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, popularity is associated with “common” or “general” approval, not the strong approval or support of the few, or with one’s own feelings of acceptance and fulfillment. Has Prinstein pulled a Humpty Dumpty on us?

No–I suspect that instead he has just used the wrong word and concept. Popularity is not the issue here. It may be that some combination of the number of one’s friends, the quality of one’s friendships, and one’s own feelings of inclusion can have a great effect on one’s health. In fact, Lunstad and colleagues emphasize the importance of the combination: ” Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.” (I view Holt-Lunstad’s study cautiously but see possibilities in the general principle.)

In other words, Lunstad’s study is not about popularity in the first place. Prinstein writes that “Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in.” Yet Holt-Lunstad says “stronger,” not “larger”: “Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Very well. What about Prinstein’s own discussion of popularity?

He wisely distinguishes between different kinds of popularity, particularly between likability and status–and notes that Facebook likes have more to do with the latter than the former. “Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while,” he concludes, bringing me close to to liking the piece. Yet he fails to make other necessary distinctions–not only between subjective and objective states, not only between number and quality of relationships, but also between one’s qualities and others’ responses to them, and between likability and virtue overall.

Likability,” he says, “reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior.” First of all, likability, defined in this manner, is not equal to being liked; it is just the state of qualifying for being liked. You can show kindness and benevolence and still be shunned by those around you. In fact, this has happened often through the ages.

But there’s another rub. Often to be kind and benevolent, you have to do things that others don’t immediately like. Suppose, for instance, you are the principal of a school that has had ongoing problems with bullying. To curb the bullying, you institute a schoolwide program of discipline and character education. Students start complaining that it’s stupid; teachers, that it’s taking too much time from other things; parents, that their own child doesn’t need it. But you persist with the plan. Over time, the bullying goes away, and the school’s new practices become habitual. People now praise the character education program for its content and effects. Students who used to dread coming to school now thrive in their classes and walk easily down the hallways. But for this to happen, you had to risk being disliked.

That leads to more brambles still. Likability is not the only virtue in life. Often there is reason to do things that come into conflict with likability. Of course, to do good or to accomplish something important, one need not be gratuitously nasty or cold–but sometimes one needs an independent streak, an ability to think and act alone. It is possible that such internal strength also contributes to longevity.

All in all, Prinstein’s working premise needs much more probing, definition, and refinement. In addition, the forthcoming book (from which the op-ed is adapted) needs a new title. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World mimics Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (and other titles with similar formulas). It’s too late–the book comes out tomorrow–but did the author and publisher choose this title for the sake of popularity? Or was it meant as a tribute? Either way, it’s a shame; the title limits the book by establishing a flawed opposition. Don’t judge a book by its title and accompanying op-ed, I remind myself, but the two leave me with doubts.

I took the photo while bicycling on Eurovelo 11 last week. I don’t think I would have been on that route, or seen it in this way, without a streak of solitude, which conflicts at times with popularity. Also, I made a few revisions and an addition to this piece after posting it; my most recent update was on June 8.

Facebook and Mortality: How Little We Know

Almost every day I check to see what the Science of Us (New York Magazine) writers have posted. Although the quality varies, it’s usually interesting. Some of it I find enlightening, some of it makes me shake my head, and some evokes a combination of reactions. They’re relatively skeptical in their descriptions of psychological research, but sometimes their skepticism seems “token” and safe. It may depend on how much time they have to research and write a given piece.

So after reading Melissa Dahl’s (nominally skeptical) piece about the just-published study in PNAS about Facebook activity and mortality, I vowed to take a close look at the study and give my own take on it. Dahl found it “deeply sad” that the study suggested that a lower mortality risk was associated with friend requests accepted, not friend requests initiated. This seems to suggest (to her) that if you’re trying to reach out to people, you may not be making yourself healthier.

But I found it hard to accept any of this. Why are people associating Facebook “friending” with anything substantial? How is it possible to isolate one Facebook activity from another and measure its relation to mortality, when there are so many other factors at work? Isn’t this a classic case of forking paths–where you can look for all kinds of associations and are bound to find something?

Instead of just criticizing in a void, as I sometimes do, I vowed to read the actual study from start to finish. I suspect it has some serious problems, but let’s see. I want to preface this by acknowledging the good intentions of the authors. One of them, James Fowler, told Dahl, “The whole reason that I’m in this game is because I want to figure out how to use social networks to make people healthier.” In criticizing the study, I do not disparage its underlying intent. Moreover, Fowler himself expressed some caution about the study’s conclusions.

With all of that in mind, here we go. I may have to do this in several parts.

Here’s the citation: William R. Hobbs, Moira Burke, Nicholas A. Christakis, and James H. Fowler, “Online Social Integration is Associated with Reduced Mortality Risk,PNAS, Early Edition, published ahead of print on October 31, 2016, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605554113. 

In this study, the researchers do two things (boldface added): “Using public California vital records, we compare 12 million Facebook users to nonusers. More importantly, we also look within Facebook users to explore how online social interactions—reflecting both online and offline social activity—are associated with longevity.”

Here’s how the abstract summarizes the results:

The results show that receiving requests to connect as friends online is associated with reduced mortality but initiating friendships is not. Additionally, online behaviors that indicate face-to-face social activity (like posting photos) are associated with reduced mortality, but online-only behaviors (like sending messages) have a nonlinear relationship, where moderate use is associated with the lowest mortality. These results suggest that online social integration is linked to lower risk for a wide variety of critical health problems.

All right, let’s see how they arrived at this. Some of it seems intuitively right (moderate online behaviors, combined with offline behaviors, would be more conducive to health than online-only behavior generally). But hunches aren’t the point here; I want to see how the study fits together.

First, they compared the age- and gender-matched mortality rates of the full population of Facebook users (in California, that is) to the mortality rate in the California voter record. It seemed that the Facebook rate was 63% of the California voter rate, but they recognized that this figure could be off because of the difficulty of matching Facebook users to vital records. So they tried again, this time focusing on the “voter” subpopulation of Facebook users. This time, the Facebook mortality rate was about 88% of the rate of Facebook nonusers (within the voting population).

They then disaggregated this by cause of mortality. They found no difference between the populations for mortality rates due to sexually transmitted diseases, several types of cancer, unintentional injuries, drug overdoses, and suicides. For certain other causes (infections, diabetes, mental illness or dementia, ischemic heart disease, stroke, other cardiovascular diseases, liver disease, and homicide), they found a significantly lower rate in Facebook users.

They acknowledged possible problems with these figures: “It is important not to read too much into the comparison between Facebook users and nonusers because many factors may confound the apparent association between being a Facebook user and experiencing lower mortality. This is an observational result, and we have few socioeconomic controls because we do not have much information about nonusers.”

I give them credit for this. I agree heartily and suspect that economic factors play heavily into the results. Facebook users may have more resources in general, including health insurance. (I suspect that among nonusers, those who abstain from Facebook out of preference or principle are a minority, and that others simply can’t afford certain computer activities. I might be wrong about this.)

In addition, as Fowler said to Dahl, it’s important not to confuse correlation with causation. The mortality rate for Facebook users could be lower because they’re generally healthier when they begin using it; the very ill may be too overwhelmed or incapacitated to use it much.

Now comes the second and more complex part of the study: the analysis of specific Facebook activities and their relation to mortality. I’ll leave that for next time. For now, I don’t think there’s too much we can learn from the first part; the Facebook mortality rate could be lower than the nonuser rate for numerous reasons; there’s no reason to suppose that Facebook helps you live longer. The authors acknowledge this.

Note: I made some minor edits to this piece after posting it.