Socializers Clump

Imagine that this weekend you and others will volunteer time to help tend the grounds at some large site – you’ll trim bushes, pull weeds, plant bulbs, etc. You might have two reasons for doing this. First, you might care about the cause of the site. The site might hold an orphanage, or a historical building. Second, you might want to socialize with others going to the same event, to reinforce old connections and to make new ones.

Imagine that instead of being assigned to work in particular areas, each person was free to choose where on the site to work. These different motives for being there are likely to reveal themselves in where people spend their time grounds-tending. The more that someone wants to socialize, the more they will work near where others are working, so that they can chat while they work, and while taking breaks from work. Socializing workers will tend to clump together.

On the other hand, the more someone cares about the cause itself, the more they will look for places that others have neglected, so that their efforts can create maximal value. These will tend to be places places away from where socially-motivated workers are clumped. Volunteers who want more to socialize will tend more to clump, while volunteers who want more to help will tend more to spread out.

This same pattern should also apply to conversation topics. If your main reason for talking is to socialize, you’ll want to talk about whatever everyone else is talking about. Like say the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. But if instead your purpose is to gain and spread useful insight, so that we can all understand more about things that matter, you’ll want to look for relatively neglected topics. You’ll seek topics that are important and yet little discussed, where more discussion seems likely to result in progress, and where you and your fellow discussants have a comparative advantage of expertise.

You can use this clue to help infer the conversation motives of the people you talk with, and of yourself. I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.

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  • VV

    On the other hand, the more someone cares about the cause itself, the more they will look for places that others have neglected, so that their efforts can create maximal value.

    Unless these places where actually neglected in the first place because people correctly evaluated that working on them was not going to produce much value.

    • Also, there’s a disanalogy between conversation and care of grounds: discussion produces efficiencies of scale (through intellectual fertilization) when folks concentrate on particular problems. I think Robin deliberately picked ground-care work because it doesn’t afford efficiencies of scale through cooperative labor.

      Focusing an certain problems the community considers important should be valued as a form of social coordination, which, as Robin says, is hard.

  • Jess Riedel

    Do many people argue that they are talking about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane for any reason besides self interest? People clearly just find it interesting. Many strangers who will never interact again get together on the internet to swap details and conspiracy theories.

    • Do many people argue that they are talking about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane for any reason besides self interest?

      The choice is between searching for insight and searching for conversation for its own sake. Both are “self-interested.”

      With your strangers discussing the plane, the question is whether they’re trying to find the correct theory or using the topic as an opportunity or excuse for conversation.

  • roystgnr

    A single person is roughly fifty percent as effective as two people at pulling weeds; there’s no need to do it socially. A single person is roughly zero percent as effective as two people at transmitting and gaining insight via conversation, which is a social process.

    At some point both cases do see diminishing returns, but it’s not immediately obvious how commonly we pass that point.

    • Obviously the people within the same conversation will need to be talking about the same subject. But they don’t have to talk about the same subject as other conversations elsewhere at other times.

  • Silent Cal

    Of course, a socially motivated person who wanted to form a tighter bond with a smaller group might ask a few people to go with them to a remote neglected area.

    • Of course. So to check your motives you’ll have to look at your clumping tendency relative to the groups you want to be part of.

  • This tendency to converge on popular topics isn’t limited to conversation; academics, for example, pick trendy research topics. Why are funders more likely to favor a project on a trendy topic than one tailored to the researcher’s comparative advantage? Focusing on popular topics is, in some respects, efficient in a manner analogous to agglomeration. Talking about popular topics doesn’t only serve social appetites because having a lot of people focused on one topic stimulates the intellect. Having a lot of points of view to consider should influence one’s own comparative -advantage calculations. It isn’t necessarily for the sake of socialization.

  • QM

    “I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.”

    How could you test that hypothesis? It seems to suffer from selection bias, in that people who would try it are probably more social, and hence their subjects would be too, than those who don’t attempt it.

  • Guest

    I think our collection fascination with the missing plane is a form of schadenfreude / morbid curiosity / rubbernecking, not social clumping — but I agree, Robin, with your general argument. Also, large 777 airplanes gone missing in contrast with an app on our iPhones that can track the precise movements of a taxi for hire.

    • People are far more interested in watching disasters that lots of others watch. If they find themselves in a dark alley watching a disaster that only they can see they are usually eager instead to get away fast.

      • Guest

        That is true. The guiding principle there though is whether one can safely indulge in his/her morbid curiosity (very safe to do so in the case of the plane, unsafe in the case of a dark alley incident), not the extent to which either disaster offers an opportunity to socialize & clump – in my view. I just think a better example – say, “Super Bowl commercials”, or “the Oscars”, or “office basketball pools” – these are the trivialities du jour around which the behavior you describe is visible in its purest form.

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  • “I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.”

    Almost certainly true. And perhaps not often admitted. But is there any real consequence to this insight? It seems that your implied conclusion is, “so we should act differently, in order to gain better insight”. But an equally valid conclusion is: “in far mode, we like to pretend that we value insight and truth and success, but in reality and in near mode, actually we just like socializing”.

    You are pointing out hypocracy, between people’s actions, and their publicly expressed goals. But it isn’t clear to me which one ought to change. Maybe the far goals aren’t really so important after all.

    • IMASBA

      Yes, it could be that people wouldn’t gain much by changing the way they converse if people already get almost as much information as they can handle from the few informative conversations they have. If that’s true only a small minority of people would “benefit” (that’s a relative term because there’s also benefit to be had in having strong social relations through social conversations) from changing more of their conversations from social to informative.

  • Doug

    This implies that there are coordination problems to finding interesting or entertaining things to talk about and watch. Because we also want to discuss with others we may get stuck in a low-quality equilibrium on sub-optimal topics. Maybe the XFL really was more interesting than the NFL, but no one switched because everyone at the water cooler talked about the Patriots and not the Xtremes.

    It would suggest that there should be a “too big to interest” tax on the largest sources of entertainment. E.g. blockbuster movies should pay higher corporate rates than indie films. Or major newspapers should get taxed for having more pages in Section A relative to other local or subject-specific sections.

  • ZacharyBartsch

    Such as with teams, there may be a domain of increasing returns to additional persons to a group. Your hypothesis is true if there are constant returns to group additions or negative returns – and yet we still see it. If merely having another person around decreases the cost of work, then it stands that socially working results in more work being done [due to the relative cost change]. If there is increasing marginally productivity over a domain, then socializers will also look like people who actually care. They are indistinguishable if all the payoffs and the rules are known.

  • UnpleasantFacts

    By socialize do you also mean signal? A lot of the reason bloggers touch on the topic of the weak is to generate links to their blogs so they get exposure. It seems like the promotion of an unpopular idea would require high amounts of socializing to get noticed and high amounts of signaling to indicate that the author isn’t otherwise crazy (You’ve talked about this second part in the past).