Why face-to-face beats Facebook

by Joel Yanofsky, BA'77, MA'81

Author and psychologist Susan Pinker, BA’79
(Photo: Susie Lowe)

One effect of reading Susan Pinker’s new book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, is that you may suddenly feel compelled to leave your house and find someone – anyone – to talk to. Don’t worry: this will be good for you. Pinker, BA’79, guarantees it.

In The Village Effect, the Montreal-based psychologist and journalist draws on numerous, long-terms behavioural studies, as well as advances in social neuroscience (brain-imaging now makes it possible to “spy on the way our relationships transform our bodies”), to prove what we should all know, but too often forget, in this age of the Internet. People, actual, not virtual ones, need people.

“We are intensely social creatures,” Pinker explains. “We’ve evolved to live in groups. Surveys of what drives human satisfaction are pretty consistent: we’re happiest when we feel we belong… Social contact and the drive to belong is a powerful physiological appetite, like hunger.”

One statistic, in particular, is likely to leap out at readers of The Village Effect. “If you’re surrounded by a tightly connected circle of friends who regularly gather to eat and share gossip,” Pinker writes, “you’ll not only have fun but you’re also likely to live an average of 15 years longer than a loner.”

Pinker was sufficiently impressed by what she learned researching her book she ended up becoming “more intentional” about her habits. “If I’d gone a whole day and hadn’t done anything expressly social, I’d make sure I did, even if it just meant talking to the local librarian.”

For as long as she can remember, Pinker’s social circle has extended to include McGill. Her parents attended the university, as did her uncles. In the late nineties, she was an adjunct professor in the psychology department, while her husband taught in the law faculty. Pinker’s daughter is a recent graduate and her eldest son is in medical school at McGill. Then there’s her brother, Steven Pinker, BA'76, DSc'99, a world-renowned expert in evolutionary psychology and a bestselling author. “This place is kind of our family business,” she says.

Pinker’s own business model shifted dramatically a decade ago. In 2004, after 25 years as a clinical psychologist, she decided to write full-time. That included, until 2012, a weekly column for The Globe and Mail. In 2010, she published her first book, The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women, and the Gender Gap, which became an international bestseller, was translated into 12 languages and received the American Psychological Association's William James Book Award.

Like The Sexual Paradox, The Village Effect is an engaging mix of common sense and scientific revelations. Indeed, The Village Effect has its origins in Pinker stumbling onto a surprising bit of research.

“Working on my last book, I discovered that women who had this expanded, complex, in-person social network, experienced less dementia. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is important. And no one is talking about it.’ We’re always being told we should use our smart phones and tablets for networking, but what about real human contact and connection. That must be at least as good for us as hot yoga, for instance.”

Probably better, it turns out. Breast cancer studies, cited in The Village Effect, show that women “with large networks of friends are four times as likely to survive as those with sparser social connections.” Meanwhile, “a simple hug or pat on the back lowers one’s physiological stress,” aiding the body in fighting infection. There’s this rush, Pinker says, that you can, if you’re paying attention, feel.

The Village Effect argues that the more time we spend on, say, Facebook or Twitter, the less time we’ll be spending with family, friends, and colleagues. Indeed, what Pinker calls “the come-hither aspect of electronic media” keeps making it harder for us to differentiate between actual and virtual human contact.

“I know the digital age is great and here to stay. There’s no denying that or stopping that train,” Pinker acknowledges. “But, in this book, I want to suggest a course correction. As the latest research shows, the fact that we’re less socially engaged than we used to be is having an impact on our health and our levels of loneliness. Studies are showing that as our Internet use goes up, our levels of happiness have gone down.”