Thursday, July 12, 2007

Coincidences... -- Mark Buchanan

A few years ago, I experienced a very strange coincidence. I emailed a physicist at the University of Chicago (I can't recall who now, maybe Tom Witten) with a couple questions on some of his work. He wrote back with some answers, and then put a P.S. in the email: "Say hello to Haim Diamant."

Now I'd never heard of Haim Diamant, so I wrote back saying, "Thanks for your response, but who is Haim Diamant?"

In a few hours I got another email: "Is it really possible," he wrote, "that there could be two Mark Buchanan's, both physicists and both living in France?"

As it turns out, there were, me, and Mark Buchanan, a physicist who had formerly worked in Chicago (now at the University of Oslo), and who emailed me the following day. It's a very odd experience getting an email from someone with your exact name. Anyway, I've followed Mark's work over the past few years; curiously, we not only share the name but a deep interest in the same kind of physics, the physics of liquids and solids, pattern formation, the spontaneous emergence of collective organization, and so on. Strange.

I mention this because I just had another weird coincidence today, getting an email from one Mark Earls who has written a book quite similar to my The Social Atom. His book is called Herd, and, while I have't read it yet, it looks very interesting. I just visited his blog, and noticed one very interesting comment on a cognitive bias that most of us have...

"we find it really much easier to respond to individual others than to the confusion of the group. It's easier to think of the face in the crowd than the crowd. Now there's a psychology insight that might be useful... "

Indeed, Nicolas Kristof wrote a very powerful essay in the New York Times on just this issue in May. He cited some experiments that show people respond with more generosity to a photo of one starving child, with a face and name, that to a verbal plea for aid for starving millions. A brief excerpt:

"In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia -- but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia's suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern."

I'm not sure what evolutionary psychologists would say, but it seems reasonable to speculate that we're just not evolved to think properly of hundreds or millions of people. Our ancestors spent their lives overwhelmingly in groups of at most 25 to 30 people, and usually in sub-groups of far fewer, and they evolved to make good decisions in those contexts. Nothing in evolution has prepared us for the massive collectivity we experience today.

21 comments:

david said...

Much as you describe in your most recent post, I found it baffling to find a series of editorials written by Mark Buchanan in the New York Times, the same name as a friend of mine from Hudson, Ohio.

Small world, I thought, especially as my friend Mark studied physics as an undergraduate in Pennsylvania. But then he was incapable of writing intelligent prose, so I dropped that thread from my consciousness, knowing that he couldn't have grown a literary gland AND moved to Normandy... it is just too far for my imagination to stretch.

Still, it gave me pause, leading me to reflect, at least for a moment, on the apparent continuity between the person I was then with the person I am today.

dm

Who am I? said...

Hmmm....more concidences?

David's comment is very intriguing, as I, like his friend, was also a literary incompetent until my university days. Even more strange, I had a good friend from the very same Hudson, Ohio with initials DM, who last I knew was developing incredible talent as an artist some 20 years ago...

david said...

voila
dmacy@macdowellcolony.org
http://www.macdowellcolony.org

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