Friday, 22 February 2008

As if more were needed...

ResearchBlogging.orgIt seems that there is yet more support for the value of the "Socratic method". Not that any more is needed, of course - but it's always gratifying nonetheless.

A new study has been done which suggests that "people who engaged in social interaction displayed higher levels of cognitive performance" [via ScienceDaily]. So not only does the Socratic method allow for the clear and logical exchange and development of ideas, but it also reflects (and takes advantage of) the value inherent in social intercourse.

The paper itself argues something which struck me as possibly misleading. It does not regard the main result of the research, which was fully supported, but rather an observation that "our society appears to be in a state of social decline". This is certainly true in many respects - a reduction in membership of social and other organisations, for instance - and in some cases could prove worrisome, such as the research which indicates that people have fewer "close others" they can talk to about their innermost thoughts and feelings. However, I felt that there was a very important oversight in this passage - though perfectly forgivable as it was not within the ambit of the paper.

Basically, the definition of "social interaction" was a little narrow for my liking. It seemed to define it solely in terms of "face-to-face" interactions, even though part of the reason for the decline in these interactions is the now-widespread ability to interact socially while not in the same room. I would imagine that visiting friends and family began a shallow decline with the advent of the telephone; a decline which only steepened with the coming of the internet. However, especially in the last ten years, there has been an explosion in what might be called virtual interactions. Millions of people subscribe to social networking sites, fora, blogs, and recommendation networks such as Digg and del.icio.us. In some ways if not in others, we are a more socially connected global society than were just a few decades ago.

There is nothing (at least that I can think of) that would be missing in a long-distance interaction which would negate the apparent cognitively beneficial aspects of social discourse. Unless you want to propose the benefits of proximity to brainwaves from others, of course; but until I see respectable research on that, I'm going to assume it's baloney.

While consideration of this new level of social interaction is unlikely to impact upon the outcome of the research done in this paper, it adds another dimension to the issue. Of course, it's a complex enough issue as it is - needless to say, not all social interactions benefit cognition (it would be hard to believe if that were the case - people exchanging mindless dogmatic racial slurs are thinking more sharply because it's a social activity?); and yet I still embrace this news as reinforcement of the value of Socrates' most important contribution to the world.

[Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M.C., Manis, M., Chan, E., Rodriguez, J. (2007). Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive Functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(2), 248-259. DOI: 10.1177/0146167207310454]


Von said...

"There is nothing (at least that I can think of) that would be missing in a long-distance interaction which would negate the apparent cognitively beneficial aspects of social discourse."

I never thought I'd say this. Disclaimer over: I read something interesting on this subject in the Daily HateMail the other day*. It was quoted completely out of context, of course, but the gist of the something interesting was that the personae we create on the Internet are mainly a quioxtic mix of self-expression and introspection that doesn't quite amount to a functioning identity.

The net result (HA HA) is a social medium in which not-real people interact chiefly by throwing out manifestations of their character and then concentrating on further refining them. Actual complete-identity to complete-identity interaction seldom happens.

As an example - perhaps - consider the surprise many Interwebs-friends of mine have had on meeting me. They expect some sort of antisocial Byronic ice king with a line in scathing contempt. They're rewarded with a friendly, stammer-ridden, slightly hyperactive neurotic. I don't think I hide anything or play up to anything on the Interwebs, but this avatar has emerged nonetheless.

I'll try and find the reference for you if I can brave the foetid depths of the HateMail's web presence.

-- Von

* - in case you're wondering, I was waiting for a baked potato and the fascist paradigm porn was the only reading matter in the place.

Darkwinter said...

That is indeed very interesting. I imagine a lot could be (and probably has been) argued on whether our online personae are caricatures of ourselves, or a manifestation of who we want to be - and so on.

There is also the possibility of an important line to be drawn between personal and impersonal interactions - the former being a social activity, the latter simply an exchange of ideas in which the "persona" might play a greatly diminished role. Of course, it's a grey area rather than a line (as with most things of the sort), but I think there's a distinction to be made.