Book review: The Village Effect

by Susan Pinker
Atlantic Books,
€18.99; ebook, €12.53

IT didn’t have a highfalutin term to describe it back then, but when I was younger, social interaction took many simple forms, some that even included a trusty copy of the Irish Examiner.

Six days a week, either my Granddad or his neighbour, who lived across the road, would buy ‘de paper’ in the local creamery, read it thoroughly in the first half of the day and then sometime in the afternoon would bring it over to the other house.

Sometimes they would meet at the gate, and the trade-off would turn into a five- or ten- minute chat about the ways of the world.

This type of simple connection between friends and neighbours is the subject of The Village Effect, a book by Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker on how the old world interaction inherent in village life is an essential component in mental and even physical health in our increasingly digital world.

The Village Effect follows the well-established tropes of many books like this: Quotes pulled from far and wide, from Tolstoy to Emerson, a blizzard of figures and percentages taken from myriad studies, and an almost breathless tone which often contains the same central themes being revisited time and again.

Yet the stock nature of the presentation shouldn’t blind us to the core argument: That as our online circle of friends gets bigger, our circle of close friends — the ones who might lend you a few grand if you were stuck, or, God help us, a kidney — is shrinking.

The often fragmented and increasingly frenzied nature of modern living is key to the falling away of our grasp of closeknit community, Pinker argues, but it seems the internet, and, in particular, social media, might be accelerating this process.

Some way in the book, a colleague of Pinker’s tells her: “We haven’t figured out how to measure our relationship to the internet yet. But people will be having fewer important discussions face to face if they’re having discussions online.”

To my mind, albeit purely anecdotally, that argument has been resolved. Damn right we’re having fewer face-to-face discussions, and despite the sense of a whole world at your fingertips, deep and meaningful contact is not as prevalent as it would have been for past generations.

Yet, there are variations. Pinker explores this strand by delving into ‘the strength of weak ties’, the idea that the way to a new job or a great surgeon is not necessarily through a close friend or confidant — people we already tell so much to — but rather a ‘friend of a friend’. To my eyes, this reads much like LinkedIn or Facebook.

I know of people who bagged a job because they were clever on Twitter. And yet Pinker admits that while a new job might come from a social media connection or tip-off, “if your needs are existential — if you’re trying to recover from a frightening, debilitating illness, for example — cyber connections are no replacement for the face-to-face”.

The anecdotes and the research findings come in a torrent. One of the more illuminating is Pinker’s trip to a part of Sardinia where the people tend to enjoy a statistics-bucking long and healthy life.

Is it down to the Mediterranean sun and the olive oil diet? No — again, it’s friends and community, a point illustrated by the number of children who follow the tradition of not just caring for their parents and elders into old age, but who seem to enjoy it.

This notion extends even in death. As one man says: “Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

Pinker stretches the theory of the village effect by looking at ideas of social capital and ‘emotional contagion’, as well as how, statistically, religious faith has been shown to improve your chances of a longer life.

So while the Seventh Day Adventists living in smog-ridden Loma Linda near Los Angeles seem to emerge smiling and healthy despite their surroundings, Japan, in contrast, has had to face up to stories about how its high number of centurions is a fiction: In many cases, people who others had assumed were still alive and well living in old age had actually died, alone and unmourned, many years previously.

There are 100 pages of notes at the back of The Village Effect referencing all the material used in its construction, but in reality it all boils down to a basic truism: They might have got a few things wrong, but our grandparents were definitely on to something when it came to crossing the road and having a chat, making a virtue of the routine.


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