GrendelFish (gfish) wrote,

Kids these days

1) There is a natural cognitive bias, the older one gets, to see society as going downhill.

2) I have been increasingly worried about social trends for several years now.

It's getting very hard to write off my worries as just being a symptom of #1. All the antisocial behavior we kept excusing as something "just on the internet" has been leaking more and more into the physical world. We all spend all our time in an environment where the only response to the most hideous of attacks is just "oh, ignore it, it's not serious". Of course empathy is becoming increasingly unfashionable! Even traffic is getting more aggressive, with people breaking the speed limit much more consistently and to greater average degrees it seems. But obviously it's hard to trust those observations.

Is there an intellectually rigorous method for resolving this dilemma?
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I don't have a good answer. I agree with #1, but think #2 is largely an issue in the US and England. I also feel like society is sufficiently a construct that there might not actually be any difference between a widely held confirmation bias and whatever passes for reality when it comes to social issues.
There may be. Back in my history of colonial America class, low these many decades ago, I learned that there are objective criteria for determining the morality of the time. Measurements such as the "Bastardy rate" looked at marriage records compared to date of first child birth. Introduction of birth control to a society can be detected by the timing of births. We didn't go into the subject very deeply, but it was clear that various social changes can be measured using objective public records.

In short, it is likely possible to resolve the dilemma, but I can't give you a specific answer.
I have such a major twitch with "bastardy" being the first thing you brought up. I mean, maybe children being raised by single parents... somewhere down the list. (Since there are data to support this as having effects on children.) But marriage, and first?
I was a bit startled myself when my history professor used the term. But he used it in a very technical sense as a measure of the morality of the times with premarital sex as one metric. Such are the topics that are remembered after more than four decades from taking the class.
Think of things from these days and look if there's been something similar on a systematic level in a past time episode of your choice.
For example: Have people been brutal and antisocial in the same intensity as today, say, 20 years ago?
Summarize for yourself what is similar and where you find the differences. And where you find possible differences to today, how much of a meaning or change did they make to the bigger picture? Like, people back then still had some little sense of mercy while they seem to have lost it more and more until today. Or, the social status of people who did it wasn't like it is today. Among kids they remained outsiders 'cause no-one wanted to have these bullies around himself who beat up everyone just for fun. In society they didn't get the best positions, they became criminals and sooner or later ended in jail or a least with the bottle stuck to their mouths.

Yes, some way like that...
Certain parties have increasingly-good coverage of data about breaking the speed limit, for that one. (Do you see traffic getting more aggressive in Seattle? I haven't seen that.) Ethics and IRB sanctions aside, social-science researchers could stage public situations that would call for empathy, and repeat over time to see how responses change over the years. Can't think of good clean sources of 'natural experiment' data on empathy that would already exist... I do think there's real social history encoded in the online conversations of the past 20 years, if we can analyze it.

The trend that worries me is social sorting -- I think our empathy for in-group is just fine, but empathy for out-group is the problem. And I'd hypothesize our empathy as a function of the social relation we stand in to somebody hasn't changed, but we stand in more distant and more negative social relations to more people.

Social sorting and decay of community have been studied a lot, though I'm no expert. Death of community bowling, disappearance of "third places"; in quantitative work there's demographic analysis of sorting. I wonder what discussions Facebook has had about publishing about social sorting based on their dataset. (I'm guessing they've looked at it; the fact that nothing's been published could suggest various conclusions.)
You know what somebody should do? Re-run the Milgram chain letter experiment again, and over time. This is the other one, the experiment where he made an estimate of social distance between two people: asked Alice to get a chain letter to Bob by sending it to one of Alice's acquaintances "on a first-name basis", asking that person to do the same.

Has the mean number of hops changed over time? Has the distribution broadened? Run it with two people chosen uniformly from the whole population[1], versus pairs chosen to be same or different in, say, urban/rural location, race, class. Which social divide is the biggest one, and how have their sizes changed over time?

(I came for the historical data, but I'd stay for data today about distribution and size of social divides. How hard would this really be to run?)


January 14 2017, 09:28:03 UTC 1 year ago Edited:  January 14 2017, 10:11:08 UTC

oops, Procrustesed the footnote:
[1] which Milgram did not. He chose people in cities: one in Boston, one in either Omaha or Wichita. And oh good grief man, they were respondents to advertisements for well-connected people.

(I see there's actually been quite a lot of related work. Haven't found ones in these particular directions though.)

Chain-lettering to myself here, Milgram had another experiment that kinda measures empathy toward a given group (or helpfulness, or sense of duty), the "lost letter" setup (PDF).

You could (IRB aside -- could you run this experiment if you can't debrief the subject?) do this where you drop the letters in different locations, and address them to different locations. You could racially code the recipient names like with experiments on resumes; the finder's race is harder to control outside of location. Income / class is hard.

(But are you measuring people's attitudes towards people, or people's habits towards paper mail?)

Here's a paper that looked at whether small-town folks are more helpful than city dwellers: nah, says the abstract. They varied the letter drop location, and held the destination address constant.
Can you identify behaviours or other externally-measurable/-visible things that fit your thesis? What about things that don't? Can you control for self-interest at all, i.e. whether society is getting better or worse for various small groups, various large groups, most people, and you? It seems like over-fitting is the biggest pitfall here, so using a methodology which works against that, or at least which makes you very aware that you probably are over-fitting, is probably just about the best you can do. Ideally, the Veil o' Ignorance™ can force you to consider factors which have nothing to do with your own interest, and actually quite apart from your own interest, but I would guess you're either already used to doing that, or perhaps have tried to align your own interests with universal good as you perceive it to a degree where that doesn't add anything.

Can you identify people for whom society is getting better? Can you identify ways in which it is getting better for most or all people? I feel like I can, in both cases, and so it devolves into weighing various goods, which I am not very good at, since I don't find ends-oriented ethical reasoning very resonant or conclusive. (And my tendency towards virtue ethics means, at societal scale, I tend to be one of those jerks who places value on principles and morality and shit, which I suspect don't add much to any reasonable attempt to ascertain the trend line of society's overall goodness.)
Huh. There is also a natural cognitive bias towards being more optimistic as one gets older. And happier. (IIRC, the general happiness nadir is around 46. This doesn't actually match with my experience, which has been of greater happiness over the last decade or so...* But that makes me personally very optimistic for that very limited sphere. Which is awesome, because, ah, challenges, they are aplenty.)

I think one thing that might be useful is to read up on some of the traditional measures of social well being, and see how they are going, both in the US, worldwide, and then in other developed countries that might serve as a reasonable baseline for expectations for the US. At the same time, formalize what kind of social trends you find worrying, and start compiling some kind of list of metrics (or proxy metrics) by which to measure them - likely from more than one source. A lot of data is freely available online.

Then you should make pretty graphs and publish them online so I, um, so everyone can see them. I mean, it would be cool to see how everything actually stacks up - I'm always a little afraid of falling into one of those traps where everyone knows that violent crime is on the rise! (I try to fall back on real numbers, but I'm not always rigorous enough to make sure I'm getting the right ones when I'm only following something casually.

Tee-hee. I just thought of a horrible metaphor based in worm locomotion of cultural advancement via peristalsis, wherein there periods where there's great polarization are almost a given and part of the process. (It's really pretty dreadful, and I put no faith in it at all.)

Ahem. Where that came from is that there's been so much going on that seems so useful, if mostly in the urban oases. I think about how quickly transgender issues have moved forward. I think about the move towards anti-harassment policies at conventions.** Hell, it's a little hard to say it since we seem to be on the verge of losing it, but I think about my sister having health insurance for the first time in her adult life.

And I think about all the horrible stuff that has been going on, and continues to go on but at least is getting talked about, even if it upsets the hell out of a lot of people that it's getting talked about. Some of the crazy racist sexist neo-Nazi stuff is because people are feeling empowered to say this shit in public - but I think a lot of it is the opposite, and is because they're feeling threatened. (I don't think this is optimism. I mean, some of it is stuff like knowing my baby brother. And some of it is looking the economics of a "real America" that is supposed to be built on white people in small towns and rural areas - as if only white people live in these areas - and not the people in the cities who actually make all the money. At the same time as I really wonder if some of the forces holding the urban concentrations together are starting to fray.)

* And here we shall all not discuss how well that maps to me, oh, moving to the house barge...
** Okay, electing a serial harasser as a president is a pretty major backlash.
You're getting a lot of really good answers! Much more related to science and method than my answer will be.

As someone of a somewhat medium-age (not as old as you, not a young'un) I don't know if I see all the stuff you're talking about. Young people seem very engaged to me, at least as much as they were when I was in highschool. There are anti social behaviors but there are also new socializing of things that used to be solo activities, like the constant sharing of what you're doing on social media (what music you're listening to, food you're eating, scenery you're looking at, now something to be shared in real time).

So in short, I don't know that I know what you're talking about. Some of this might just be the whole out-of-the-country, out-of-the-loop thing, and if that's the case, it makes me dread going back, somewhat.

But I wonder in what circles the response to horrible attacks is "just ignore it, it's not that bad" ? At least, I can't think of anyone I know who would say such a thing. Maybe it's hard for me to see it the way it's described. Maybe I am one of those people and I'm just saying it in different words, by minding my own business and eating pasta rather than taking to the streets in protest.

I don't know!
My thoughts are sort of counter to what slantiness posted, but I'm not providing anything intellectually rigorous either; other folks have done a good job of that.

In my observation, the "society is going downhill" tradition has pretty much always been "kids these days" as your title says, and how their newfangled ideas are going to destroy society (though gay marriage/sexual equality, rock and roll, short skirts, flapper dancing, women working, factory workers organizing, apprentices striking for better wages, peasants demanding protection under the law, nobles demanding that the king be subject to the law...etc. etc. Someone probably complained about meat cooked over a fire at some point). However, I feel like the current situation is a very rare inversion in which the kids are fine, and the *older* people (I'm looking at you, Boomers) are causing society to go downhill in THEIR reactive effort to get back to "the good old days", while the rest of us are trying to move forward to a better future. It's a tug of war between the past and future, and due to demographics the two teams are pretty evenly matched.

I think the aggressive driving thing is a separate local phenomenon due to frustration at the local region's abysmal traffic. I work next to a freeway on ramp, and it can take 20 minutes for people to go three blocks onto the on ramp because so many streets full of cars are converging into a single point (and the freeway is backed up). There are traffic officers at the intersection every evening to prevent people from blocking the intersection in their desperation to get out of the gridlock.