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Do anthropologists have an advantage?

26 February, 2008

Here is a first post by PhD student Anne Monchamp. We are hoping that she will be heartened by this experience and will join us as a full-blown contributor.  JM.

Anthropologists do a lot of socializing.  I don’t just mean going for coffee or two hour lunches at the staff club, although that seems fairly prevalent at least in my case, I’m referring to fieldwork, a snazzy term for socializing; hanging out with people, telling stories, exchanging jokes, asking questions, etc.  This is the reason an article published this month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, ‘Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing,’ by Ybarra et al (2008) caught my eye.  The researchers suggest that socializing has benefits beyond ‘wellbeing’ including improved cognitive performance and memory retention.  Just to give you a snippet from their results section;

Study 1 showed that specific indicators of social interaction predicted cognitive performance among cognitively healthy participants and that this effect extends across a wide age spectrum, including the youngest participants. This study extended previous research with elderly and cognitively impaired populations. Study 2 followed up on these results by focusing on younger adults and the possibility that small amounts of social interaction can have causal effects on boosting cognitive performance. Compared to control participants, participants who interacted socially for 10 min showed better cognitive performance, performance equivalent to that displayed by participants engaged in so-called intellectual activities. The findings showing that younger adults can reap cognitive benefits from socializing expands our conceptions of the social interaction–cognition link. Not only do the results show that the effect is causal but that the process is very sensitive to small amounts of social interaction.

For the whole article see http://psp.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/34/2/248.pdf

While the research suggests socializing can have positive benefits not related to thesis/work avoidance it also points to the decline of social connectedness over the last few decades in the ‘west’ particularly the United States (e.g. see Putnam 2000 Bowling Alone).  The researchers suggest that a lack of socializing has effects on mental and physical health as well as being a factor in cognitive decline.  The article concludes by saying that social interaction not only ‘boosts’ cognitive performance but that socializing it necessary at every level of human thinking;

it may not be inappropriate to rephrase Descartes’ philosophical statement [I think therefore I am] as “I think about and with others, therefore I am.”

So even if anthropologists don’t really get a cognitive advantage from all our socializing at least other disciplines are recognising the importance of socializing in people’s lives, which I am sure anthropologists have been claiming all along.

Anne Monchamp

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