Tag Archives: social

New four-legged robots designed to work together to accomplish difficult tasks

Quantity is a quality all of its own, and that seems to be true in robotics, as well. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame report having successfully designed and built multi-legged robots that can navigate difficult terrain and work together to perform various tasks.

Image credits University of Notre Dame / Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin.

Nature is no stranger to the concept of cooperation. We ourselves are a great example of such cooperation at work, but insects such as ants and bees showcase what can be done when even tiny actors join hands. Roboticists have long been keen to mimic such abilities in their creations, and to instill them in small frames, especially.

New research places us squarely on the path towards such an objective.

Silicon swarm

“Legged robots can navigate challenging environments such as rough terrain and tight spaces, and the use of limbs offers effective body support, enables rapid maneuverability and facilitates obstacle crossing,” says Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame, who designed the robots.

“However, legged robots face unique mobility challenges in terrestrial environments, which results in reduced locomotor performance.”

The collective behavior of birds, ants, and other social insect species has been a great source of inspiration for Ozkan-Aydin. In particular, she was fascinated by their ability to work together to perform tasks that would be impossible for a single individual of the species to perform. She set out to try and instill the same capabilities in her own creations.

Although collective behaviors have been explored in flying and underwater robots, land-borne robots must contend with particular challenges that the other two do not. Traversing complex terrain, for example, is one such challenge.

Ozkan-Aydin started from the idea that a physical connection between individual bots could be used to enhance their overall mobility. The legged robots she designed will attempt to perform tasks such as moving a light object or navigating a smooth surface on their own but, if the task proves to be too great for them alone, several robots will physically connect to one another to form a larger, multi-legged system. Collectively, they will work to overcome the issue.

“When ants collect or transport objects, if one comes upon an obstacle, the group works collectively to overcome that obstacle. If there’s a gap in the path, for example, they will form a bridge so the other ants can travel across — and that is the inspiration for this study,” she said.

“Through robotics we’re able to gain a better understanding of the dynamics and collective behaviors of these biological systems and explore how we might be able to use this kind of technology in the future.”

Each individual bot measures around 15 to 20 centimeters (6 to 8 inches) in length, and they were built using a 3D printer. They carry their own lithium polymer battery, three sensors — a light sensor at the front and two magnetic touch sensors at the front and back, — and a microcontroller. The magnetic sensors allow them to connect to one another. They move around on four flexible legs, a setup that Ozkan-Aydin says reduces their need for sensors and their overall complexity.

She designed and built the robots in early 2020 and, due to the pandemic, much of her experimentation was performed at home or in her yard. During that time, the robots’ abilities were tested over grass, mulch, leaves, and acorns. Their abilities to cross flat surfaces were tested over particle board, stairs made from insulation foam, over a shaggy carpet, or over a particle board with rectangular wooden blocks glued on to simulate rough terrain.

During this time, Ozkan-Aydin programmed the robots so that when one of them became stuck, they would send a signal to the others to come to link up with it and help it traverse the obstacles together.

“You don’t need additional sensors to detect obstacles because the flexibility in the legs helps the robot to move right past them,” said Ozkan-Aydin. “They can test for gaps in a path, building a bridge with their bodies; move objects individually; or connect to move objects collectively in different types of environments, not dissimilar to ants.”

There are still improvements that can be made to the design, she explains. However, the intention wasn’t to design the perfect robot; what she hopes for is that her findings will help spur further development of low-cost, cooperative robots that can perform real-world tasks such as search-and-rescue operations, collective transport of various objects, environmental monitoring, or even space exploration. In the future, she will be focusing on improving the control, sensing abilities, and power autonomy of the robots.

“For functional swarm systems, the battery technology needs to be improved,” she said. “We need small batteries that can provide more power, ideally lasting more than 10 hours. Otherwise, using this type of system in the real world isn’t sustainable.”

“You need to think about how the robots would function in the real world, so you need to think about how much power is required, the size of the battery you use. Everything is limited so you need to make decisions with every part of the machine.”

The paper “Self-reconfigurable multilegged robot swarms collectively accomplish challenging terradynamic tasks” has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

Close-in of an ant carrying something.

Ants handle social isolation about as well as humans do — poorly

If you’re having a hard time coping with the isolation this pandemic has imposed on us, find solace in the fact that ants, too, would be just as stressed as you in this situation.

Close-in of an ant carrying something, probably a crumb of bread.
Image via Pixabay.

A new paper reports that ants react to social isolation in a similar way to humans and other social species. The most notable changes identified in ants isolated from their groups involve shifts in their social and hygiene behaviors, the team explains. Gene expression for alleles governing the immune and stress response in the brains of these ants were also downregulated, they add.

The burden of loneliness

“[These observed changes] make the immune system less efficient, a phenomenon that is also apparent in socially isolating humans — notably at present during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Professor Susanne Foitzik from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), lead author of the study. The study on a species of ant native to Germany has recently been published in Molecular Ecology.

I don’t think I need to remind you all of this, but humans find social isolation to be a very stressful experience. It can go as far as having a significant and negative impact on our physical health and general well-being. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety can set in quite easily in isolated individuals, they also develop addictions more easily, and their immune system (along with their overall health) takes a hit.

Still, we know much less about how social insects respond to isolation than we do about social animals, including humans. Ants are extremely social insects, living their whole lives in a dense colony and depend on their mates to survive (just like everyone else there). Their lives are so deeply steeped in the social fabric of their colony that worker ants don’t even reproduce, instead caring for the nest and queen, who does all the baby-making. This would be an unthinkable proposition for most other species on Earth.

The team worked with Temnothorax nylanderi, a species endemic to Western Europe. This species lives in cavities formed in fallen plant matter such as acorns or sticks, with colonies usually containing a few dozen workers. The researchers collected young worker ants who were involved in caring for the young from 14 colonies, keeping them in isolation for varying amounts of time. The shortest was one hour, and the longest, 28 days.

After the isolation period, these ants were released back to their colonies. The team explains that these individuals seemed to show lower interest in their adult colony mates, spent less time grooming themselves, but spent more with the brood.

“This reduction in hygienic behavior may make the ants more susceptible to parasites, but it is also a feature typical of social deprivation in other social organisms,” explained Professor Susanne Foitzik.

Gene activity was also impacted. The authors report that a constellation of genes involved in governing the immune system and stress response of these ants was “downregulated”, i.e. less active. This finding is consistent with previous literature showing a weakened immune system after isolation in other social species.

“Our study shows that ants are as affected by isolation as social mammals are and suggests a general link between social well-being, stress tolerance, and immunocompetence in social animals,” concludes Foitzik.

The paper “Social isolation causes downregulation of immune and stress response genes and behavioral changes in a social insect” has been published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Exercising with your partner can help after a heart attack

Significant others can help heart attack survivors form healthy habits.

Image via Pixabay.

A new paper explains that heart attack survivors have a better chance of changing unhealthy habits or to form healthy ones when their partners join their efforts. This effect was seen in programs for survivors that focused on weight reduction, physical activity, and smoking cessation. Those who took part in such programs and lived with a partner who also took up the same challenge were the most successful.

Till diet do us part

“Lifestyle improvement after a heart attack is a crucial part of preventing repeat events,” said study author Ms. Lotte Verweij, a registered nurse and PhD student, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands.

“Our study shows that when spouses join the effort to change habits, patients have a better chance of becoming healthier — particularly when it comes to losing weight.”

This paper is a follow-up study of previous research and focused on the role our significant others play in efforts to change behavior. It included 824 patients who were randomly assigned to an intervention group (lifestyle programs on top of usual care) or a control group (usual care alone). A total of 411 patients were allotted to the experimental group and referred to up to three of the programs (weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation). Their partners could join for free and were encouraged to do so by nurses. Participation was defined as attending at least one session of the program.

Nearly half (48%) of the partners joined up. Participants with a partner present were more than twice as likely to see improvements in at least one of three areas within a year. The greatest influence of partners on any of the three areas was weight loss — patients with a participating partner were 2.71 times more likely to reduce their weight compared to patients without a partner.

“Patients with partners who joined the weight loss programme lost more weight compared to patients with a partner who did not join the programme,” said Ms. Verweij.

“If partners contribute to adopting healthy habits, it could become an important recommendation to avoid recurrent heart attacks.”

She explains that because couple often have similar lifestyles, changing our habits can become hard if only one person is putting in the effort. Practical limitations like grocery shopping or emotional ones (like feeling a lack of support for our efforts) seem small but they make or break our resolve. Finding a lower effect of partners on smoking or physical activity might suggest that these are more influenced by our own motivations and persistence, although “his hypothesis needs more investigation,” she adds.

The paper “The influence of partners on lifestyle-related risk factors in patients after an acute coronary syndrome. Results from the RESPONSE-2 randomized controlled trial” has been presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2020 – The Digital Experience.

Researchers list the 10 lifestyle choices most likely to kill you

We all want a long, happy life, but how does one get it? New research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) can’t tell us, but it will tell us which social factors were most associated with death between 2008 and 2014.

Image via Pixabay.

Smoking, alcohol abuse, and divorce were the three closest-linked factors to death during this time interval out of a list of 57 social and behavioral factors. The team used data collected from 13,611 U.S. adults between 1992 and 2008, tying it to which factors applied to those who died between 2008 and 2014.

A good life

“It shows that a lifespan approach is needed to really understand health and mortality,” said Eli Puterman, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of kinesiology and lead author of the study.

“For example, instead of just asking whether people are unemployed, we looked at their history of unemployment over 16 years. If they were unemployed at any time, was that a predictor of mortality? It’s more than just a one-time snapshot in people’s lives, where something might be missed because it did not occur. Our approach provides a look at potential long-term impacts through a lifespan lens.”

The research was prompted by the observation that life expectancy in the U.S. stagnated, as compared to those in other industrialized countries, for the last three decades (only picking up recently). Medical and biological factors definitely have a huge impact, so they were omitted from this study in order to make room for social, psychological, economic, and behavioural factors.

Data was obtained from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, a nationally-representative study with participants from 50 to 104 years old. While obviously still limited — the survey didn’t capture factors such as food insecurity or domestic abuse — its results can help us understand, in broad lines, which factors or coupling of factors seemed most closely aligned with death for the participants.

A total of 57 factors was analyzed. Out of this list, the 10 most closely associated with death, in order, were:

  • Being a smoker
  • A history of divorce
  • Past or present alcohol abuse
  • Going through financial difficulties recently
  • A history of unemployment
  • A history of smoking
  • Feeling lower levels of life satisfaction
  • Having never married
  • Having relied on food stamps in the past or presently
  • Negative affect

“If we’re going to put money and effort into interventions or policy changes, these areas could potentially provide the greatest return on that investment,” Puterman said.

While smoking has long been identified as a driver of preventable death, the weight of factors such as negative affect or unemployment is surprising. Given how important they were determined to be here, the team says that targeting them with interventions might be a good idea. However, it’s not yet clear what such interventions would look like, whether these factors can be targeted as such, and whether interventions here would actually lead to a reduction in the risk of death.

The paper “Predicting mortality from 57 economic, behavioral, social, and psychological factors” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Anti-vaccine groups are actively targeting ‘undecideds’ on social media

Facebook communities that promote distrust in ‘the establishment’ and official health guidelines are more effective than reliable health groups at reaching and engaging with undecided individuals, a new study reports.

Image credits Gordon Johnson.

The study was carried out at George Washington University and used a special tool built to track vaccine discussions on Facebook during the 2019 measles outbreak. This “battleground” map reveals the broad dynamics of how distrust in established guidelines is fomented on social media. The authors caution that this distrust can come to dominate public discourse in the future, which would pose a major block against immunization efforts for COVID-19 and future outbreaks.

In strangers on the Internet we trust

“There is a new world war online surrounding trust in health expertise and science, particularly with misinformation about COVID-19, but also distrust in big pharmaceuticals and governments,” says Professor Neil Johnson, lead author of the paper.

“Nobody knew what the field of battle looked like, though, so we set to find out.”

The team examined several Facebook communities totaling almost 100 million individual users. These groups, they explain, formed a dynamic and highly-interconnected network that spanned across national borders and cultures.

Among these groups, three ‘camps’ were identified: pro-vaccination, anti-vaccination, and those of “undecided” individuals (for example, parenting groups which discussed vaccines but didn’t lean either way). The team started with a certain community and would then find another one that had strong links to it, repeating the process until they reached a better understanding of the overall relationships forming among the communities.

Fig. 1
 Snapshot from 15 October 2019 of the connections forming in the ecology of undecided (green), anti-vaccination (red), and pro-vaccination (blue) views.
Image credits Neil F. Johnson et al., (2020), Nature.

They report that overall, there are fewer individuals who agree with anti-vaccination sentiments than with pro-vaccination on Facebook, but there are almost three times as many anti-vaccination communities on this platform than pro-vaccination ones.

The anti-vaccination users utilize these groups to engage with undecided communities, while the pro-vaccination ones keep largely to themselves. They focused their efforts on countering the larger anti-vaccination groups, which left the smaller splinter-groups pretty much free to operate with impunity.

Furthermore, while the pro-vaccination camp understandably sticks to one creed (“vaccines work and they’re safe”) their opponents can have their pick of narratives and use this to engage with the undecided. These range from promoting safety concerns or individual choice to conspiracy theories, which they tailor to the particular community they’re addressing at the time.

The team notes that individuals in the undecided communities tended not to sit idly, but were actively engaging with the vaccine content. “The undecided clusters have the highest growth of new out-links [i.e they’re actively engaging with the other two groups] followed by anti-vaccination clusters,” the paper reads.

“We thought we would see major public health entities and state-run health departments at the center of this online battle, but we found the opposite. They were fighting off to one side, in the wrong place,” Dr. Johnson said.

Social media often works to amplify and equalize information, the team explains, meaning it makes it readily accessible but also gives different opinions the appearance of being equally worth considering (they’re not).

The team proposes several strategies to better combat the spread of misinformation on social media such as influencing the heterogeneity of individual communities (making them more diverse) to delay radicalization and decrease their growth, as well as manipulating the links between communities in order to prevent the spread of negative views.

“Instead of playing whack-a-mole with a global network of communities that consume and produce (mis)information, public health agencies, social media platforms and governments can use a map like ours and an entirely new set of strategies to identify where the largest theaters of online activity are and engage and neutralize those communities peddling in misinformation so harmful to the public,” Dr. Johnson said.

The paper “The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views” has been published in the journal Nature.

Screen time doesn’t make kids less social, inter-generational analysis reveals

Social distancing means more time inside for our youngsters, and that also means more screen time. However, a new study suggests that this isn’t cause for much concern — young people today are just as socially skilled as those from the previous generation, it found.

Image via Pixabay.

The team compared teacher and parent evaluations of children who started kindergarten in 1998, which is around six years before the launch of Facebook with those who started school in 2010 when the first iPad debuted. According to their findings, both groups were rated similarly on interpersonal skills — such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with people who are different from them. Both groups were also rated similarly for self-control, the ability to regulate one’s temper.

Kids these days

“In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later,” said Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

“There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”

Downey conducted the study with Benjamin Gibbs, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. The idea for the study came several years ago during — of all things — an argument Downey had with his son at a pizza restaurant. They were discussing whether younger generations had poorer social skills than older ones.

“I started explaining to him how terrible his generation was in terms of their social skills, probably because of how much time they spent looking at screens,” Downey said. “[His son] Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn’t any solid evidence.”

To get to the bottom of the issue, Downey used data from The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which is run by the National Center for Educational Statistics and follows children from kindergarten to the end of fifth grade. Using this data, they compared children who began kindergarten in 1998 (19,150 students) with the cohort that began kindergarten in 2010 (13,400 students).

As part of the study, each child was assessed by teachers six times during this time. They were also assessed by parents at the beginning and end of kindergarten and the end of first grade. The authors focused mostly on teacher evaluations because they are more abundant and perhaps more objective — although the results from parents were comparable, they say.

Children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screentime showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

As far as the teachers were concerned, children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screen time showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

“But even that was a pretty small effect,” Downey said. “Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children.”

“There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. It is an old story. The introduction of telephones, automobiles, radio all led to moral panic among adults of the time because the technology allowed children to enjoy more autonomy,” he says.

If anything, all this new technology is teaching younger generations that having good social relationships means being able to communicate successfully both face-to-face and online, Downey said.

The paper “Kids These Days: Are Face-to-Face Social Skills among American Children Declining?” has been published in the American Journal of Sociology.

Flamingos form complex social ties that last over the years

Flamingos show complex social lives, maintaining friendships through the years and even avoiding individuals they don’t get along with.

Image via Pixabay.

The five-year study tracked flocks of Caribbean, Chilean, Andean and Lesser flamingos at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre between 2012 and 2016. These flocks varied in number from 20 to 140 individuals, and all showed complex webs of social interactions. Despite being highly social as part of large flocks, flamingos consistently spend time with specific close “friends”, the team explains.

Birds of a feather

“Our results indicate that flamingo societies are complex. They are formed of long-standing friendships rather than loose, random connections,” said Dr. Paul Rose, of the University of Exeter.

“Flamingos have long lives — some of the birds in this study have been at Slimbridge since the 1960s — and our study shows their friendships are stable over a period of years.

The team explains that flamingos form complex social relationships inside the flock. These bonds include “married” couples, same-sex friendships and even groups of three and four close friends. Furthermore, they tend to also avoid certain individuals, suggesting some just don’t see eye to eye.

There was quite some variety in how the birds treated each relationship. Some tended to spend most of their time with their mate, others less, but all still formed and maintained social connections outside the pair.

The seasons affected social interactions, too, with more bonds forming in spring and summer — the breeding season.

“Flamingos don’t simply find a mate and spend their time with that individual. We see pairs of males or females choosing to ‘hang out’, we see trios and quartets that are regularly together” Dr. Rose explains.

“It seems that—like humans—flamingos form social bonds for a variety of reasons, and the fact they’re so long-lasting suggests they are important for survival in the wild.”

The team also tried to establish whether the flamingoes’ health (measured by the health of their feet) influences their social lives; the birds would continue to engage with their mates, friends, and other flock members even when not in perfect health, the team reports, suggesting that this activity is extremely important to them.

Such findings should help inform the management of captive flamingos, the team adds. Their observations suggest that care should be taken not to separate birds that are close to each other when being moved from one zoo to another. Flocks should also be kept as large “as reasonably possible,” says Dr. Rose.

The paper “Evaluating the social networks of four flocks of captive flamingos over a five-year period: Temporal, environmental, group and health influences on assortment” has been published in the journal Behavioural Processes.

Quarantine, school closure, and social distancing could reduce the spread of COVID-19 by 70%

Modeling performed on a ‘simulated Singapore’ confirmed yet again that social distancing, quarantine, school closures, and workplace distancing remain our best tools against the spread of COVID-19.

Sign announcing the closure of the whole building of New City Hall in Prague for the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image via Wikimedia.

The study looked at the efficiency of using these methods, both together and individually, in tackling the early stages of a COVID-19 outbreak. These measures had the most efficiency when used together, followed by quarantine plus workplace measures, quarantine plus school closure, and then quarantine only. However, all of these scenarios were more effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19 than doing nothing.

Quarantine for the win

The team adapted an individual-based influenza epidemic simulation model, which accounted for demography, individual movement, and social contact rates in workplaces, schools, and homes, to estimate the level of human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in case containment efforts fail. The model accounted for multiple factors such as how infectious an individual is over time, the proportion of the population assumed to be asymptomatic (7.5%), and the virus’ mean incubation period.

“Should local containment measures, such as preventing disease spread through contact tracing efforts and, more recently, not permitting short-term visitors, be unsuccessful, the results of this study provide policy makers in Singapore and other countries with evidence to begin the implementation of enhanced outbreak control measures that could mitigate or reduce local transmission rates if deployed effectively and in a timely manner,” says Dr Alex Cook from the National University of Singapore, co-author of the study.

The team adapted an individual-based influenza epidemic simulation model, which accounted for demography, individual movement, and social contact rates in workplaces, schools, and homes, to estimate the level of human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in case containment efforts fail. The model accounted for multiple factors such as how infectious an individual is over time the proportion of the population assumed to be asymptomatic (7.5%), and the virus’ mean incubation period.

The team used their model to determine how many cases of SARS-CoV-2 would take hold in an interval of 80 days after the detection of 100 cases of community transmission. They worked with three pathogens with different infectivities selected based on analyses of data from people with COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. The model ran five scenarios proposed for implementation in case local containment of the virus proves unsuccessful:

  • No interventions.
  • Isolation of infected individuals and quarantine of their family members.
  • Quarantine plus immediate school closure for 2 weeks.
  • Quarantine plus immediate workplace distancing, in which 50% of the workforce is encouraged to work from home for 2 weeks.
  • A combination of quarantine, immediate school closure, and workplace distancing.

Under the first scenario, the number of infections at day 80 was 279,000 (7.4% of the resident population of Singapore), 727,000 (19.3% of the population), and 1,207,000 (32% of the population) for the low-, mid- and high-infectiousness viruses respectively.

A combined intervention approach reduced the mean number of infections by 99.3%, 93.0%, and 78.2% compared to the above baseline, the team explains, for viruses with low-, mid-, and high-infectiousness respectively. The exact proportion of asymptomatic cases in the population would also influence transmission rates, the team explains. Up to 277,000 infections were estimated to occur at day 80 under a combined intervention case for an asymptomatic rate of 50%.

“If the preventive effect of these interventions reduces considerably due to higher asymptomatic proportions, more pressure will be placed on the quarantining and treatment of infected individuals, which could become unfeasible when the number of infected individuals exceeds the capacity of health-care facilities,” Dr Alex R Cook added. “At higher asymptomatic rates, public education and case management become increasingly important, with a need to develop vaccines and existing drug therapies.”

The authors note that the quality of available census data, the movements of migrant populations, and seeding with imported cases (transmissions originating from outside Singapore) would further influence infection patterns, but these were not possible to include in the modeling. Furthermore, several parameters, such as the time between symptom onset and admission to hospital, and the asymptomatic rate were based on the related SARS-CoV virus, not on the one responsible for the current outbreak, due to the availability of reliable data.

The paper “Interventions to mitigate early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Singapore: a modelling study” has been published in the journal The Lancet.

Experiencing nature seems to make us happier, at least on social media

A new study from the National University of Singapore (NUS) used artificial intelligence to trawl through social media posts in order to gauge the social and cultural value nature brings to humans. Overall, they report that the findings show a positive association between the presence of nature and fond memories described in photographs or events such as vacations and honeymoons.

Image via Pixabay.

Naturally happy

“Integrating social media data and AI opens up a unique opportunity for us to carry out unprecedented large-scale global studies such as this to better understand our interactions with nature in our daily lives,” said Dr Chang, Research Fellow at the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS Faculty of Science and first author of the study.

The team began their research in an effort to better map the value that nature brings to our lives. They explain that the economic and ecological impacts of issues such as climate change have been documented, but not so much the social or cultural effects. We know that certain areas attract people — The Great Barrier Reef and the Swiss Alps remain some of the top holiday destinations in the world — but exactly what benefits people draw from visiting them remains poorly understood.

The team, led by Dr Chang and Associate Professor Roman Carrasco from the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS Faculty of Science, used automated image recognition technology to analyze over 31,500 photographs across 185 countries from social media platforms.

This step revealed that photographs tagged as #fun, #vacations and #honeymoons are more likely to contain elements of nature such as plants, water, and natural landscape as compared to photographs tagged #daily or #routines — no massive surprises there. The trend, however, was consistent across the globe, which the team says is evidence in favor of the biophilia hypothesis (that humans have an innate desire to experience and connect with nature). The trend, they add, implies a positive association between nature and fond memories in memorable events like honeymoons.

Furthermore, they found that the amount of nature experiences per individual in a country is linked to the overall life satisfaction of its residents. Countries such as Costa Rica or Finland — which have more elements of nature in photographs tagged as #fun — also rank highly on national satisfaction levels as reported on in the World Happiness Report 2019, the team explains.

All in all, the findings do seem to suggest that people derive emotional happiness, relaxation, and life satisfaction from experiencing nature. I would point out that the posts this study looked at involved nature, yes, but they also related to events such as holidays or personal events which involved leisure, which obviously would make people #happy and #relaxed. On the other hand, it seems to me that the #daily # routine posts would obviously involve less exposure to nature (since most people live in urban environments) and less excitement or relaxation, two states which we don’t readily associate with the daily grind.

Still, the study is valuable in highlighting the positive effect nature and exposure to nature can have on our own subjective well-being and emotional states.

“[The findings] further emphasises the importance of preserving our natural environment for the loss of nature may mean more than losing quantifiable economic and ecological benefits; it could also mean losing the background to our fondest memories,” says Assoc Prof Carrasco.

“Our next step is therefore to establish how nature experiences may benefit human well-being such as how it improves our satisfaction in life, hence enabling the development of constructive solutions to better environmental conservation,” he added.

The paper “Social media, nature, and life satisfaction: global evidence of the biophilia hypothesis” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Vampire bats make friends in captivity — and keep them after release

A new study looking into social bonding dynamics for vampire bats reports that friendships they make in captivity are likely to continue after the animals are released back into the wild.

A tagged Desmodus rotundus bat in the wild.
Image credits Sherri ad Brock Fenton.

While primates are the most iconic group of animals when it comes to social dynamics and friendships, the new study suggests that vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) also form cooperative relationships reminiscent of friendship. The findings also show that social interactions among vampire bats observed in the lab aren’t just a product of them being kept in captivity.

Life’s bat-er with friends

“The social relationships in vampire bats that we have been observing in captivity are pretty robust to changes in the social and physical environment–even when our captive groups consist of a fairly random sample of bats from a wild colony,” said Simon Ripperger of the Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz-Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science in Berlin, the study’s lead author.

“When we released these bats back into their wild colony, they chose to associate with the same individuals that were their cooperation partners during their time in captivity.”

Together with co-lead author Gerald Carter of The Ohio State University, who has been studying vampire bat social relationships in captivity since 2010, Ripperger wanted to see if relationships the bats established in captivity would survive after release to the wild. The idea, boiled down, was to see if the partnerships these bats would form in the lab were ‘genuine’ or simply the best available at the time (in which case they would break down as the bats started to associate with other individuals).

All in all, the team reports, social interactions in the lab aren’t just an artifact of captivity. Not all relationships formed in captivity survived after release, the team reports. Similar to the human experience, however, cooperative relationships among vampire bats appear to result from a combination of social preferences together with external environment influences or circumstances, the team explains.

For the study, the team needed to record social interactions and networks among wild bats at much better resolutions than before. So, they enlisted the help of colleagues in electrical engineering and computer sciences to develop novel proximity sensors. Lighter than a penny, the new sensors could be carried by the bats without too much hassle and allowed the team to monitor entire social groups with updates a few seconds apart. The final step was to incorporate these observations with data on bat relationships from the lab.

The data showed that reciprocal grooming and food sharing among female bats in captivity (data recorded over 22 months) was a good predictor of whom these females would later interact with in the wild. The researchers report that the findings are consistent with the idea that both partner fidelity and partner switching play a role in regulating the bats’ relationships. In the future, the team wants to gauge how individual differences among bats influence these types of cooperation relationships. They also plan to look into social foraging and whether bats that cooperate within their day roost also go hunting together at night.

“Our finding adds to a growing body of evidence that vampire bats form social bonds that are similar to the friendships we see in some primates,” Carter said. “Studying animal relationships can be a source of inspiration and insight for understanding the stability of human friendships.”

The paper “Vampire bats that cooperate in the lab maintain their social networks in the wild” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Day of the Dead.

Facebook might have more dead users than alive by 2100

A new study from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), part of the University of Oxford, estimates that Facebook will have more deceased users accounts than living ones in roughly fifty years’ time.

Day of the Dead.

Image via Pixabay.

How should a social media platform handle the accounts of those departed? It doesn’t sound like a very pressing issue but, based on the results of the new analysis, it’s one that we will have to face sooner rather than later. The team writes that, based on 2018 user levels, at least 1.4 billion Facebook members will die before 2100.

The Night King’s digital army

“These statistics give rise to new and difficult questions around who has the right to all this data, how should it be managed in the best interests of the families and friends of the deceased and its use by future historians to understand the past,” said lead author Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the OII.

If the prediction is accurate, this would mean that the number of accounts created by the deceased will outnumber those of living people by 2070. If the current rate at which the platform expands continues unabated, the authors go on to explain, the number of deceased users could reach as many as 4.9 billion before the end of the century.

This is a trend that we, as a society, have never had to contend with until now — one that’s bound to have grave implications for how we treat our digital heritage in the future.

“On a societal level, we have just begun asking these questions and we have a long way to go,” Öhman adds. “The management of our digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social media, since all of us will one day pass away and leave our data behind.”

“But the totality of the deceased user profiles also amounts to something larger than the sum of its parts. It is, or will at least become, part of our global digital heritage.”

Co-author David Watson, also a DPhil student at the OII, says that the social platform, in essence, amounts to an immense archive of human behavior and culture. So, in a way, those who control what happens to it will “control our history”. Watson cautions that it’s therefore very important to ensure we don’t limit access to this historical data to a single for-profit firm. “It is also important to make sure that future generations can use our digital heritage to understand their history,” he adds.

The predictions are based on data from the United Nations, which provide the expected number of mortalities and total populations for every country in the world distributed by age. Facebook-specific data was scraped from the company’s Audience Insights feature. While the study notes that this self-reported dataset has several limitations, this provides the most comprehensive publicly available estimate of the network’s size and distribution.

The study sets up two potential extreme scenarios, arguing that the platform’s future evolution will likely fall somewhere in between them:

  • The first scenario assumes that no new users join the platform after 2018. In this case, Asia’s share of deceased users will increase rapidly, and will eventually account for some 44% of the total number of such accounts by 2100. Roughly half of those accounts will be owned by individuals from India and Indonesia, which together account for just under 279 million Facebook mortalities by 2100.
  • For the second scenario, the team assumed that Facebook will continue to expand by its current rate of 13% per year until reaching market saturation (i.e. there are no new users to join). In this case, Africa will also take up an important slice of the total number of dead users. Nigeria, in particular, takes the lead, accounting for over 6% of the total figure. Western users will account for only a minority of users, with only the US making the top 10.

“The results should be interpreted not as a prediction of the future, but as a commentary on the current development, and an opportunity to shape what future we are headed towards,” explains Öhman.

“But this has no bearing on our larger point that critical discussion of online death and its macroscopic implications is urgently needed. Facebook is merely an example of what awaits any platform with similar connectivity and global reach.”

Watson says that Facebook should consult with historians, archivists, archaeologists, and ethicists to curate the vast amount of data left behind when someone passes away.

“This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead.”

The paper “Are the dead taking over Facebook? A Big Data approach to the future of death online” has been published in the journal Big Data & Society.


First reliable evidence for ‘social acceleration’ comes from our shorter collective attention spans

Our collective attention span is narrowing across domains such as social media, books, movies, and more.


Measuring the speed of hashtag dynamics: Average trajectories in top 50 Twitter hashtags from 2013 to 2016. In the background a 1% random sample of trajectories is shown in grey.
Image credits Philipp Lorenz-Spreen et al., (2019), N.Comms.

If public discussion strikes you as more fragmented and accelerated than ever before, new research says you’re not wrong. Sociologists, psychologists, and teachers have warned of an emerging crisis stemming from a ‘fear of missing out’, keeping up to date on social media, and breaking news coming at us 24/7 for years now — but very few reliable data has been recorded on the subject of ‘social acceleration’.

However, a new study from the Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, University College Cork, and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) has found evidence in support of one dimension of social acceleration: increasing rates of change within collective attention spans.

Give me new, please

“It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example.” says corresponding author Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Compute.

The team used Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, books going back 100 years on Google Books, movie ticket sales over the last 40 years, and citations of scientific publications from the last 25 years. This dataset was further fleshed-out using data from Google Trends (2010-2018), Reddit (2010-2015), and Wikipedia (2012-2017).

Analysis of this data provided the first empirical body of evidence showing steeper gradients and shorter bursts of collective attention given to each cultural item over time. This is fueled by the ever-increasing production and consumption of content, the team explains, which more rapidly depletes collective attention resources.

The team says this dynamic isn’t only seen in social media. The researchers looked at the top 50 global hashtags on Twitter, finding that peaks become increasingly steep and frequent. In 2013, for example, a hashtag could enjoy its place in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours; it gradually declined to just 11.9 hours in 2016. Other domains, both online and offline, saw similar trends over different periods. For instance, the team reports that occurence of certain n-grams —  sequences of words, where word number (n) is between 1 and 5 — and weekly box-office sales of Hollywood movies in the US follow the same pattern as hashtags.

“We assume that whenever a topic is discussed (hashtags on Twitter, comments on Reddit, n-grams in books, citations of papers) or consumed (tickets for movies, queries on Google), it receives a small fraction of the available attention,” the paper reads.

One area seems to be exempt from this dwindling of attention spans, however: scientific content, such as journals or Wikipedia. The team isn’t exactly sure why this is, however, they believe it comes down to these being primarily knowledge communication systems.

“We wanted to understand which mechanisms could drive this behavior. Picturing topics as species that feed on human attention, we designed a mathematical model with three basic ingredients: ‘hotness’, aging and the thirst for something new.” says Dr. Philipp Hövel, lecturer for applied mathematics, University College Cork.

All in all, the team found that “the one parameter in the model that was key in replicating the empirical findings was the input rate” or abundance of information. When more content is produced in less time, it drains collective attention resources faster. This shortened peak of public interest for one topic is then directly followed by the next topic, because of the fierce competition for novelty.

To sum it up, our individual attention span wasn’t the subject of this study. The collective amount of attention isn’t any smaller than it used to be. However, there’s simply much more to pay attention to, and the result is that people are more rapidly made aware of something new happening and lose interest more quickly.

“The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly.” says postdoc Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

“Our data only supports the claim that our collective attention span is narrowing. Therefore, as a next step, it would be interesting to look into how this affects individuals, since the observed developments may have negative implications for an individual’s ability to evaluate the information they consume. Acceleration increases, for example, the pressure on journalists’ ability to keep up with an ever-changing news landscape

That it does, study, that it does.

The team hopes that their findings will help communities design better communication systems, to ensure that information quality doesn’t erode under its own sheer bulk.

The paper “Accelerating dynamics of collective attention” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Pottery fragments.

Native American societies had their own brand of ‘social media’

Societies in America’s southern Appalachian mountains shared art and technologies through regional networks reminiscent of today’s social media, a new study reports.

Pottery fragments.

Examples of pottery shards used in the study. Symbols were stamped into the clay while it was still wet. Each design and the various characteristics of the clay were used to reconstruct social networks among Native American communities.
Image credits Jacob Lulewicz, (2019), PNAS.

Native American villages established social and political connections well before European explorers came a-knocking, new research reveals. These systems — which functioned similarly to today’s platforms such as MySpace or Facebook, the author notes — laid the groundwork for local political systems as far back as 600 A.D.

Like, subscribe, and comment!

“Just as we have our own networks of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, societies that existed in North America between 1,200 and 350 years ago had their own information sharing networks,” said Jacob Lulewicz, the study’s author and a lecturer of archaeology in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

“Our study found a way to reconstruct these indigenous communication networks.”

The study used social network analysis techniques to map out the social and political relationships established between dozens of Native American villages in the studied region. The data came from messages embedded not in bytes, but in bits of pottery unearthed at sites throughout southern Appalachia clustered around the site of Etowah in Bartow County, Georgia (belonging to the so-called Mississippian culture). This included 276,626 sherds from 43 sites across eastern Tennessee and 88,705 sherds from 41 sites across northern Georgia. All the pottery dates between 800 and 1650 A.D., a period that saw the gradual emergence and subsequent decline of powerful chiefdoms that controlled wide networks of villages in the region.

Each fragment of pottery was analyzed to help Lulewicz understand how the technology used to make pottery and the symbols used to decorate them evolved over time. Armed with this rough timeline, Lulewicz then looked at how both elements disseminated among different villages or communities over time — in broad lines, this gave him a rough indication of how intensely they communicated.

Etowah served as the regional seat of social, political, economic and religious power across the region. This influence reached its peak between 1050 to 1325 A.D. and was still running in 1540 A.D. when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first reached this area. De Soto accounts how the villages in this area were loosely bound to the influence of a single chief who resided in the town of Coosa (northern Georgia)

Lulewicz argues — based on his findings — that these political elites could emerge because of the social networks he describes. Their political power and centralized leadership, as well as the religious movements and inequality associated with their rule, were built on top of these wider, pre-existing social networks of common people. And, in the end, these networks would prove to be more stable and durable than any interactions dictated by elite chiefs.

“What I show in the paper is that while we see things like the emergence of super powerful chiefs and the rise of major economic inequalities, the very foundations of society — especially relationships and networks of kinship and family and reciprocity — remained virtually unchanged over 1,000 years,” Lulewicz said.

“That is, even though elite interests and political strategies waxed and waned and collapsed and flourished, very basic relationships and networks were some of the strongest, most durable aspects of society.”

Lulewicz argues that these findings show how important social connections between individuals are in guarding communities against unpredictable (or incompetent) leaders and the extended ruling class. He says it mirrors how digital social networks function today, and their role in contemporary revolutions or protest movements. Modern states are often quick to monitor, censor, or even shut down access to these virtual networks, he adds, which shows how valuable such social instruments are even today.

“This is super interesting — at least to me as a social scientist — for understanding how political movements actually play out,” he said. “It doesn’t come down to any particular, innate attribute of leaders and elites. What is comes down to is how those individuals are able to leverage the networks in which they are embedded.”

“Even though chiefs emerge at about 1000 A.D., over the next 650 years, chiefs actually shift their strategies of political and economic control. They tap into different parts of their networks, or leverage their connections in very different ways throughout time.”

“Because these very basic networks were so durable, they allowed these societies — especially common people — to buffer against and mediate the uncertainties associated with major political and economic change. They may have said, ‘You go live on top of that huge mound and do your sacred rituals, and we will go about life as usual for the most part.’ These communication networks served as a social constant for these people and allowed their cultures to persist for thousands of years even across transformations that could have been catastrophic.”

The paper “The social networks and structural variation of Mississippian sociopolitics in the southeastern United States” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Life satisfaction hinges not on what you do — but who you do it with

If it’s happiness you’re after, you’ll need a team.


Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of Leipzig, Germany, suggests that well-being strategies involving other people are more satisfying than nonsocial pursuits. So if you want to boost your life satisfaction, get yourself some people to share it with.

Group effort

“Our research showed that people who came up with ‘well-being’ strategies that involved other people were more satisfied with their lives one year later — even after taking into account that they were marginally happier to begin with,” says lead author and psychological scientist Julia Rohrer.

“In contrast, people who came up with strategies that did not explicitly involve others remained, on average, as satisfied as they were.”

The team examined a subset of data recorded during 2014 for the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, which is considered to be a nationally-representative survey of adults in Germany. The participants in this sample reported how satisfied they felt with their lives on a scale from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). They also reported how satisfied they thought they’d be in 5-years’ time and described the strategies they could employ to maintain life satisfaction in the future.

One year later, the participants again rated their current level of life satisfaction.

Out of the 1,178 participants in the sample, 596 made a general statement such as “there is not much I could change” or one that didn’t require individual action, such as “a political shift would improve my life.” The rest, 582 participants, reported a specific strategy. There were no substantial differences in the life satisfaction of these two groups over time, the team notes.

The researchers further broke down this last group by the focus of the strategies they described: 184 people mentioned an approach centered around some form of social engagement and interaction — “helping others,” “spend more time with family,” “spend more time with friends”, and so on — while 398 described a nonsocial strategy — such as “stop smoking” or “pick up sports”.

Based on the answers each participant provided in the follow-up poll, the team says that those who engaged in a social strategy showed increased life satisfaction — while those who embarked on nonsocial strategies showed a relatively constant level of life satisfaction. Data reflecting how much time each participant invested in various activities that involved socializing with friends, family, or neighbors helps explain this boost in life satisfaction, the team adds.

Overall, the research suggests that spending more time with others, especially others we care about, could be an important avenue to increased well-being. Rohrer says that she plans to follow-up on the findings with experimental and longitudinal studies over long durations to determine exactly why socially-focused strategies seem to improve satisfaction — while nonsocial ones do not.

“Many people are interested in becoming happier, but there is a lack of evidence regarding the long term effects of pursuing happiness through various types of activities,” she says. “After all, there’s no guarantee that trying to become happier doesn’t make you more miserable in the end.”

“I think our study partly fills that gap in the literature, although more research with a longitudinal perspective is certainly needed.”

The paper “Successfully Striving for Happiness: Socially Engaged Pursuits Predict Increases in Life Satisfaction” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.


Mice will pick social rules over might-makes-right, hinting at the birth of human societies and laws

Living in a group can be a hard thing to navigate, especially as an individual’s short-term interest can conflict strongly with the group’s long-term interests. A new paper looks into how mice juggle costs and benefits in social settings, with implications for other animals and humans as well.


Image via Pixabay.

People have learned to live together in huge communities, and a big part of that is solving conflicts through compromise and by following rules, instead of making justice with one’s fists. The sheer scale and complexity of the frameworks of rules we use to guide these resolutions, as well as our heavy reliance on cooperation, sets us apart from other animals.

Still, this also raises a question. How did this web of rules and cooperation evolve, and can other animals set up new social rules to help guide their interaction? A new study from the Center for Cognition and Sociality, part of the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), shows that lab mice can establish and then follow rules that are equitable (provide equal rewards in the long-term) even if they have to exercise patience and tolerance in the short-term. The findings provide a glimpse into how humans and other animals weigh costs and benefits in social interactions.

I don’t make the rules I just work here

Competition can be a powerful tool to getting what you want and need. But it’s also a very risky, one-against-all strategy, which comes with great costs both of time and of energy. With that in mind, humans generally adopt rules to guide how people with conflicting interests solve their differences without having to resort to aggression. The ‘first-come, first-served’ approach, or territorial ownership, are examples of such rules that, in the long-term, maximize the mutual benefit of everybody involved.

Other species also follow such rules. Some species of social spiders, the team notes, will back away when trespassing on someone else’s territory and will look for an unoccupied place. Rodents, however, are known to be impulse-driven, especially when food is concerned. A mouse would rather eat a small amount of food now than wait for a large serving later. Chow, after all, is a matter of survival.

However, the IBS researchers were curious to see how well-fed mice would behave when presented with a less immediate and necessary reward — could they learn to adapt to new social rules to maximize the rewards for all involved?

In lieu of food, the team used headsets that could produce a wireless electrical brain stimulation (WBS) in the medial forebrain bundle, the brain’s reward circuitry. The mice would feel this as a very powerful (yet nonaddictive) sense of pleasure, which they tend to prefer even over mating, as previous work revealed.

The mice were then trained using a specially designed box. It had a starting area in the center, and two reward zones to its left and right. The animals learned to start the round by entering the central area, and then follow a blue light indicating one of the reward zones. The light was randomly allocated and indicated where a mouse had to go to receive a five-second WBS pleasure-burst.

For the experiment, the team first placed two trained mice in the same box, setting them up for a winner-takes-all scenario. The mice had to further learn that the round only started when both entered the start zone together. Moreover, they had to figure out that only the first mouse to enter would receive the WBS — as soon as the second one entered the same zone, the signal was interrupted.

Cooperation rules

Over time, the researchers report, mice developed a “social rule” through which to split up the box. One mouse would only go for the pleasure doses on the left zone, while the other would only go for those on the right. Out of the 38 mice tested in this step, 23 (60%) observed the rule and waited for their turn. Those that respected the rule went through more rounds during the experiment than their peers, thus receiving more reward time overall. In other words, despite the initial effort of obeying the rules, teams of cooperating mice got more reward for each member than those who didn’t work together.

“Violating the rule is not a problem in the short term, but it is not sustainable in the long-term,” says Professor Shin Hee-Sup, corresponding author of the study. “Mice that respect the social rule learn how to play to their mutual advantage.”

However, he admits that the mice were still tempted to cheat the system and get some extra reward out of the situation. “From time to time,” even the most cooperating mice would, after waiting for a few seconds so as not to disrupt the other mouse’s WBS hit, “try their luck by going to the opponent’s territory,” Hee-Sup explains. Here is where another rule underpinning social cooperation comes into play.

“Another rule is tolerance. If a mouse violates the rule, the other mouse has the choice of retaliate immediately, or tolerate and keep on observing the rule. Tit for tat brings a disruption of the system, while tolerance to partner’s mistakes allows the system to continue, and as a result both mice receive a long-term benefit,” explains the professor. “This is called Bourgeois strategy in psychology. It limits aggression and is better for the long-term.”

Overall, rule observance increased over time during the test. This happened independently of the mice’s body weight or learning ability. To prevent habit (such as a mouse forming a preference for one side of the box) from biasing the results, the authors also swapped members between the teams to couple rats that had previously gone on the same side. Disoriented and confused at first, the animals quickly re-assigned territory, one going to the left and one to the right. This phenomenon is known as “rapid rule transfer,” and shows that mice are capable of adapting the same social rule to new situations.

In the future, the authors want to see if familiarity between the mice influences their tendency to observe the rules. Another interesting avenue of research would be to see if the mice keep following the rules in unfair conditions — i.e. when they’re trained to expect that the zones receive an equal amount of reward but that doesn’t happen.

The paper “Mice in social conflict show rule-observance behavior enhancing long-term benefit” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Facebook smartphone.

Facebook: where relationship builders, town criers, window shoppers, and selfies come to chat

There are four categories of Facebook personalities, Brigham Young University research reveals.

Facebook smartphone.

Image credits Krzysztof Kamil.

Quick, try to recall the last day you’ve spent without logging into Facebook. Most of you probably can’t. And it’s not that we use the platform daily, but we also spend a lot of time once we’re there. Which begs the question: why do we like it so much?

“What is it about this social-media platform that has taken over the world?” asked lead author Tom Robinson. “Why are people so willing to put their lives on display? Nobody has ever really asked the question, ‘Why do you like this?'”

“Social media is so ingrained in everything we do right now,” Boyle said. “And most people don’t think about why they do it, but if people can recognize their habits, that at least creates awareness.”

To find out, the team compiled a list of 48 statements designed to gauge potential reasons why people visit the platform. Participants were asked to sort these statements in a way that they felt reflected their personal connection to the ideas and then rate them on a scale from “least like me” to “most like me”. After this step, the researchers sat down for an interview with each participant to get a better understanding of why they ranked and rated the way that they did.

Based on the responses, the team says there are four main reasons — translated into four categories — why people hang out on the book: they’re either relationship builders, town criers, window shoppers, or the ever-present selfies. So let’s see what each of them does.

The book of (four) faces

Relationship builders are those who use the platform closest to its indented role: as an extension of their real-life social activity. They post, respond to others’ posts and use additional features primarily to strengthen existing relationships, to interact virtually with real-life friends and family. This group identified strongly with statements such as “Facebook helps me to express love to my family and lets my family express love to me.”

Town criers show a much larger decoupling of their real and virtual life. They’re less concerned with sharing content (photos, stories, other information) about themselves, but will put a lot of effort into informing others of the current events — much like the town criers of yore. You’ll likely spot this group reposting ZME Science, event announcements, or wording their opinion on something they feel strongly about. Beyond that, they’re likely to neglect their profiles and will keep tabs on family and friends through other means.

Window shoppers also use Facebook but rarely post personal information. But in contrast to town criers, co-author Clark Callahan says, these users “want to see what other people are doing. It’s the social-media equivalent of people watching.” They identify with statements such as “I can freely look at the Facebook profile of someone I have a crush on and know their interests and relationship status.”

Stalking funny.

Lastly, the selfies. This group mostly uses Facebook (can you guess?) for self-promotion. Like relationship builders, they’re very energetic posters of content — but unlike them, they do so in an effort to garner likes, comments, and for attention in general. Their end goal, the team says, is to craft and present a social image of themselves “whether it’s accurate or not.” This category identified with the statements such as “The more ‘like’ notification alarms I receive, the more I feel approved by my peers.”

Previous research into social media has explored users falling in the relationship-builder and selfie groups, but the town criers and window shoppers were a novel (and unexpected) find.

“Nobody had really talked about these users before, but when we thought about it, they both made a lot of sense,” Robinson adds.

If you’ve been trying to decide which group you fall into, the authors point out that it’s rarely an exact fit, and you likely identify with more than one category to some degree.

“Everybody we’ve talked to will say, ‘I’m part of this and part of this, but I’m mostly this,'” said Robinson, who calls himself a relationship builder.

The paper “I ♥ FB: A Q-Methodology Analysis of Why People ‘Like’ Facebook” has been published in the International Journal of Virtual Communities and Social Networking.


Dominant wasps hand out breaks when workers are scarce, become horrible bosses when they’re plentiful

A new study has found that wasps create complex social structures around the supply and demand of labor. Dominant and worker wasps will often compete with one another to get the best deal for their investment — be it work or admission to the nest.

Ahh, the smell of waspitalism in the morning.
Image credits Skeeze / Pixabay.

If humans and wasps have something in common, is that we both like to work little but get paid big. The finding comes from a University of Sussex School of Life Sciences team, which analyzed how paper wasps apply the mechanisms of supply and demand. Their society is centered around a dominant class of breeder wasps and ‘helpers’ which raise their offspring in return for acceptance into the nest and the group. But the breeders don’t just lord over the helpers — the two classes have to engage in a willing trade to get the shelter, or the labor, they need.

And where there’s trade, there’s competition.

The wasp is right

The study was carried out in southern Spain over a three-month period, during which the team marked and genotyped 1500 paper wasps. They also recorded the social behavior in 43 separate nests along a cactus hedge.

Then they started to toy with the number of nesting spots and potential nesting partners around the hedge. When this number increased, the team observed that helper wasps performed less labor for their breeder. Dominant wasps also compete between themselves in a way, trying to give the helpers the best deal — by allowing them to slack off — so they don’t leave the nest.

“Market forces can clearly affect trade agreements in nature, as they can in human markets: with a larger number of trading partners available, you can negotiate better trade deals,” said lead author Dr Lena Grinsted,

But when the number went down, worker wasps didn’t have as many options to chose from, and the dominant wasps allowed for fewer benefits.

This would be the first time that supply and demand theory is shown to shape helping behavior in social insects. Previously, it was believed that only internal factors such as the number of available helpers or relatedness drives these behaviors. By showing that external factors (such as the availability of work from outside sources) also plays a part, the team’s observations allow us to better understand and predict insect behavior in the future.

“It is remarkable to discover that simply changing the wasps’ surrounding social environment has a clear effect on cooperative behaviour within groups,” Grinsted added.

“Our findings reveal intriguing parallels between wasp populations and our own business world: a bad deal is better than no deal, so when competition increases so does the risk that you have to accept a lower price for what you offer.”

So what about you? Do you stay loyal to the hive through good and bad, or will you buzz away to the best deal as soon as possible?

The full paper “Market forces influence helping behaviour in cooperatively breeding paper wasps” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Monkey Business: Popular Girls Have Less Lice

It pays off to have many friends, especially if you’re a macaque.

Grooming is an important aspect of the macaque social structure. Photo by Noneotuho.

Lice infestations can be a huge problem for humans and animals alike. But it’s easier to get by with some help from your friends. For instance, popular macaque girls benefit from extra grooming from their friends. The more at the center of a social network a female is, the more grooming she gets, which reduces the number of lice on her body.

“We thought that since grooming is one of the most common types of contact that occurs between macaques, this behavior should facilitate the transmission of lice,” says lead author Julie Duboscq, who conducted the research at the University of Strasbourg and currently based at Kyoto University. “At the same time, grooming might also constrain the spread of lice because louse eggs are removed during grooming, which reduces future generations of lice.”

He and his colleagues observed grooming patterns and egg-picking to estimate how many lice each macaque had. They expected more grooming to equal fewer parasites, but this wasn’t nearly the case – the relationship between social status turned out to be more complex.

Basically, the more popular a macaque is, the more he or she interacts with others — which increases the likelihood of it getting new parasites.

“The link between sociality and parasitism is not always straightforward,” says Andrew MacIntosh, a senior author of the paper and a researcher at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute. “Increased centrality in social networks is often linked to increased parasite load and disease risk.”

In a previous study, they found that central females are more likely to suffer from intestinal worms, but in this case, the risk is mitigated by grooming.

The paper “Network centrality and seasonality interact to predict lice load in a social primate” appeared Feb. 26, 2016 in Scientific Reports, with doi: 10.1038/srep22095

The migration of the world's intellectuals traced back in history.

How culture migrated and expanded from city to city in the past 2,000 years

Using nothing but birth and death records, sociologists at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity  developed a working framework that details the migration patterns of some of humanity’s most notable intellectuals in North America and Europe in the past 2,000 years. The data allowed the researchers to iden­tify the major cul­tural cen­ters on the two con­ti­nents over two millennia. Rome, Paris, London and New York are some of the world’s prolific cultural centers in history.

A history of culture

The migration of the world's intellectuals traced back in history.

The migration of the world’s intellectuals traced back in history.

The researchers extensively relied on big datasets, like the Gen­eral Artist Lex­icon that con­sists exclu­sively of artists and includes more than 150,000 names and Free­base with roughly 120,000 indi­vid­uals, 2,200 of whom are artists. Using network tools and complexity theory, the researchers drew migration patterns that helped paint a broad picture of how culture converged and migrated from hub to hub, retracing the cultural narratives of Europe and North America.

“By tracking the migra­tion of notable indi­vid­uals for over two mil­lennia, we could for the first time explore the boom and bust of the cul­tural cen­ters of the world,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Pro­fessor of Net­work Sci­ence and director of Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “The observed rapid changes offer a fas­ci­nating view of the tran­sience of intel­lec­tual supremacy.”

For example, Rome was a major cul­tural hub until the late 18th cen­tury, at which point Paris took over the reins. Around the 16th century, in Europe at least, two distinct approaches could be identified:  countries with intellectual ‘monster hubs’ that attract a sub­stan­tial and con­stant flow of intel­lec­tuals (i.e.: Paris, France) and a more dispersed regime with cities within a fed­eral region (i.e.: Ger­many) com­peting with each other for their share of intel­lec­tuals, clearly outnumbered by the monster hubs but well above average, compensating in numbers.

Where culture goes to die

The dawn of the XXth century saw New York not only a bustling cultural center where many intellectuals would flock, but also a fantastic breeding ground where many notable figures of the time were born. Addi­tion­ally, loca­tions like Hol­ly­wood, the Alps, and the French Riv­iera, which have not pro­duced a large number of notable fig­ures, have become, at dif­ferent points in his­tory, major des­ti­na­tions for intel­lec­tuals, per­haps ini­tially emerging for rea­sons such as the location’s beauty or climate.

“We’re starting out to do some­thing which is called cul­tural sci­ence where we’re in a very sim­ilar tra­jec­tory as sys­tems biology for example,” said Schich, now an asso­ciate pro­fessor in arts and tech­nology at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Dallas. “As data sets about birth and death loca­tions grow, the approach will be able to reveal an even more com­plete pic­ture of his­tory. In the next five to 10 years, we’ll have con­sid­er­ably larger amounts of data and then we can do more and better, address more questions.”

Possibly the most interesting tidbit from the study is the fact that over the past eight centuries, the migration distance people have undertaken has not increased considerably, despite considerable transportation advancements (motor cars, trains) or extensive colonization. The findings seem to support Ernst Georg Ravenstein’s empirical findings based on the migration patterns he studied in the XIX century: most migrants do not go very far, those who do aim for big cities, urban centres grow from immigration far more than procreation, and so on.

The findings were reported in the journal Science. Below you can watch a beautiful time lapse video of how culture migrated in history.

Brain mapping of leisure suffering subjects. Image; Aron K. Barbey et al./BRAIN

General intelligence is rooted in social functions

After studying brain trauma in war veterans, scientists found that damage to key regions of the brain involved in social functioning led also affected general and emotional intelligence. The findings suggest that general intelligence – an underlying metric that influences all cognitive tasks – emerges from the social and emotional context of our lives.

“We are trying to understand the nature of general intelligence and to what extent our intellectual abilities are grounded in social cognitive abilities,” said Aron Barbey, a University of Illinois professor of neuroscience, psychology, and speech and hearing science.

Previously, social psychology studies found that general cognitive abilities may originate from our everyday social context. Since birth to adulthood, we are constantly involved in social interactions, be it with family or peers. Thus, there’s this idea that suggests that our ability to navigate the social world and establish relationships is actually primary to general intelligence development, and not the other way around.

[ALSO READ] How brain damage affects moral judgement

The social brain

The researchers studied 144 Vietnam war veterans whose brains had been penetrated by shrapnel or bullets, damaging distinct regions of the brain, but leaving neighboring regions intact. CT scans for each veteran were performed, then each damaged brain region was mapped out, as well as the brain network. Then, each veteran was surveyed using an extensive and complex set of questionnaires to assess their ability to a navigate intellectual, emotional or social realms.

Brain mapping of leisure suffering subjects. Image; Aron K. Barbey et al./BRAIN

Brain mapping of leisure suffering subjects. Image; Aron K. Barbey et al./BRAIN

Coupled with previous findings, the researchers write that the frontal cortex (at the front of the brain), the parietal cortex (further back near the top of the head) and the temporal lobes (on the sides of the head behind the ears) are all implicated in social problem solving.

“The evidence suggests that there’s an integrated information-processing architecture in the brain, that social problem solving depends upon mechanisms that are engaged for general intelligence and emotional intelligence,” Barbey said. “This is consistent with the idea that intelligence depends to a large extent on social and emotional abilities, and we should think about intelligence in an integrated fashion rather than making a clear distinction between cognition and emotion and social processing.”

The finding add further depth to the notion that we, as wholly social beings, have a brain architecture that is fundamentally social. Most of our day to day brain efforts are directed to solving social problems: interacting with friends and family, resolving conflicts and so on.  Findings were published in the journal Brain.