“The Village Effect”: Importance of Face-to-Face Social Contact

Critics note that although it’s not a new idea (Kirkus Reviews: “certainly not groundbreaking”), The Village Effect (2014), written by developmental psychologist Susan Pinker, does effectively show readers that social contact is a hard-wired need—and when that need is fulfilled, it improves lives.

Diane Cole, Psychotherapy Networker, explains the interesting origins of Pinker’s “village effect”:

She coined that term after visiting the Sardinian hilltop town of Villagrande Strisaili, a community of about 3,500 that boasted among its native-born inhabitants about 10 times the number of men living past 100 than anywhere else in the world, including eight men who’d reached the age of 110. The secret to their longevity, she discovered, was twofold. The first was genetic—the passing down from the town’s founding families on through the generations of a rare gene variation that promotes health and longevity in men. That foundation is important, to be sure. Yet studies show that genetic factors usually account for no more than 25 percent of the age equation. That’s where the second factor comes in: the strong, vibrant real-time, face-to-face social ties of village life.

How central was belonging to an actively interconnected, caring community of family and friends? On a behavioral level, ‘every centenarian we met was surrounded by a tight web of kith and kin,’ an unending parade of people stopping to converse, cook, provide personal care, a kiss on the cheek, Pinker observes. On a statistical level, she cites a research review of 158 longitudinal studies that examined relationships and adult mortality. ‘Those who experienced various kinds of social contact increased their odds of survival—not just by a little, but by 91 percent,’ she writes. ‘A person who sustained different kinds of relationships was more likely to live a long life than one who had lost a lot of weight, had flu shots, quit smoking, or breathed unpolluted air.’

Though fascinating, it’s no likely true that without actually reading The Village Effect, many of us get the point already. Kirkus Reviews: “…(T)he thrust of the book squares with all that’s intuitive: It’s good to play (birds and bees both do it), it’s good to play with others of our kind, and it’s better to play than to watch TV…Indeed, the chief flaw of Pinker’s book is its lack of surprises in making its I-told-you-so conclusions…”

On the other hand, adds Kirkus, “(I)t’s…entertaining and instructive to read about such things as menstrual synchrony and human-stampede–induced bridge wobbling.”

In a similar vein, Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe, asserts, “That [Pinker’s] point is fairly obvious doesn’t diminish its importance; smart readers will take the book out to a park to enjoy in the company of others.”  

And Publishers Weekly emphasizes what we don’t already know and thus can learn:

…(T)he biological effects that come from the community, and daily interactions with friends, partners, and parents are much less familiar. Pinker examines the benefits (and quirks) of these interactions, from development during breast-feeding to conversion disorder, and then repositions these findings to an age mediated by computer screens. In a time of constant visual entertainment and digital communication, ‘screens just don’t do the trick’—they can’t compete with the emotional signaling and modeling of face-time. Educational videos have no significant effect on a toddler’s language skills, and text messages of support have none of the mood elevating benefits of a phone call. Pinker’s book ends with practical tips to make room for community and contact in life, and serves as a hopeful, warm guide to living more intimately in an disconnected era.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *