Social Limits are Real: they can End (or Save) your Life

(cross-posted in revised form from an ongoing column for the Kennebec Journal)

Part I: No Limits?

As part of my work in social media research, I follow the Twitter accounts of Maine’s elected officials, studying patterns in their public communications.

I wasn’t surprised to see graduation messages from Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, in my feed this month; ’tis the season, after all, and local officials are regularly invited to speak.Maine State Representative Justin Chenette writes, "The only limitations, are the ones we set for ourselves

“The only limitations, are the ones we set for ourselves.”

“You can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

Ideas like these are commonly asserted: during the first half of the month of June 2016, the phrase “no limits” was posted to Twitter at a rate of more than 100 times per hour. That’s understandable.  The idea of no limits in life, of a plain of possibilities open wide before us, is a hopeful idea. It’s an inspiring idea.  It’s a popular idea.

Unfortunately, it’s also an incorrect idea.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to issue two challenges. If there really are no limits in life, try:

• Heading to Baxter State Park here Maine, then walking straight through the base of Mount Katahdin.

• Jumping so high into the sky that you launch yourself into orbit, without assistive technology.

No matter how much you wish, no matter how hard you try, you can’t accomplish these acts. We are all limited by laws of physics. Due to electromagnetic repulsion, you can’t walk through rock. Your legs just can’t generate enough kinetic energy to overcome the force of Earth’s gravity. Ignoring these limits can kill you.

Just as there are laws of physics, there are social laws that set limits in society. Consider the following image of a social network, in which circles represent people and lines represent relationships between them:

A spcial network of minority blues and majority reds

As you can see, there are two groups of people in this network: reds and blues. Sociologist Peter Blau considered the rate of “outgroup association” (the percent of all relationships by group members to people outside the group) and discovered a law: that smaller groups have a higher rate of outgroup association than larger groups.

The reds in the network have five relationships, two of which are to non-reds. 2/5 = 60 percent. The blues in the network have 10 relationships, two of which are to non-blues. 2/10 = 20 percent.

Go ahead, add and subtract as many ties from this network as you wish. You can’t make the pattern go away. It’s an inescapable law.

So what? Why does this social law matter? Stop thinking about reds and blues and start thinking about numerical minorities: women in male-dominated corporate boardrooms, immigrants in native-born communities, or black people in majority-white America. Due to math alone, no matter how much you wish it to be otherwise, such minorities will have contact with majority members more often than majorities have contact with minorities.

Because of this pattern, minority groups must devote more energy to knowing the habits of two cultures just to get by. The stakes for failure can be high. A woman who ignores male culture in the boardroom can lose a job. An immigrant who can’t speak the language loses business. When northerner Emmett Till whistled at a white woman in the South, he lost his life.

This is one social law, one inescapable limit among many in society. A sense of limitless potential may feel good to this year’s crop of graduates, but if that feeling is untempered by a reality check, the outcomes can be disastrous.

Part 2: Deadly Friendships

Sociology’s laws are subtler than the laws of physics, but they’re no less deadly.

For another example of sociological laws and their consequences, let’s consider Feld’s Law. Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true.

To show you what I mean, we’ll look at another social network.  In this network, circles indicate people and lines indicate friendships between them:

A simple social network used to demonstrate Scott Feld's maxim regarding friendship among friends.

Some people in this network, like Carol, have more friends than others, like Hal.  Popularity and unpopularity is a normal part of human social life.

Also, some members of this network are friends with very friendly people; Don’s friends have 3.5 friends of their own on average (Carol with 4 friends, Ed with 3). On the other hand, the average friend of Carol has just 2.25 friends (Al, Betty and Don with 2 friends each, and Gina with 4).  That sort of variation shouldn’t be too surprising either.  But as Feld found, things get strange when we consider the overall trend.

Take a look at the table below, which shows the results for each person as well as the overall average for all people. The average person in our network has 2.5 friends. The average person’s average friend has 2.9 friends. That’s exactly the sort of result that Feld’s law predicts.

A table adding up friends, friends of friends, and averages for each of these in a social network.

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing not just the state of Maine where I work but significant swaths of the North American continent more broadly. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

If you’re thinking of sharing a needle, Feld’s law tells us that on average, the people you share needles with share needles with more people than you do. Feld’s law tells us that on average, the people with which you have unprotected sex have unprotected sex with more people than you do. This means that even if you share a needle just once, even if you have unprotected sex just once, your chances of catching a killer virus are disproportionately high.

Understanding invisible social laws are crucial for getting by in life because they provide guides for safe and unsafe behavior, just as physical laws guide us while we climb a mountain or skirt a rooftop. When you support research to uncover sociological laws, the benefits aren’t abstract. Understanding how society works can save a life — and that life could someday be your own.