The “human scale” factor: Is declining face-to-face interaction ruining America?

by Ryan Streeter on April 30, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

In a fascinating weekend book excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, “neuroeconomist” Paul Zak describes how acts of trust prompt releases of the chemical oxytocin, which in turn prompts more acts and feelings of trust, generosity, and mutual help. Zak’s forthcoming book follows on the heels of Jon Haidt’s excellent The Righteous Mind, which has sparked renewed interest in the psychology of morality. The two books together do a lot to advance our understanding of social capital and how moral decisions and actions come about.

At the end of the WSJ excerpt, Zak postulates something interesting:

With worries on the rise about the country’s cultural and political divisions, some bottom-up boosts of oxytocin, based on face-to-face interaction, could help. It might take the form of a domestic student-exchange program, allowing kids from the big cities and small-town, rural kids to get to know one another. The revitalization of urban life, with its varied and crosscutting relationships, is a step in the right direction, too. One city going in the opposite direction is Washington, D.C., where fraternizing across party lines—once the norm—is nearly unheard of these days. Acrimony on Capitol Hill reflects, in part, these oxytocin-starved relationships.

There’s something to this.

There is an age-old school of thought that holds that moral behavior is impossible – or at least highly unlikely – if we are not embedded in human scale relationships in which we learn how to trust, give, sacrifice and contribute to a good beyond ourselves. The school of thought was best articulated as a coherent worldview by the 18th century Scottish writers who spent a lot of time and ink writing about moral sentiments. Adam Smith and David Hume are the best-known among them, but moral sentiment theory was more broadly embraced by a wide range of writers and thinkers.

At its core, moral sentiment theory holds that moral obligations are formed by the workings of sympathy, which is always stronger in face-to-face settings. One simple way to make the point is to imagine the difference between witnessing a child being assaulted 20 feet from you in a park and reading out it on page A23 of the newspaper. The face-to-face experience drives you into action (hopefully), whereas reading about it will evoke feelings of disgust, but they will be much milder than in the park and won’t likely prompt you to jump up and react. Likewise, volunteering in an after-school program at a church in a distressed neighborhood is more likely to enable you to sympathize with the plight of poor children in another country – even to the point of giving money to organizations that help them – than reading about those children in a story in the Economist.

Sentiment theory has been updated through works like The Moral Sense, by the late, great James Q. Wilson, and it can be found in principle in quirkier works like Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Human Scale. It also forms the basis of the more thoughtful treatments among conservatives (Russell Kirk’s works being a prime example) about why hearth and home, local parishes, and other local institutions of civil society call for a robust federalism rather than a robust statism.

Zak’s speculation that more face-to-face interaction would be a good thing for America  seems increasingly indisputable the more we learn from new research on moral behavior. Policymakers have from time to time tried to figure out how human scale civil society can inform policy through more decentralization and devolution, but I think we’re at a point where the most important renewal of human scale life will come through culture and commerce, or through the intentionality of civil society leaders such as pastors, educators, and enlightened business owners.