Big Think Interview With Bonin Bough
Bonin Bough is the Director of Social Media at PepsiCo. He was previously the EVP and Director of Weber Shandwick's global interactive, social and emerging media practice, and was the founding member and SVP at Ruder Finn Interactive. His work has won a number of awards including a Webby, a Stevie, a Golden Pencil, a Sabre, a Big Apple, an AdTech, a Com Arts and a SxSW Viewers Choice award.
Question: What are the biggest challenges to doing social media the right way?
Bonin Bough: I think the toughest thing is, is stepping back away from your... I guess the sense that the organization would usually like to put out - which is messages, messages, messages – and stepping back and actually adding value, value, value. And then, you know, a good friend of mine talks about “How do we move from ads to apps?” So how do we move from advertising to people to providing services that they actually use. And conceptually, not that we're going to move all of our dollars into creating apps, but conceptually, how do we do that? I think that's tough. I think we have done I think a lot of things in the right way, I think some things in the wrong way, but the biggest thing is that we've learned and we've evolved.
So I think some of the biggest challenges are getting outside of your comfort zone, challenging your existing realities, and opening yourself up for innovation. So, a lot of the stuff that we've done, like our participation at digital events and the bringing of our entire teams down there from across the organization; legal, procurement, R & D, everybody to experience kind of what's the new thinking in the spaces, opened us up to this interesting curiosity around digital. We also have employees that blog internally around from all of these events so that the whole organization is sharing it – all the way to stuff like we're doing with PepsiCo Ten, which is opening ourselves up to partner and help that incubation process or that innovation process with emerging technology. So I think that's the toughest thing – open yourself up, challenge your existing realities, and don't be afraid to fail. You know, failure is a positive learning experience at best.
Question: Why is social media important for B2B companies?
Bonin Bough: I think B2B companies oddly have almost an even better opportunity because a lot of the stuff that they're selling either has a service component around it or additional information that's needed from folks in that space, so those kind of – even if you look at the deep tech community. The deep tech community was driving social media well before even the CPG's got into the game, and that's because there were a lot of questions on “How do I connect this diode?” or “If this chip isn't working, what's the...” you know. And so that fosters… so I think there's a lot of opportunity for all companies – different types. I think there might be, in some very small cases, a company that couldn't benefit from social media. But I think you have to weigh what the ultimate benefits are and identify where the real opportunity is. I think a lot of CBG companies – one of the biggest opportunities is they’re connecting with the folks that already love your brand and providing platforms for them to continue to bring their passions to life.
Question: What are some of the biggest mistakes you've made when it comes to social media?
Bonin Bough: Not going fast enough. No, I think the biggest mistakes we've made, I think we've... I think underestimating the resource requirements to have consistent conversation, but I think quickly we adjusted to that. And I think you see the scale of the programs that we're operating with require very large amounts of internal as well as external partner resources, but resources nevertheless. And so I think it's tough to say that that was a mistake as much as it was more of a learning experience that we quickly corrected moving forward.
But you know what's great about an organization our size is that you have every single person across the organization interested in bringing to life programs in the space, but you also have a huge opportunity to share knowledge. One of my biggest roles operating at a PepsiCo level is; how do we share knowledge? How do we lift and shift from one place to the other? How do we make sure that every single person is reading from or learning from what other people are doing across the organization? So I think that's been a big asset in our core, and we try very hard from social circle calls, to platforms, to Wiki's, to share... we try very hard to share those learnings from place to place.
Question: What advice do you have for startups looking to establish their social networking presence?
Bonin Bough: Look, the rule book is open, and you can write the rules whatever you want. So if you don't have the means to have a person on Twitter 24/7, then don't do it that way. Why is it follow Friday only happens on Friday? Why don't you just take...? Here's the two hours where we're going to talk to our community because that's all the resources that we can have. But we realize that building that community will lead to more sales, which ultimately will lead to three hours, and then four hours.
What's interesting is to see the community know that they're participating potentially – I'm just riffing – but to see the community see that they're actually potentially participating and bringing another hour of resources on board because they're actually purchasing or buying or engaging with your technology more. I think it's “How do you become creative around the resources that you have but also making sure that you're using the technology to drive the means or to drive the means or to drive the end at which you need to.
And I tell that to my team all the time, like – and when you see stuff that we do, like we have a Zeitgeist app, which tracks and provides data visualization of our conversation. It's a measurement platform by which we use across a lot of other places in the organization. But as an app, that app is only live when we're at physical events, and it's fine. We let the world know that that's the only time they're gonna see it. You can go there and see recent data, but the only time you're gonna see vibrancy there is when we're at these digital events. Now it might change later on, but we don't have the means to just—or just show these data visualizations for... So my point is, creativity, I think will go a long way to overcoming the means. But I don't know. Does that work? What do you think?
Question: How do you focus on building an audience on Facebook or Twitter and scaling it?
Bonin Bough: Community organizing is hard work. I guess if you do it well you can become president. But, I think community building is hard work, and I think there's a lot of lessons to be learned from some of the early pioneers like Guy Kawasaki building a community around - I still... I was like... I used to go to Mac user groups, but him building a community around email, around an email newsletter... or what the video game guys have done with building a community around video games – communities that are so vibrant that they can drop a video game into it and turn it into a billion-dollar blockbuster because they know who the alpha dogs are there. I think that that's the same kind of thing that you face when going into Facebook and Twitter.
On the fact of scale, I think that it's an interesting combination between using media dollars or techniques that are gonna get you reach in terms of eyeballs on your communities as well as finding what the right participation in that community or with that community is. It doesn't have to be conversation. I think that we as marketers right now are so nervous—or communicators—are so nervous about these channels that we haven't gone to experimentation, like … Some of the things that we've been talking about are just better giveaways on Twitter, or more promotion inside of our Facebook communities, a combination of digital... There's so much experimentation that we can do, and I think we have done a good job at that on some of our platforms, and on scaling I think there's a lot of other folks that have done really good jobs at that. I think the Starbucks folks, who are good friends of ours, have done a really great job at just wide-scale experimentation in the community – also tracking and measuring it.
So I think that's the other thing that we are dong well is that we look at “What's organic growth look like? What does fall-off look like? When we do X, Y, and Z how much of a burst does it have?” I think it's a combo... it's care and feeding, but you also need to have people who are dedicated to it because those are the people who learn how the community ebbs and flows. And who are the folks that are the major contributors. That's the skill set that I think still organizations – this community management thing – still organizations are just at the beginning of learning. Dell has, I think, done a really good on the forefront of doing that. We announced 'Mission Control,' which is the Gatorade mission control room – a glass room in the center of the marketing floor that tracks real-time data visualizations of conversation. But more importantly than that is that is there's a team of people in there that are dedicated to building these communities and learning how these communities operate and move. I think that's how you bring it to scale.
And the other piece I think that we haven't gotten to yet is the integration into all the rest of our marketing platforms. Why isn't our traditional ad saying “Hey, connect with us at Facebook.com or on Twitter?” You've seen and you see that organizations now are doing some of that stuff, but also even more than just the tagging of the back of the spot – providing what the value is. At our Facebook you will find an opportunity to connect with nutritionists - or whatever it is – and actually integrating it into what we're doing on all fronts. And that's when we're gonna see the scale come out because at the end of the day, Facebook is a big platform, but if you think of a company like PepsiCo – we're so big, we sell so many products every day – no platform is scaled. It's up to us to scale these things with the resources that we're using in all the places that we're using it if we truly believe there's a benefit behind community, which we do.
Question: How do you deliver deep connections with the social networks you create?
Bonin Bough: I think those deep connections are to continue to fulfill on the relationship that you've built, so it's one thing to get them there – it's another thing to keep them there. In some respects, for example on our corporate Facebook page, we have built an expectation that you're gonna hear some corporate news, you're gonna hear some stuff about brands, but what you're also gonna hear is quality information from the live events that we participate in. And that's... you can see our traffic spike or our usage pattern spike when we're delivering our recaps and on-the-spot information from those events.
And so I think really those deeper connections come from – and, again those deeper connections don't have to be somebody who is going to connect with you every single day. For us, it's telling people straight up and down, “Here's what you're gonna receive, and here's the times when we think you might want to be the most engaged because we're gonna be the most engaged with the community.” And we've seen folks come back, and back, and back... I think, talk about and highlight to us or speak back to us telling us that they're excited – those moments when we're on there, engaged. I think it's a clear promise of what you're gonna deliver – and then deliver on that. It's like any relationship, right? I guess, in a lot of respects. Like here's one: “Are you gonna be there for me? Yes or no?”
Question: Should business leaders be on Twitter?
Bonin Bough: If they want to do it, then they should do it. If they don't want to participate on Twitter, and they would rather participate on Facebook – whatever you feel comfortable or interested in... You look at a guy like Tony from Zappos – I mean, wow! How amazing has he been in terms of paving the path for forward-thinking CEO's on these type of platforms. But even more than that, what he's done to drive his business and the reputation. I think that we fail sometimes to realize how much reputation actually drives profitability of business; participation in purchase... reputation is so huge. These are huge reputational platforms for us, so I think once you start looking at it that way; I think it becomes a lot more advantageous potentially for CEO's. But I think it all boils down to, are you the type of CEO that's gonna be happy participating in this and find it a joy versus a must-do? That's the last thing you want is ...ugh... I can imagine how - I get a lot of emails. I can only imagine. And then you have to, if you're not passionate about it, have to check that too? That's not fun.
Question: What was PepsiCo’s social media strategy when you arrived?
Bonin Bough: So I arrived at PepsiCo, so I'm just saying it's not just necessarily Pepsi. Look, it's a rare opportunity to have the chance to work with such amazing communicators and marketers, and I feel very blessed, again, to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants. I mean, this was an organization... Pepsi, specifically, under John Vail's leadership built one of the first websites for a consumer packaged goods company. I mean it's crazy to even think that. It's an 18-20 year lineage of amazing digital programming, or initiatives.
Part of it – the first big piece, I think, was how do we think about what the next evolution looks like, and how do we do that in partnership with all the folks that are already – have been at this organization or at this organization. So that was the first step. The real big strategy was less about “What's the big strategy?” and more about what are the small wins? How do we prove ourselves in two places? How do we prove ourselves internal to the organization that these are viable platforms and then proven successes that can be blown out. And I talk about this, start small, be big, you know at the end of the day. I think that that's crucial as well as, how do we prove ourselves to the communities?
And I think, honestly, as crazy as it sounds, the first part of that community that we have to prove ourselves were to the folks that are the experts, or whatever you want to say. Those folks that are the most critical about what companies are doing because we wanted to get their feedback and tell them we were open for collaboration. A lot of those things started with like a south by southwest. We didn't go there about being flashy, and we still to this day... I've been to the event; I met my girlfriend there six, seven years ago. I don't even know if it's six years. Don't tell her I said, I didn't know. It holds a personal thing to me, but I also remember what it was like for those six years going there and... the point is we tried to go there, earn our way there, and provide a lot of value there, and I think that that's what we've done in this space overall is just continue to earn all of the participation and collaboration that we have from the folks in the space. That was part of the... and then at the same time we did that internally, which was earn a reason to believe in a lot of these channels.
Now having said that, it hasn't been that hard because the organization in general is just one of the most innovative organizations that I've had a chance to work with across even when I was on the agency side and so very open to innovation and change. I think a lot of people don't realize is how innovative food and beverage companies have to be in the first place in terms of product creation, package design, marketing – you name it. So what's the difference between applying that same innovation strategy, which is hopefully we'll talk a little bit more about PepsiCo Ten – what we do in PepsiCo Ten, which is the same innovation that has driven the organization. Well, these are just new channels that we're gonna talk to consumers in. Why wouldn't we be innovative? Why wouldn't we be at the front of that and taking risks like we do in our business in general?
Question: Why did you decide to focus on “refresh” instead of other marketing efforts?
Bonin Bough: Well, I think it wasn't a focus on one thing. In part, what it was, was focused efforts around driving the messages that 'refresh' was trying to deliver, which was this sense of optimism and the fact that we were backing the passions of our consumers and helping them refresh their communities. I think that that was important to deliver that message in the way that we did, and a lot of it in earned and digital media – in part because it was really about having a conversation. There was a whole mechanism of voting, campaigning, and all those pieces of which I'm sure the audience knows. It was important to deliver those messages in the channels because it was about having these conversations with people and asking them. Ultimately, we were asking people, “How would you refresh your world? What...?” So, when you see all the dialogue that happens – it's an amazing campaign – when you see all the dialogue that happens continuously around the channels, in the space in general, you can – you get this- and we – even more than that, let’s go off digital.
When you talk to the people who are participating – I was at an event, somebody came up to me, and they had a pocket full of stickers that they were sticking around that was telling people to go vote for their program on 'refresh.' Or the head of media, Seth Kaufman, who partnered with us on PepsiCo Ten, talks about a postcard he got in the mail, which was from a person who was running a 'refresh' program. And when we talk to them, we talk to the folks and how passionate they are about the chance to bring their idea to life. That changes you as an individual and makes you realize how great it is to be a part of a program like that. So I wouldn't say it was about focusing necessarily on one thing from a brand perspective, although that was the DNA of our major push. It was more about focusing on getting that message out there in a credible way, in a way that would resonate with consumers and that would continue to show them that we're aligned with their passion.
Question: What does it mean to create a movement instead of a moment?
Bonin Bough: It's about sharing – having a shared vision or reason with them that is gonna carry on over time, and I think that's what you've seen. So every single month you have a thousand new people who are out there campaigning for their idea, and that's very powerful. Again, the same exact story that I told... so ultimately, I think what we've created is a movement of people driving to do good with inside their community. And that's really what we were going after.
Again, I think it's amazing when you see – we have an employee who—well, one internally... right ...global language project, and they won a 50K grant. And just to show you the passion that they had. First, I got the emails every single day: vote, vote, vote, vote, vote... so I can imagine what all of the other Americans around the country are. And it was exciting to get that email and also exciting to know... because she would tell us where they were and where they think they were in the rankings, what, you know, “Hey, continue to vote for me.” It's interesting because she's now convening a bunch of other Pepsi winner or 'refresh' and Chase grant winners together to have a conversation about how to build strategies around participating in these types of events. She's so passionate about bringing the success that they've had to other organizations. So I think that – Look, if that's not a movement, I really don't – I mean, I don't know what is, then. What can I say?
Recorded June 18, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown
A conversation with the Global Director of Digital and Social Media for PepsiCo.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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