All families, happy or unhappy, have the same argument: parents accuse their children of not listening to them, and children say whatever. As a parent, it's hard not to be convinced that your offspring, as they grow up, are more likely to be influenced by their friends at school or by a celebrity on TV than by the people that raised them. The sad thing is, parents may well be right. But if it's any consolation, humans may not be the only primate of whom this is true.
One of the fundamental features of human interaction is that we follow each other's gaze. We do it instinctively and unthinkingly, whether we're in conversation with someone or passing someone in the street who is staring at the sky. Magicians know just how irresistible the pull of another person's gaze can be, and how to manipulate it. Gaze-following is one of the most important ways we keep track of what's going on in our immediate environment. It means we can share the work of vigilance; of getting the news from the world around us. Indeed, it may be that our eyes evolved a strong colour contrast - dark circles on a white backdrop - to help us follow each other's gazes.
Like humans (and many other animals), macaque monkeys notice when a member of their group turns to look at something, and then turn to see what's up. Two British scientists recently discovered something very interesting about the way macaques follow each other's gaze. Jerome Micheletta and his colleague Bridget Waller were paying close attention to the gap between a monkey noticing a change of gaze, and it turning to look in response. They found, to their surprise, that the time lag varied depending on who made the initial gaze. Macaques tend to team up in friendship pairs, to groom each other, pick off fleas, play backgammon, etc. When it was a family member or group leader doing the gazing, the macaque took its time about turning to look in the same direction. But when it was a friend doing the gazing, they followed the gaze immediately.
Micheletta and Waller aren't sure why this should be, and speculate that perhaps it's because macaques view their friends as more important than their family (this is undoubtedly what their mother would say). They think it might shed light on human behaviour but aren't sure what it means.
It made this non-scientist think of a well-established phenomenon in sociology: the strength of weak ties. In 1973 the sociologist Mark_Granovetter published a classic paper which found that people were nearly three times as likely to have found their job through a “personal contact” than through the official channels - an ad or a teacher or recruiter. Well, we all know it's who rather than what you know, but the really interesting part of Granovetter's paper was that 80% of those helpful personal contacts were people seen only 'occasionally' or 'rarely'. Using this and other examples, Granovetter built the theory of weak ties (other researchers have subsequently found further evidence for it). The people closest to us, including our family, aren't actually that useful as information sources, because we know them too well, and they know us too well, and we share the same information. When it comes to being informed about the world around us, we learn most from people who know us only a little. Sorry, mum.
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