Review by Lydia Hales
There’s something wonderful about dipping yours toes into a world someone else is so passionate about: to be immersed in the stories and research they have spent years of their life tracking down.
Susan Pinker will plunge you into this world: one full of subtle yet seemingly inescapable connections that – as you will learn – have such impacts on our lives.
The beginning of Pinker’s book sets the tone for how she will continue throughout the whole volume: by introducing us to a character, sharing an obstacle they faced, and then explaining how their own ‘village effect’ shaped their outcome. Each mini case study is then expanded on with reference to studies that have shown similar effects.
The strength that our interaction with other human beings has over our lives and health is intriguing, and the book moves through a varied progression of ways in which face-to-face contact is so influential in our lives – from friendship to recovery from illness, child-rearing and the intrusions of technology.
Pinker writes well, and presents the evidence for each section with engaging and often humorous anecdotes, which might have been difficult considering the frequency of the words ‘cancer’ and ‘death’ in the pages.
But this is not a good book to read if you’re feeling any guilt over declining social invitations for some me-time. Though Pinker does note that everyone has different ‘affection’ requirements and that each person’s loneliness threshold differs, the overall message seems to be that having a support network really will boost development, life satisfaction, and longevity.
Our need for others, and conversely our susceptibility to the influences of others is so far-reaching that there’s probably not an aspect of our lives that it won’t affect. And so these wonderful forms of connection begin to feel almost pervasive, and exhausting after being told so many times how essential an extensive and well-maintained social network is.
Pinker makes frequent reference to the ‘messiness’ involved in studying certain aspects of human behaviour and drawing definitive conclusions from specific factors, while always being wary of the ‘correlation doesn’t equal causation’ argument, but many of the studies cited have taken place over generations, and accounted for multiple factors. So even if you think you’re happier with your loft apartment and game of solitaire, you could be missing out on a whole suite of benefits that come from strong emotional connections, and by extension, the connections and knowledge that they bring you in times of need.
By halfway, I was fighting the overwhelming desire to shut myself in my room and turn off my phone out of spite.
Taking the book too much to heart will run the slight risk of making social interaction – something typically regarded as enjoyable, depending on your company – feel like taking your medicine. I definitely didn’t want to find myself listening to a friend’s problems while secretly revelling in the health benefits the emotional bonding was giving us.
That’s not to say that all social interactions are beneficial. Certainly, there are the various hormonal ‘treats’ that circulate in your body when you get a hug, hear your mother’s voice, and form long and lasting relationships. But the impact of your friend’s waistlines on your own (and vice versa), or the same brain areas that register physical pain being activated during social exclusion, are less uplifting, though fascinating, insights provided by the book.
In feeling anything but fascination for the book, I had to remember the perspective I’m skewed by, being part of a Western culture that values independence – and where being too heavily reliant on anyone is, to some extent, viewed as weakness. But as Pinker references, again and again, ‘no man is an island,’ and this appears to hold particularly true for women.
Most importantly, The Village Effect does go a long way in making you feel wonderful about being human. In a certain light, it’s almost relieving to have your reactions placed so well in the context of animal behaviour, and things outside your control. While that may seem terrifying in some ways, reminders that we’re not as clinical and logical as we like to think can be rather comforting. We need each other, and we thrive on the specific kinds of interactions that not only naturally feel good, but are also ‘good’ for us as well.
[Publisher supplied a copy for an honest review of the book]
Lydia Hales is a science writer at Science in Public and freelance science/health journalist. She has been published by ABC Science, ABC Health & Wellbeing, Australian Geographic, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
When she isn’t reading or writing about science she’s probably reading or writing about something else.