Peter Bearman is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics and Professor of the Social Sciences at Columbia University, NYC. As a leading sociologist he has made important contributions to the social sciences, trying to disentangle how social networks affect different social dynamics.
His work has been recognized with several awards such as the prestigious National Institute of Health Director’s Pioneer Award, and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. This interview was conducted in connection to a talk that Bearman gave at an IAS-symposium on May 31, 2018 in Norrköping.
Peter Bearman, welcome to Sweden! You arrived in Norrkoping yesterday. What made you come all this way to Sweden and what are you doing here?
- Thank you, I’m glad to be here. I came because Peter Hedström has this amazing Institute for analytical sociology and because this is the week for the Institute’s annual symposium. Peter and I were colleagues many years ago and now was a good opportunity to connect with him. We also have several common interests in analytical sociology.
The disciplines in social sciences were formed during the 19th century ago and a lot has happened since. What do you think about sociology today – is it still a well-defined discipline and what role does it have in society and in comparison, to other scientific disciplines.
"The beauty of sociology is that it’s very hard to define", says Peter Bearman. Foto: Per Wistbo Nibell- The beauty of sociology is that it’s very hard to define. There really are no limitations of how you can examine things and no restrictions on what you can investigate. In that way you can say that sociology is a total garbage discipline. It’s just rich with opportunities. I think that we are doing the most interesting work of all the social sciences. For example, if you look at certain innovations in economics, they first started in sociology. The idea of networks which is starting to be transformational for economics also originates within sociology.
- So, I think that we’re a rich discipline with incredible possibilities because we’re not bound by a fixed paradigm.
You are mostly known as an expert on social network-analysis and one of the leading researchers behind the analytical sociology movement What is your view of these two scientific disciplines today? Are they still important and seminal or are there other areas that will mean more to the social sciences in the future?
- The study of social networks I think is still extremely important. Maybe it's even getting more important, partly because now we’re able to capture, visualize and measure the rich inner connections between people. We have always known that they shaped people’s behavior but we could not capture how. Now that we have computational capacity to really understand how people are embedded in different social worlds, I think that we really can understand human behavior better.
- Analytical sociology is a movement that has both soft and hard edges. On the soft side, where I would be located, it’s a movement that says we must think about a sociology that accounts for outcomes as arising from specific mechanisms. It is a movement that insists that we need have a clear idea of how things happened, rather than, for example, a simple statistical regression estimate which report how variables are associated with one another. On the hard end you find people who are more committed to a set of dispositions, desires, that they would like to work with. As a way of thinking more and more of sociology is becoming analytical because there is a lot of power of description, but at a certain point you must try to figure out how to explain how things unfold.
You have worked in several different fields during your career – social networks, adolescent health and ethnographic studies of doorman, just to mention three examples – what are your main areas of interest today?
"I’ve always been interested in the fabric of social life", says Peter Bearman. Foto: Per Wistbo Nibell- For me, in these examples, I think it's the same basic problem, but a problem approached from different angels. I’ve always been interested in the fabric of social life. Now I’m working much more with what could be called cognitive social neuroscience. I’m especially interested in whether we can identify neural signatures of the characteristic features of human social structures. In all human societies we have differences in status, that’s a constant feature of our species, and we also see the emergence of tightly knit bonds between two people, so called dyads. All societies are also characterized of what we call transitivity, for example that a friend of a friend is a friend and an enemy of an enemy is a friend.
- So, when all societies have these features, I’m interested in examining whether we can detect their foundation through neural scans. The reason I think that you should be able to do so is that our brains evolved to solve a number of critical social problem. With our called social brains we should be able to design studies to discover such neural signatures. So that’s what I have been working a lot with.
In your talk here in Norrköping you have presented findings that link popularity and liking to neural precursors in the brain – yes, even that certain responses make it possible to predict future liking and disliking. It sounds fascinating. Can you tell us a little bit more about that research?
- The talk concentrates on the fact that a characteristic feature of society is that some people get more attention and are more popular than others. You see it in high schools, clubs, everywhere. We designed a study where group members were exposed to images of each other in a scanner and in which the scanner captured their neural responses that they had to one another. Whether or not a person likes another person, more activity in the brain will be stimulated if he sees a person who is popular. The reason that these areas in the brain are activated is that these people can help us achieve certain goals that are important to us. So, in the study we saw a neural foundation for a phenomenon that is everywhere, the fact that we orientate our self differently towards popular people.
- With respect to predicting future popularity we talked about just one aspect. We’ve studied the neural trait of self-enhancement, the reward someone gets from looking at oneself in contrast to others. People who are narcissistic are extremely attractive to other people initially, we are drawn to them because they are confident, but over time they will be unpopular and eventually leave the group. We have longitudinal data where we study groups that come together and how their social structure transforms over time.
What are the most important results in this research?
Peter Bearman during his talk at the IAS symposium. Foto: Per Wistbo Nibell- That we found neural signatures for status is an important finding. That we can predict from a neural scan who someone is going to like five months from now - that our minds can tell us who we are going to like in the future - that is also an important finding. And then, maybe even more interesting, that who we are going to like in the future is as strongly influenced by our neural response to the other person as it is by their neural response to us.
- The fact is that liking is a truly interpersonal process that requires two sides. We all experience it, but now we see the neural signatures of this. No one has ever seen this before.
During the talk I got the impression that you yourself were surprised?
- I was. I think neuroscience already have shown that the neural responses in a person who for example likes Coca-Cola would be elevated if he saw a Coca-Cola can, and for that reason not surprisingly would buy Coca-Cola instead of Pepsi. What we couldn’t understand and what was very surprising to us is that the neural response of other persons actually is the critical factor in shaping bonds. It’s almost as if the Coca-Cola can wanted to be consumed. . . I think what we discovered is revolutionary in the sense that we now can see what humans do when they create bonds of different kinds and that that requires the active neural engagement of two sides.
- Whether or not two people know consciously that that they like each other or not, we saw their neural responses to each other. You might say I don’t like this guy, but your neural response is independent and may even predict your future behavior. We can see how the brain reacts to another person and that that reaction predicts an affective state months later.
In other words, it can take some time to realize what the brain in a sense already knows?
- Yes. But we actually don’t know if it’s because you’re actively oppressing your emotions, maybe you don’t like me because I remind you of your mother, or the other way around, but you won’t let it show. Or you can meet a guy and think that you should like that person, and then you try to like him. We can see that the linking of your neural understanding, your explicit understanding and your conscious understanding whether you like someone or not, take some time.
What are the main research areas in the future, what questions remain to be answered?
The IAS seminar at Villa Fridhem outside of Norrköping. Foto: Per Wistbo Nibell- Well, we have been working with very small groups. I think that someone else should replicate what we have done with more groups. We know that there are really important differences in how people interact regarding the size and complexity of groups and so for us the next step is to expand the research into a more realistic setting. I hope that we’ll be able to work with groups where people have been together for a very long time, say 20, 30 or 40 years, and where the relations are more complicated. We’re curious whether we can find neural signatures that lay deeper than the ones we have discovered so far. That is the research we are in the process of setting up.
Considering your stress on the importance of brain and biology, is there any place for culture and society in our understanding of us as human beings?
- Yes, absolutely. The beautiful thing is that if you find a neural response to a certain behavior you also see proof of social influence.
- In our data we see that the brain organizes social relations - as hanging out, gossiping, liking - quite differently than it organizes instrumental relations - as asking someone for help. But culture then messes this up. Real people interact with different groups, they ask their friends for advice for example. When you compare how the brain organizes things and how culture organizes them, you see the power of culture. Liking, for example, is also a totally different thing in the US compared to Japan or other countries.
So, culture is still important?
- Absolutely. This kind of work is always misunderstood. People see is as reductive, as getting away from the person to the gene or to the neuron . . . But what it tells us is the importance of social life.
Finally, a question that has nothing to do with science, can you tell us a little about the person Peter Bearman.
"Liking is a truly interpersonal process that requires two sides." Foto: Per Wistbo Nibell- Well, I live in New York, married to a woman who has a second career as a psychoanalyst. A lot of my interest in the human brain comes from discussions with her. My wife is Italian and says that NYC is the only place in the world where she doesn’t feel like a stranger. I think there’s something very true in that – NYC is an extremely rich and friction-filled environment that actually works. I also have three grown-up kids, none of them social scientists, but all fascinating.
I heard that you’re interested in cycling and had a wild idea of taking the bike from Norrköping to Stockholm.
- Well, it didn’t seem so wild at the time. I know it’s 220 kilometers and I would have spent a couple of days, but there weren’t any bikes for rent in Norrköping. That’s a little strange I think.
- I like cycling. In Manhattan I ride my bike everywhere and I also take longer rides. In Manhattan we now have some dedicated bike-paths and car-drivers are slowly becoming aware that they just can’t open their doors without notice. So, in that sense we are becoming more civilized, a little bit like in Sweden. In NYC that is, I didn’t say America.