STRANGE BUT TRUE
Q: When Massachusett’s Institute of Technology doctoral candidate Ben Weber outfitted 80 bank operators with palm-size sensors to wear around their necks as they worked, he was clearly up to something important. Such as what?
A: The sensors tracked who talked with whom and for how long, giving Weber and company executives hard numbers on how important social interactions are in employees’ happiness and productivity, says Adam Piore in Discover magazine. Monitored as well were workers’ location, tone of voice and other telling details. Weber found that bankers belonging to small tight-knit groups that interacted frequently were not only happier but got more work done, shared ideas faster, and divvied up tasks more efficiently. He also found he could predict changes in bankers’ job satisfaction with up to 60 percent accuracy.
One critical tweak Weber uncovered related to coffee in the workplace. Better group cohesion can be promoted by better cross-talk among groups. “For example, changing the numbers and locations of communal coffee pots can have unexpectedly profound effects: To get two groups talking to each other, the ideal location for a coffee pot is between them; putting the java in the middle of a group, on the other hand, can help build internal cohesiveness.”
Q: What two things in your everyday life are exactly one “astronomical unit” or AU, apart?
A: Often used in astronomy, 1AU is the measure of the distance between the sun and the earth, or from the center of the sun to the center of the earth, with the distance averaged over one year. It equals about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers, or the distance light travels in about eight minutes.
This unit also can be useful for “normal” people trying to understand the relative distances within our own solar system, which can seem overwhelming when expressed in miles or kilometers, according to Brendan McGuigan at www.wisegeek.com. Using astronomical units makes it much easier: “For example, while the earth is 1AU away from the sun, the moon is only 0.0026AU away from the earth. And while Jupiter, which we think of as being quite far away, is just over 5AU from the sun, Pluto is a whopping 30 to 50AU away. And if that seems like a long way, consider that the nearest star to our own solar system is 270,000AU away.”
Q: Rival sides in human conflicts may liken each other to “vermin” or “pests to be exterminated,” leading to outbreaks of “bestial savagery.” Yet, according to the Human Mind Project, what is wrong with this sort of animalistic thinking?
A: Alas, we humans are well known for grouping each other according to how we look, where we live or what we believe, denying those outside our own group “their shared humanity,” say the editors of New Scientist magazine. It seems the tendency to see others as less than fully human is deep-seated in our psyches — “dismayingly easy to trigger.”
Yet far from being a reversion to animal roots, this tendency may be uniquely human. According to cognitive neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese speaking at the launch of the Human Mind Project, “I don't think that we have any evidence that any other living animal is able to negate the status ... of another individual belonging to the same species.” The ability to deny another person's humanity is “probably one of the worst spin-offs of language.”
Understanding this, we can learn how to make groups more inclusive or can help former enemies work toward reconciliation. As the magazine editors put it, “Remembering our shared humanity is the best way to guard against those who would deny it.”
Send questions to brothers Bill and Rich Sones at email@example.com.