Most people do not want war in their backyard.  In geopolitics, people claim to love their neighbor but they still prepare to fight; Switzerland, the home of neutrality, still has hundreds of forts built into their mountains and young men are required to own a gun(1). 

It isn't just military aspects.  In American academia, there has been a 25 year shift in political representation so now, with few conservative neighbors, it is easy to ridicule Republicans, conservatives or anyone not part of the ruling demographic.  It is easy because there is no 'neighbor' to look the attackers in the eye or even punch them in it. This neighbor effect is why welcoming liberals keep quiet as kooky progressives make every issue where there are representation differences about gender bias, stereotype threat or some other made up sociological term. It keeps the peace. 

Some psychologists claim 'love thy neighbor' may actually be hard-wired into our brains.  Now, before you bristle at the notion that psychologists can tell us anything at all about neuroscience, please recognize that these psychologists gleaned their results by watching a TV show. Take that, evolutionary biologists.

Loving thy neighbor is not a new idea, it has been known since having neighbors originated.  In the 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of famous experiments and found people were less likely to give electric shocks to a person in the same room than to people in another room.  Milgram concluded it was not just a neighbor effect but that authority figures held an unnatural sway over people, even making them commit ethical violations they would claim not to do.   Independent people recognize this danger in social authoritarianism today - if they can come for your Big Gulps and your goldfish, they can train you to agree to turn on anyone in the interests of public good just by invoking their authority.

Modern psychologists can't perform electric shocks, even the Milgram experiment simulated kind,  on people - well, they can if they are being funny in "Ghostbusters... they rely on surveys of college undergraduates and, when that is too much work, reality television.

"The Weakest Link" television program, says Dr Paul Goddard and his students from the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, is an example of 'forced choice decision-making' and therefore a social laboratory to examine how subject-specific bias can influence choices. If you are not familiar with it, "The Weakest Link" involves a team of contestants who answer questions and each 'chain' of consecutive correct answers earns more money for the communal pot.  At the end of each round, the 'weak link' in the chain of contestants is eliminated.  It seems easy to assume that more money is gained by having the smartest people remain but that is not the goal - the goal is to gain the most money for yourself, so that means a different strategy is sometimes needed.  But can it be neighbor bias when you are with a group of people you may never see again?


To determine this 'proxemic bias', they watched 72 episodes of the show and created what they believed was a metric for how votes should fall based on probability and distance and then noted how the votes for elimination fell in reality. Obviously getting a vote is a negative so it was easy to determine the relationship based on distance, provided you bought into their standard for how likely the closer people were to get a vote.  Contestants were less likely to vote for their direct neighbor, which the viewers attributed to 'the neighbor avoidance effect' - yet the voting was much stronger when everyone, close or far, felt the candidate was weak.  Regardless, they still call it 'bias'.

Even odder bias; women voted more against women than men, if their spatial probability benchmark was accurate. So women prefer men as neighbors and will vote off women to get that, whereas men are on a much higher cultural plane and are more fair on who they vote off?

Sure, you can believe that, if you can also believe psychologist claims that liberals have prettier daughters, we are hard-wired to like a certain kind of car grill and people with messy offices are racist.

In other words, some methodology skepticism is warranted, even if you are inclined to believe watching TV shows can speak to us about the human condition. 

Data: Findings presented Friday at the Society for the Advancement of Behavioural Economics (SABE) Conference 2012


(1) Not surprisingly, Switzerland is incredibly safe in contrast to the UK, which holds the top three spots in the developed world in violent crime and bans guns. There are, however, diminishing returns.  Somalia has high gun ownership and can hardly be called safe, even compared to Wales after a Cardiff loss.