You are who you meet

Does the Sty make the Pig, or does the Pig make the Sty?

I’m reading a fascinating book called The Social Animal by David Brooks.  It’s a curious blend of popular science and fiction, in which we follow the lives of a fictitious couple from birth through adolescence, courtship, business and beyond. And we look at how their personalities are shaped by their social environment, and how their life-choices are affected by culture, by their friends, by the curious processes in the brain and so on.  So Brooks shares diverse studies and shows how they create the people we all are.

A book you may be inclined to share

A book you may be inclined to share

These include the ‘Meaningful Differences’ study which showed how intelligence and social confidence are affected by the amount of conversation that toddlers are surrounded by.  If you encourage your tiny child by talking to them and encouraging them, rather than by punctuating the silence with admonishments, you will be rewarded by older children with a wider vocabulary and more intelligent.  Crucially, they found that middle classes understand this, working classes less so and welfare parents (the unemployed…) the least.

Brooks argues that the networking culture that thrives among certain groups, at private schools and among the wealthy, sustains success among some people and failure among those who don’t know the rules.

The porcine quote in the headline about pigs and sties above comes from a Sunday Times article by Ian Jack from the early 1980s, written after the Heysel tragedy in which Italian football fans from Turin were crushed to death after a riot prompted by English football hooligans.  Jack drew out the contrast between a Italian culture typified by good food and civic pride and an impoverished British culture of baked beans and surly belligerence.  Exaggerated perhaps, but he had a point.  Why were they so different?  Was it something about the people (the pigs), or the circumstances in which they were brought up (the sty)?  Jack’s conclusion, as his train was pelted with stones thrown by young yobs was that the sty makes the pig.  We are products of our immediate environment and our ability to change it is limited.  The reason why pigs end up surrounded by pigswill in a muddy enclosure is because that’s where they are put – it’s not their fault.

Pigs and a sty.  But which 'creates' the other?

Pigs and a sty. But which ‘creates’ the other?

(And it is arguable that in the last thirty years the gap between British and Italian cultures has been closed and then reversed).

These are really interesting ideas.  And Brooks might agree with Jack.  But he believes that the sty is our social lives and culture.  Everything, in his theses, comes down to how we interact with other people.  Happy people are those who spend the most time in easy company with others. The happiest jobs are (one reads) those like hairdressing and caring for people which involve easy contact with others. The least happy have a perverse social element like prostitution or being on your own (operating machinery).  Our most enjoyable experiences are the ones we do with people we like (dinner, sex, socialising), while the least enjoyable are those we do alone, like commuting.  We get fat when our friends get fat. We are more likely to get divorced (or married) if our friends do the same.  We get fit or give up cigarettes (or we start) if our friends do.  Birds of a feather may fly together, but birds that fly together start to look like each other.  Success follows when we can confidently negotiate our relationships with colleagues, friends and strangers.  And so on.

One gap in Brooks’ book concerns television.  He writes about everything else, but misses out the most popular activity enjoyed by Americans (and the British).  And the omission is surprising in a way because of all the ways we spend our leisure time, watching TV may be the most social. We talk about what we’re watching – and hardly surprising, since our choice of what to watch on TV is so directly affected by the choices of others, and by who we are with, or what we may want to share with others.  We may have different tastes and personalities, but these have been developed by social factors.

Which is why when the good people at Bell Labs have the audacity to suggest that in a mere 7 years time, a mere 10% of TV viewing will be to scheduled live channel based TV, I put it to them that they are craaaazy.  Their silly prediction flies in the face of the natural preference of humans to watch things together, live, when they go out, and when our friends are watching too, in a social way.  It implies that we all WANT to have to decide everything, when we often want things made easier for us.  It ignores the success of live sports, and news, and event TV, and the premier premium, and the (older) people (especially) need for TV to punctuate their day and to create routines.   It’s a little like food.  We can eat it when we want, but we don’t.  We settle into a pattern. We can go to sleep when we want, but we don’t.

How I feel about the prediction by the good people at Bell Labs

How I feel about the prediction by the good people at Bell Labs

Which is the sty and which is the pig?  The viewer is the pig, and the TV is the sty.  And which makes the other?  The pig always makes the sty.  And the other pigs make other pigs.  Which make other sties.





  1. Colin Lawrence says

    Paul Tough touches on the “sty” theory in How Children Succeed. As well as really good insight on the impact of stress on children and brain development .
    Italy, apparently the highets rate of obesity in 2yr olds in Europe……

    • Hello Colin, thank you. I don’t think I knew that book. I will try to find it – I don’t think it’s too late to change my children’s destiny!

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