Why we still need neighbors more than Facebook

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Neighbors Michael Rivera and Pete Rosetta set up a generator in Hoboken, N.J. after Hurricane Sandy left many without power. Brendan Smialowski / AFP Getty

A recent email made me say “Well, duh,” and “Ah-hah!” in the same second.

It also gave me one of those warm, fuzzy realizations that perhaps we aren’t all turning into cyber-robots after all.

According to the email, researchers at the University of Michigan observed scientists working in several on-campus laboratories. They found that the scientists who most frequently “bumped into” each other during the work day tended to collaborate more often -- and because of that collaboration, got more grant money.

Their success did not come from emailing each other, or seeing a tweet or being Facebook friends. It came from frequent, face-to-face interaction, just like human beings.

Researchers looked at how close offices were to each other, and where people walked. They found that the distance between offices had less to do with interactions than people’s daily walking paths. In other words, their walking route to the coffee machine or the bathroom is more important than anything else.

"We found that … for every 100 feet of zonal overlap, collaborations increased by 20 percent,” Jason Owen-Smith, an associate professor of sociology and organizational studies said.

Owen-Smith and colleagues also found that the likelihood of passive contacts can be more simply assessed by using a measure of "door passing"—whether one investigator's work path passes by another's office door. In other words, “just passing by,” pays off.

Well, duh. You already knew this, but quantified, it looks really important and is easily transferred from a scientists’ lab to daily living.

For example, if you live on the ninth floor, who else do you know in your building? If this research holds, you are far more likely to know someone who is in the elevator at the same time of day, or whose mailbox is near yours.

In single family neighborhoods, it is the dog walkers who seem to know everyone. For years, our neighbor, who had three dogs, was our town crier. When she moved, we lost our best connection to our neighbors because we have a cat who refuses to walk on a leash.

We like and chat with many of our neighbors, but our paths don’t cross daily. For those of us who feel like we are busy every minute of the day, it can take real effort to make those face-to-face connections happen.

For the scientists at the University of Michigan, however, those connections paid off not just in collegial relationships, but in cash.

For every 100 additional feet of overlap in researchers’ walking zones, Owen-Smith reported, “grant funding increased between 21 and 30 percent."

What if that held true for our daily living spaces as well? What if that guy you see every day getting a double-shot latte is your next employer who will increase your salary by 20 percent? Perhaps the woman who is always in the third seat of the third car of the 8:22 is your future wife?

Maybe the guy in the next cube will offer you a couch next time a hurricane comes through town, as many New Yorkers discovered this past week.

Kinda makes you want to reach out and give someone person a friendly, “ah hah!”