October 13, 2012

Who Do We Call When It Rains?

We humans are interesting creatures, aren’t we?

We display so many behaviors, either instinctively or evolutionarily, which at first blush may not make much sense at all.

Take, for instance, the way we react whenever water which has gathered in the atmosphere becomes too heavy and begins to fall back to the firmament.

Ask anyone who’s ever worked in a grocery store: Some of their largest spikes in traffic occurs whenever the skies go grey with rain.

Drivers will also suddenly change their behavior, either driving significantly slower or even driving faster, each one angering the other. So, while it’s fine to simply acknowledge these behaviors as the norm, it never hurts to have a little science thrown in for good measure. Some research experts with Newcastle University this week have put some data together to finally prove, scientifically, another rainy weather cliche: We reach for the phone to call our loved ones during stormy weather.

According to their research, we pull those closest to us even closer during times of what they refer to as “uncomfortable” weather. The researchers define uncomfortable weather as hot or cold weather and even in times of high humidity.

By the numbers, we people will call fewer people, but carry on longer conversations with those we do call during times of uncomfortable weather.

According to lead researcher Dr. Santi Phithakkitnukoon, mobile phone data sets have given researchers a clearer picture as to how humans interact with one another in different climates, environments and situations.

“The fact that mobile phones have become an indispensable part of many people’s lives means that they provide an opportunity to measure human behavior and social dynamics, like never before,” said Dr. Phithakkitnukoon in a press release. He is also a social computing expert at Newcastle University’s Culture Lab.

“The weather is well-known to influence human behavior. Our mood, health and how active are all vary with the weather. Our research suggests our mobile phone addiction is also susceptible to changes in the weather.”

To get this data set, the researchers studied mobile phone data from more than 1.3 million Portuguese cell phone users. These researchers also looked at call logs and location data to separate the phone calls into two categories: Strong Social Ties and Weak Social Ties.

“The key to this is not call length but reciprocal calls — that is how often we call them and, crucially, how often they call us back. By factoring in the two-way ‘chatter,’ we could determine not only strong and weak ties but also eliminate the random ‘noise’ such as business calls which are often long but are generally not returned.”

Dr. Phithakkitnukoon also suggests this same mobile phone data could be used to develop what he calls “smarter cities,” bringing in smaller communities closer together. Since mobile phones aren’t tied to one location like their land-line predecessors, researchers such as Dr. Phithakkitnukoon are able to distinguish new patterns in the way people move and communicate. For instance, Dr. Phithakkitnukoon and his team also conclude from this data that many people don’t stray much further past a 12-mile radius from their closest social ties, dubbed the “geo-radius.”

“We found that 80% of places visited were within an individual’s geo-social radius of just 20 km (12.3 miles). In densely populated areas such as Lisbon and Porto, this distance fell to just 7 km (4.35 miles),” explained Dr. Phithakkitnukoon.

“If we can use this information to build up a picture of people’s movements, the places they visit their daily travel patterns then we can use this information to help shape our cities and transport systems of the future.”

In the end, we like to stay close to those who are nearest and dearest to us, another behavior which probably didn’t need to be proven scientifically, but it never hurts.

Image Credit: Chesky / Shutterstock

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