Tag Archives: blog psychology

Group Think: When Two Heads are Worse than One (Science and Sewing, in one post at last!)

It’s my untested belief that expertise in any technical field will result in a near-total loss of respect for journalism.

I know it did for me. The more I learned about climate change, the biodiversity crisis, environmental regulations, and renewable energy, the more I realized that newspaper articles reflected reality only by chance, in passing. More often, an ill-equipped person with good writing skills and no critical thinking ability would write a piece far outside of their education and background by interviewing a bunch of people who claimed to be experts, without evaluating their credentials. We get climate change pieces giving equal weight to well-respected international climate experts and oil-funded PR hacks, pieces on renewable energy with well-reasoned arguments by scientists quoting the best available information and fruit-loop arguments by naturopaths who wouldn’t recognize a herz if it came up and hit them on the head.

And you end up with a voting public almost completely muddled on key issues because they’ve come to the completely totally 100% incontrovertibly WRONG conclusion that there are two sides.

Of course people are entitled to their opinions. I am legally well within my rights to believe that Mars is peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen. But the legal right to hold an opinion is not the same, and can’t be the same, as the attitude that reality is then required to bend to accommodate that opinion. No matter what I believe, Mars is in fact NOT peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen, or by anything at all. The experts are right and I am just plain wrong. (Or I would be, if I held that opinion.)

This set of science experiments sheds some light on the psychology of our inherent tendency to give equal weight to two contrary opinions, even when one comes from an expert and the other does not. Fortunately, for those of you who have no intention of purchasing the article for the low-low price of $10, you can also read this fun summation in the Washington Post.

This went on for 256 intervals, so the two individuals got to know each other quite well — and to know one another’s accuracy and skill quite well. Thus, if one member of the group was better than the other, both would pretty clearly notice. And a rational decision, you might think, would be for the less accurate group member to begin to favor the views of the more accurate one — and for the accurate one to favor his or her own assessments.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, report the study authors, “the worse members of each dyad underweighted their partner’s opinion (i.e., assigned less weight to their partner’s opinion than recommended by the optimal model), whereas the better members of each dyad overweighted their partner’s opinion.” Or to put it more bluntly, individuals tended to act “as if they were as good or as bad as their partner” — even when they quite obviously weren’t.

The researchers tried several variations on the experiment, and this “equality bias” didn’t go away. In one case, a “running score” reminded both members of the pair who was faring better (and who worse) at identifying the target — just in case it wasn’t obvious enough already. In another case, the task became much more difficult for one group member than the other, leading to a bigger gap in scores — accentuating differences in performance. And finally, in a third variant, actual money was offered for getting it right.

None of this did away with the “equality bias.”

The research psychologists attribute this to our need to belong to groups and get along with people. It seems that need outweighs any practical consideration, a good deal of the time, including when money is on the line. Fascinating, right? People who are right and know they’re right defer to people they know are wrong in order to get along and maintain group dynamics, even when it costs them to do so.

When it comes to climate change, this is a serious problem.

Aside: Climate change is a real thing that is really happening and is a complete and total catastrophe. There is no debate on this point in any credible scientific circle. If you think that there is, I’m so sorry, but you’ve been had.

/aside

We end up not moving forward with policy solutions because we keep acting like the actual experts and the paid non-expert hacks share some kind of equivalence when they patently don’t.

But–and I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking this–it’s present in every community, including the SBC.

Ah! See? I told you I’d come around to it.

People act as if the opinions and contributions of experts and amateurs are equivalent when they are not.

Thankfully, the fates of human civilization and a minimum of 30% of animal and plant species do not rest on this fact. The worst that happens in most cases is that a person walks around for a good long time in a garment that looks like utter shit and feels really fabulous about it. On a scale of worldwide catastrophe, it doesn’t even rank.

On the other hand, as this science makes pretty clear, an entire generation of sewers are being educated largely by internet celebrities who are too incompetent even to understand how incompetent they are. It’s not a catastrophe, no, but it is a crying shame. And as predicted by the social psychologists, if anyone ever speaks up to point out that some of them are experts and other are, well … not …, they are pilloried as Mean Girls, jelluz haterz, and bullies.

Aside 2: Yep, I count myself in the group of people sometimes wandering happily about in a garment that on later reflection was not up to snuff. It happens. We’re all human. I won’t melt if someone points it out, though tact is always preferred. It doesn’t count as “bravery” to “put yourself out there” if you feel entitled to nothing but praise; and if you’re going to present your work in public you need to be prepared for public criticism.

/aside

So it’s not the end of the world, no, but it’s a detriment to all of us. The people getting the money, in many cases, haven’t earned it; the people with valuable skills to share don’t have the platform to do so; we keep acting as if everyone’s equal when they’re not to be Nice and keep everyone happy, even though not everyone is happy; there are entire boiling lava rivers of resentment and bitterness flowing right under all the green meadows we’re so happily skipping over (in our badly-pressed culottes and boxy tops with peter pan collars, no less). It’s weird. Can’t we, as an online culture, agree that it’s not a violation of the Geneva Convention if someone points out that a hem is crooked or a print isn’t matched? Does it matter if it’s not “nice”? Don’t we all benefit from increased honesty and openness? Do any of us actually expect to be perfect, or need to be treated as if we are perfect in order to function day to day? If you really don’t want people to point out how you fucked up, is it so much to ask that you acknowledge it yourself, then? Hey look at this horrible side seam–I really fucked up!

That went off on a bit of a tangent. Pardon me. Let’s drag it back on track:

The Equality Bias! It makes everything worse while we smile and pretend nothing’s wrong. Fight it!

Don’t. Be. Nice.*

It’s such a truism that people have made fun of us for it, at least twice.

So this ancient article finally made its way through the blogosphere to roll across my FB feed this morning, and you’ve probably seen it already, but I’m going to share it with you anyway:

Psychologists Find That Nice People are More Likely to Hurt You (from io9.com)

People who are agreeable are also more likely to make destructive choices, if they think doing so will help them conform to social expectations. That’s the finding of psychologists, who suggest that disagreeable, ornery people may be more helpful than we think.

Being me, I followed the link back through other, earlier reports, including Psychology Today:

Are Polite People More Violent and Destructive?

Now a new study using a variation of Milgram’s experiments shows that people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices. In these new obedience experiments, people with more social graces were the ones who complied with the experimenter’s wishes and delivered electric shocks they believed could harm an innocent person. By contrast, people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to refuse to hurt other people when told to do so.

If this is a complete shock to you, there are two possibilities:

  1. You are not Canadian. Canadians have a reputation for being “so nice!” and polite to the point of utter pointlessness. But if you are Canadian, you will know that it is entirely possible to be a very Nice, extremely Polite Asshole. It’s a national speciality. You smile and nod a lot, say sorry, please and thank you every third word, and treat people like crap while claiming to do it all for them because you care so much. It’s effective, if you’re looking for a strategy that lets you get away with murder for a long time.
  2. You are Canadian but are not possessed of critical thinking skills. Sorry.

But let’s keep working our way back to the original research:

Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm

Say, are you in the holiday spirit right now? All in a warm and fuzzy glow over peace on earth and the essential goodness of people? Right. Then get yourself a drink or a xanax, or stop reading until you’re in a less rosy frame of mind, because the Milgram experiments show a pretty grim side to human nature.

Extra-super-duper-short version:

The reportage of Hannah Arrendt on the Nazi war crimes trials, and her observations on the “banality of evil,” got Stanley Milgram wondering about what would make a person do something they knew was wrong and would kill people.

In his original experiment, participants were asked to deliver what they were told were potentially lethal electric shocks to someone else (who they were told was another participant, but was actually an actor) if they answered questions wrong. The actor was instructed to answer most of the questions wrong, and would then begin to scream convincingly as the “shocks” became stronger, and beg the person to stop. Eventually the actor would stop responding, simulating death.

Everyone in the original experiment (where the actor was in another room, and the participant could hear but not see him) went all the way to delivering severe shocks. No one stopped delivering shocks before 300 volts. (And 26/40 went all the way to maximum.)

Almost everyone delivered potentially lethal shocks to an innocent person because someone in a white coat told them to.

The experiment yielded two findings that were surprising. The first finding concerns the sheer strength of obedient tendencies manifested in this situation. Subjects have learned from childhood that it is a fundamental breach of moral conduct to hurt another person against his will. Yet, 26 subjects abandon this tenet in following the instructions of an authority who has no special powers to enforce his commands. To disobey would bring no material loss to the subject; no punishment would ensue. It is clear from the remarks and outward behavior of many participants that in punishing the victim they are often acting against their own values. Subjects often expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet the majority complied with the experimental commands.

In fact, it was so close to universal that in order to get usable data, they had to alter the experiment–bring the actor into the room, close enough to touch the participant, with the participant required to grab the actor’s hand and force it onto a plate to deliver the shock, before enough of the participants would refuse to continue that they could properly analyze the data.**

I won’t blame you if you need to stop, breathe deeply, get some chocolate and alcohol, and continue after a short break.

In this recent update to the Milgram experiments, they replicated the original structure in the format of a game show. The white-coated authority figure of the original was replaced with a broadcaster on a stage with a microphone, but the rest of it–questions, electric shocks, actor pretending to be shocked to death–remained the same. What the researchers did was look at both the personality traits and political leanings of the obedient vs. the disobedient.

I’m finding it hard to write this. Do you find it hard to read?

As with Milgram’s original experiments, the majority of participants shocked the actor to death, with the twist that all it took was a person on a stage with a microphone. That’s some pretty flimsy authority by which to murder someone, but it was sufficient for approximately 80% of the research subjects.

As expected, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness predicted the intensity of electric shocks administered to the victim. Second, we showed that disobedience was influenced by political orientation, with left-wing political ideology being associated with decreased obedience. Third, we showed that women who were willing to participate in rebellious political activities such as going on strike or occupying a factory administered lower shocks.

In other words:

  • Nice, reliable people delivered the strongest electric shocks.
  • People with strong-right wing values delivered the strongest electric shocks.
  • Women with a history of participating in left-wing activism delivered lower electric shocks. (There was no significant difference for men re: whether or not they had a history of political activism.)

There was NO relationship to emotional sensitivity. An emotionally highly sensitive person with low conformity values would not deliver the shocks. A very nice, very reliable person with low sensitivity would.

This is a subject I’ve written about many times over the years. Nice is not GOOD. Nice can be a good thing in some contexts, but it is not inherently good. Nice is a social strategy. GOOD is good, and good requires bravery–the willingness to be unpopular, to stand out, to do things other people don’t approve of, to take flack, to speak the truth when no one else is saying it. Highly sensitive people are just as capable of this as anyone else. Don’t blame your thin skin or weak stomach. If you can’t speak up, stand out, or take a risk of being unpopular for an opinion or point of view in the society we have right now–the safest one for dissent in the history of humanity, where the strongest penalty you’ll receive for most disagreement is an upset stomach and some broken weekend plans–you may be Nice, but mostly, you’re a coward.

It’s agreeable, conscientious people–nice, rule-following people–who merrily followed an authority figure down the path to murdering an innocent person, for no reason or reward at all. So if you take pride in how nice you are, how popular, etc., and like to upbraid people who are less conventional, who won’t go along to get along, who are NEGATIVE, heaven forbid, or CRITICIZE, or aren’t NICE–maybe entertain the idea that it’s those people who will risk their necks one day by sticking them out for you.

~~~~~
*Yes, that’s a needlessly provocative attention-seeking headline. Go ahead and be nice. Just don’t get it mixed up with being good, and don’t use it as an excuse for being a coward.

**Yes, I’ve heard the criticisms of the Milgram experiments. What they don’t explain to my satisfaction is how often the results have been replicated around the world since the 1960s. Sorry. Human beings are not a noble race, and blind obedience to authority and social convention is surely behind some of our worst atrocities.

My apologies for the apology

One thing I have learned from reading about SBC blogs (as opposed to the blogs themselves) is that some people get awfully annoyed when bloggers post excuses about why they haven’t been sewing lately. To the effect of:

No one cares if you’re busy! Sew when you can, post when you can, forget the stupid schedule!

That’s not an actual quote, but I think it’s a fair summary, and it’s also a fair point. Dear Readers, if this describes you, avert your eyes. (Except for the last two paragraphs.)

It isn’t so much that I’ve been busy as that my dining table aka sewing space has been booked with actual, like, dinners. As in, I had guests for two weekends in a row, meaning that the dining table had to stay empty and the room fairly neat. Horrors!

Though, actually, it was pretty fantastic. This Thanksgiving I had several friends over, one of whom is new to Canada, and it was so lovely. I now want to do this every year. Plus, I got to use my fancy dessert plates and tea cups, which doesn’t happen often enough.

And then the following weekend was another meeting of the Dragon Tea Society, wherein some aunts and uncles came down, and we ate little sandwiches and pastries and drank tea. I won’t bore you with the details, but my Aunt Sue wrote about it on her blog, for those of you who may be interested. Frances got out her collection of hand-sculpted oven-bake clay dragons and her mounts of dragon stuffies and reveled in her role of Dragon Mistress. And who wouldn’t.

At any rate, it’s all been fantastic and so much fun, but I am itching to cover the dining table with fabric and cutting mats and patterns and the serger once again. This weekend!

In the meantime, I offer you this non-sewing related link: a Sci Am article about the importance of negative emotions.

Why? Because the more I think about this in my dotage (ahem), the more it seems to me that all of our emotions–positive and “negative”–would only exist if they had served an evolutionary purpose. Nature isn’t in the habit of giving us traits that get in the way of survival and reproduction. It bugs me (negative emotion) when I see people trying to wash away every trace of anger, dislike, irritation, fear, etc., because they’re “not good for you,” “irrational,” “dangerous,” “negative” or what have you. No. No, they are not. If they weren’t good for us, we wouldn’t have them. I say, be negative–and apparently, so do the experts.

Negative emotions also most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention, Adler points out. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. In a 2009 study psychologist David J. Kavanagh of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues asked people in treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction to complete a questionnaire that assessed their drinking-related urges and cravings, as well as any attempts to suppress thoughts related to booze over the previous 24 hours. They found that those who often fought against intrusive alcohol-related thoughts actually harbored more of them. Similar findings from a 2010 study suggested that pushing back negative emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognizing that you were, say, upset, agitated or blue.

(This scholarly paper digs a bit more into the various theories of the evolutionary psychology of emotions.)

Blog Psychology Pt 5: Susceptibility to Normative Influence

And at last the marketers enter the picture; or more specifically, what the marketers make out of this social psychology research, and their own research into social marketing.

Here’s what we have so far:

1. People don’t know why they do what they do nor why they believe what they believe. Oh, sure, we all think we do.  And sometimes we may even be right. But there is no relationship between certainty and the actual likelihood that your beliefs are true (I LOVE that research finding)–certainty is just a feeling, like anxiety or adoration, and it can be completely irrational and unfounded.

2. People’s memories of what they used to believe are basically crap. Just because someone remembers thinking that Product X was terrific before they were given one, or that Service Y was dreamworthy before they experienced it, doesn’t mean that they actually thought that way. We are all unreliable narrators.

3. The mere act of owning or having been given a product or item will cause most people’s opinions of that product or item to improve. And before you say, “Yes, MOST people; but I/my favourite sponsored blogger is/am an exception,” keep in mind that 75% of adult drivers think that they drive better than the average person, a clear mathematical impossibility. Most of us over-evaluate ourselves and think that we are exceptions to this kind of thing. But probably, almost certainly, you’re not.

4. And peer pressure is a real thing with deep roots that makes it very difficult for people to disagree with a group. A solid majority of us will change what we say to go along with a group at least some of the time.

So if you were a marketer in this brave new internet era, maybe you’d like to take some of your products and services and give them to bloggers for review. The act of having received the item or service will cause the blogger to have a higher opinion of it than they would otherwise–an honest higher opinion; they might even revise their memories of their previous opinions–and they will then share that opinion with their readers. Get enough influential bloggers to do this at the same time, and you create the impression of an online majority who all like your product or service, bringing conformity imperatives into play. However, this internet marketer might want some proof that this advertising will work.

And as it turns out, marketers have been researching this very question for a long time now: who pays attention to testimonials (which is what sponsored posts are, after all)?

The answer is found in something called Susceptibility to Normative Influence (aka, one’s “readiness to conform to others’ expectations regarding purchases, and the need to identify with others, or enhance one’s image by acquiring products or brands (Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel 1989)” (Martin et al, 2008 )).

You can get your own SNI score here. My  SNI, if you are interested, is very very low: I got 1.1 on valuing others’ opinions, which means I don’t give a flying fuck what other people think about my purchases. The average for happy people is 1.8, and the average for unhappy people is 2.2. Which means, in other words, that caring about what other people think about what you buy is going to make you less happy. Or that it’s mostly unhappy people who do this. In either case, it’s something to avoid.

Honestly, until I came across this, it would not have occurred to me in a thousand lifetimes that someone might go around buying things because they think it will make other people like them more. What insanity is this? Anyone who’s going to like you more because of your jacket/magazine/sewing machine/dining room table isn’t someone you want in your life anyway.

Regardless, it all comes together like this:

1. Companies buy a lot of sponsored posts with a number of influential bloggers, for the cost of a bunch of books or free patterns and a few metres of fabric, plus postage.

2. The influential bloggers, thanks to the Endowment Effect etc., shift their opinions of the products and services in a positive direction, and then write about it.

3. This creates the impression of an in-group who all like the same thing.

4. The impression of an in-group who all like the same thing influences the purchasing behaviour of their followers or fans, particularly the ones who are highly susceptible to normative influence.

I mean, think about it for a minute: companies hire Social Media directors for, on average, $45,000 CDN. Over the course of a year they will spend even more on freebies and postage. Why are they doing this? To be nice? Of course not. They do this in the expectation that they will make back at least the salary + benefits + training costs + marketing and material costs in additional sales. Companies exist to make money, period.

But, you might say, isn’t it possible that all this social media marketing is just to increase awareness of the product or service?  But if that’s all you want, you’d just buy an ad. You wouldn’t risk a negative review by sending out the free stuff and giving the blogger free reign to write something damning–unless there were, in fact, not much risk of that happening at all.

Is it really realistic that of all the sponsorship arrangements currently in place, all of the compensated posts out there, that so few would be negative just by chance?

This isn’t the first time I’ve made these arguments, so I anticipate that some people will think (and not say) that I must be against free enterprise, capitalism, and women being paid for their labour. Not so. One of the things that most irritates me about these arrangements is how cheap they are. In sewing blogs, for instance, women will quite frequently spend $60+ of their own money on fabric and notions and hours of their own time to sew up a “free” pattern they received in exchange for the blog post, which constitutes marketing for the company in question.

What would make me happier is two things:

1) Bloggers being paid fairly for the actual work that goes into their end of the sponsorship agreement, and,

2) Being honest about its likely influence on the content of their posts, whether conscious or not, and allowing for the critical questioning of their readers.

Egos need to rise far enough on the one side that we (you–it’s unlikely I’ll ever get sponsorship, given my perspectives on it) demand fair pay for the work, and on the other side, need to bend enough to allow that it’s not a personal attack for someone to believe and state that the sponsorship deal might actually have shifted our opinions.

It’s ok to be questioned. It won’t kill you.

Blog Psychology Pt 4: Peer Pressure

So social psychologists have conducted a number of interesting experiments on the influence of groups on individuals. In one of my favourites, they had a group of people at a table and asked them a very simple question: which line on the right matches the line on the left?

A number of groups were assembled, and asked the same set of 18 questions, similar to the above. In each group, one person was a research subject, unaware of the experiment, and all of the others were plants or research participants. The research participants were instructed to give the same wrong answer most of the time, so that the research subject would have to choose between giving the right answer against the group, or going with the group and giving the same wrong answer everyone else did.

In the control condition, there were no groups: a single research subject was asked the same set of questions. These subjects got less than 1% of the questions wrong.

In the groups, the research subjects were far more likely to give the wrong answer. 75% of them changed their answer to the wrong answer at least once. Morevoer, some of them actually come to believe the incorrect answer was correct. It wasn’t just that they gave the wrong answer to go along with the group, but that their minds actually changed to accept the incorrect answer.

People don’t just go along with something they know is wrong, when a large group surrounding them claims it is true.

They may come to actually believe it.

You’re not an exception–something we’ll come back to in Part 5–and neither am I. By objective measures (and yes, there are objective measures–we’ll get to those in part 5 too) I’m less susceptible to peer pressure than most people. But it still happens. When it seems like everyone around us is singing from the same song sheet, it can be very hard to sing your own song. It’s easier to either stay quiet or sing along with the rest. But it’s precisely because peer pressure is so influential (and well beyond middle school) that it’s so important to try to speak the truth, or your own truth, especially when the majority says otherwise.

In order for the conversation to change, someone has to say it first.

For most of our evolutionary history, being accepted as part of the tribe was key to our survival. Despite many centuries of western Individualist tradition, no man is an island; and even the staunchest libertarian could not actually accomplish all of the tasks needed for survival without assistance. We’re super-social highly cooperative other-oriented tribal primates, basically, and feeling like we belong is a key psychological need. So of course it feels like shit to be the one person in a group to stand up and say, “Actually, I think women are men’s equals,” and “No, racism isn’t funny,” and “I do support gay marriage” and “I’ve had an abortion,” and yes even, “actually, I think that latest indie pattern/sewing book/fabric line kind of sucks.”

Unlike the first four examples (potentially), standing up in the SBC isn’t going to kill you. So you may as well practice it.

And bloggers, you may want to drop the claim that you aren’t being influenced by your sponsorship arrangements or that it’s a personal attack for anyone to question you or your sponsors. We’ve got to start embracing the idea that it’s ok to have public conflict and disagreement, because this is how things change–when people know that it’s safe to disagree with the group without exclusion or expulsion, then they will.

That was oddly hyperbolic for a series on sponsored blogging, I’ll admit, but I’m going to let it stand.

Blog Psychology Pt 3: The Mere Ownership Effect and the Endowment Effect

I love that name, don’t you? It makes it sound like it’s so insignificant–mere ownership, you know. I merely own this car, I merely own that book.

But no. What the psychologists are getting at here is that the mere act of owning something appears to change people’s opinions towards whatever it is that they own. By taking the simple step of buying something, you are pretty well guaranteed to like it more than if you hadn’t bought it. In experiments, for example, researchers compare the price that sellers are willing to part with a given object for, to price that non-owners are willing to spend to acquire it, and find consistently that the mere act of owning a given object gives that object more value to the owner than the marketplace is willing to recognize.

Buyer beware, indeed: once something is in your hot little hands, you will almost certainly find it worth more than it really is.

Through some tricky experimental conditions, psychologists believe that it is the association through ownership of the object with the Self that leads to the over-evaluation of the object. Basically: “Since I own this whatever-it-is (coffee mug, book, car), and I am a pretty fabulous person, therefore this object is pretty fabulous as well, and I’ll need a lot of money to willingly part with it.”

Neat, huh?

But wait, there’s more! There’s also the Endowment Effect.

Which finds that people also over-value what they are given The act of giving creates a relationship, which alters what people feel is acceptable and not acceptable in terms of ethical and fair behaviour, including beliefs.

What does this mean for you, hapless readers of sponsored blog posts?

It means you can’t trust a word of them.

It means that the mere act of having been given a product or service to review is likely to unconsciously and unavoidably alter the opinion of the blogger.

It means that there is no way not to sell out, for most of us, as soon as transactions enter the picture; and that the blogger is not going to be a reliable narrator so far as they will be able to honestly evaluate their own tendency to be affected by ownership.

Again, this doesn’t meant that they’re lying. It doesn’t mean that they are aware of the opinion changes that ownership brings.

But it also means that you, as a blog reader looking for solid and unbiased opinions on products and services, would almost certainly be better off asking someone who borrowed them.

And it means that for those of us who write reviews of products or services on our blogs–compensated or not–we need to keep in mind that the ownership and the endowment both may have affected our opinions in ways we’re not conscious of, and that it is ok for readers to question us. Critical reading and thinking are good things, and anyone who asks how reviews are affected by sponsorship is well within their rights to do so. It’s not an insult; it’s not an attack; and it’s not personal.