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Social Psychology

The things we do: What happened when the London Underground challenged social norms

Roxanne Bauer's picture

London  Underground stationGlobally, 157 cities around the world now have a metro system in operation.  These underground trains shuttle people back and forth from work, make weekend escapes possible, and allow tourists to get around without the hassle of human communication. 

The sheer number of people using metro systems has inspired quite a few rules of etiquette. In Japan it’s considered polite to switch your phone to “Manner Mode” (also known as “silent” mode) when using the metro so that other passengers aren’t subjected to ringtones as they travel. Eating durian, considered the world’s smelliest fruit, is not permitted on Singapore’s MRT, and “No durian” signs have been posted around the network. It’s also considered bad manners to sit in priority seats in Seoul subway cars at any time, regardless of whether there’s anyone around who needs them. 

But perhaps the stickiest, most sincerely held rule of etiquette is that when using an escalator to enter or exit a metro station, one should stand on the right and walk on the left. This way, those who want to climb the stairs can do so on the left, without having the say “excuse me” every 5 seconds.  This rule is especially important to follow at rush hour if you want to avoid grumpy remarks.  Those who have forgotten to follow it can probably speak to how sanctimonious some people feel about it.

On 4 December last year, the London Underground carried 4,821,000 passengers— setting a new record for a single day. However, something else was also afoot that day.

On that particular Friday, 11,000 passengers got off at Holborn Station between 8.30 and 9.30am and faced an unusually upsetting provocation. As they turned into the concourse and looked up to the station’s escalators, they saw something truly horrifying: dozens of people were standing on the left.

The things we do: How technology undermines our ability to lie

Roxanne Bauer's picture

We are told, on average, around 200 lies per day.  Most of these lies are harmless and meant to protect the self-esteems of the liar or the one being lied to.  However, as technology and social media become more integral to our lives, how will our ability to deceive change?

youth using smartphonesAs technology and the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ becomes more pervasive in our lives, the amount of information we leave as online bread crumbs also expands. Online advertising companies, for instance, collect huge amounts of information about our browsing histories, which can unearth a pretty comprehensive profile of what we've been up to on the Internet— and by extension in reality. Moreover, smartphones are very sophisticated tracking and eavesdropping devices that follow our every move, from fitness tracking and location services to text messages and social media apps.
 
As individuals, we can manipulate our online personas so that only the best of us is shown.  We may post photographs of our vacations, tweet about our chance encounters with celebrities, or write status updates that sound optimistic and cheerful— all the while omitting our headaches and heartaches.  But what happens when our Fitbits reveal our connection to our sofas or our smartphones expose our in previously denied affection for Taylor Swift?
 
In a paper published in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law in 2012 Kathryn R. Brown distilled research on social media psychology and found that users screen photographs of themselves in order to present themselves as “attractive” and “having fun”. She also found that they adjust their personas to seem “socially desirable,” “group-oriented,” and “smiling.” At the same time, “individuals are unlikely to capture shameful, regrettable, or lonely moments with a camera.”
 

The things we do: Why do conspiracy theories thrive?

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Girl receiving oral polio vaccine in IndiaIndividuals who believe in conspiracy theories are often disregarded as 'paranoid' and 'irrational', but social science research indicates that they engage in psychological processes that we all do. The difference lies their unusual distrust of authority.

Conspiracy theories abound!  Rumors are whispered, discrepancies in a story are seized upon, and the official version of events is discredited.  Then, an alternate explanation is proposed and evidence is gathered to support it.

While there is no formal, generally-accepted understanding of a ‘conspiracy theory’, they are usually considered to be an explanation for an event that is not the most plausible account and which postulates unusually sinister and competent conspirators carrying out the conspiracy.  Conspiracy theories are usually based on weak evidence, are self-insulating from fact, and sensationalize the actors or the implications of the event.

Contrary to what we might think, many of the people who follow conspiracies aren’t crazy.  They are actually skeptics, they just happen to be selective with their doubt.   According to research, individuals that believe in conspiracy theories tend to favor a worldview in which people are prone to misbehave (or behave downright evil) and in which elites exercise omnipotence.

The things we do: How our competitive natures may help reduce our carbon footprints

Roxanne Bauer's picture

adjusting a home thermostat to save energyIn order to tackle the adverse effects of climate change in our lifetimes, the global community will need all hands on deck. One software company has found a way of reducing energy consumption by tapping into social psychology.

One way of thinking about how to approach climate change is to divide the issue into ‘wedges’.  One wedge would be to increase renewable energy production, another would be to increase energy efficiency in the electric grid, and a third, to make buildings more energy efficient. Along with these other improvements, changing human behavior is another, very important wedge. 

Two families that are demographically similar, living side by side, in similar apartments, can use dramatically different amounts of energy— the difference of which can be attributed to behavioral differences.

Keeping up with the Neighbors

These behavioral differences were demonstrated in a famous psychology experiment that focused on home energy use. The research team, led by two psychologists, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos, hung a series of five door hangers with energy-saving messages on several hundred homes in a San Diego suburb in 2004.   One hanger encouraged people to "join their neighbors" in conserving energy, one appealed to their self-interest to save money, another called on them to save energy to protect the environment, and a fourth asked them to conserve energy for future generations and the benefit of society. A fifth and final message simply stated that summer is here and it’s a time to save energy with no underlying reason.

The researchers measured the effectiveness of the messages by obtaining meter readings before and after the door hangers were distributed. They found that the last four had minimal effect. But the first, which mentioned the neighbors, produced a significant 10% reduction in home energy usage.

Listening, watching…and forgetting

Sina Odugbemi's picture

People watch TV through shop windowMore and more of us these days consume news in a multiplatform manner, and every week, every day even, we learn about a fresh outrage that has occurred somewhere in the world.

Instantly.

The news media stay on each outrage for a while. A plane crashes. Why? How? The pilot flew the plane into the mountain? Goodness! Why? How did the airline miss his descent into madness? And on and on they go. For a while, it is a frenzy of analysis, fresh angles, scandal-hunting, scapegoats-sniffing and so on.

Eventually, the media move on to the next outrage. What is interesting is that we tend to move on before the media do. There is a lag before the media realize that we are bored with the story, that we are mentally blocking it, and that the readership or audience numbers are no longer sky-high.

That moving on from the intense coverage of the latest outrage that we do is what I find fascinating. For we don’t just move on, without conscious effort we try to forget about the outrage because we have to get on with our lives. We are naturally good at forgetting. The question is: why do we practice forgetting so skillfully?

The Things We Do: Your Pain is My Pleasure

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Mel Brooks once famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

Certainly, we can all relate to this, whether we like to admit it or not.  When something unlucky happens to us, we feel it more deeply than those around us do, and we wonder why people do not immediately recognize the calamity.  Equally, we take pleasure when an opponent is beaten or find it a little rewarding when our enemy is cut down.  

The joy we experience from the pain of others is known as “schadenfreude” in German and is translated as “harm-joy”.

According to Richard H. Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, schadenfreude is an adaptive function that evolved from our need to make social comparisons.  These comparisons, he argues in a new book called The Joy of Pain, allow us to asses our strengths and weaknesses in the social order and thereby determine our social status.  Comparisons, though, can invoke envy, insecurity, and a sense of inadequacy if we find ourselves lacking in one dimension or another compared to someone else. These feelings can then trigger a desire to compete with or knock down those perceived to be superior.  When these desires are fulfilled organically, through no fault of our own, schadenfreude arises. 

The Things We Do: Facebook Manipulates Our Mood

Roxanne Bauer's picture

When you smile, the world smiles back.”

We all know that smiling helps lift our moods as well as the moods of others.  Each time you smile at someone, you entice them to smile back.  But what about the messages we post online? 

Turns out, Facebook has been conducting a social psychology experiment on some of its users, and the results confirm what we already know… but in a surprising way.

In the experiment, Facebook manipulated the number of negative and positive posts appearing in the news feeds of some users.  When Facebook reduced the number of positive posts appearing in a news feed, making it feel more negative, individuals not only shared fewer positive posts but actually shared more negative posts, spreading the negativity they received. Conversely, when negative posts were reduced, making news feeds seem more positive, users produced fewer negative posts and more positive posts.  The study demonstrates the concept of emotional contagion (EC), the process by which a person or a group influences the emotions and affective behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotions. 

The Things We Do: Will Money Make You Mean?

Roxanne Bauer's picture
In a TEDTalk published Dec 20, 2013, social psychologist Paul Piff shares the results of several research studies on how people behave when they feel wealthy. He concludes that while inequality is a complex and formidable challenge, there are bright spots, too. 
 
In the first study, two participants are asked to play Monopoly, but one player is given more money than the other.  Throughout the course of the game, the 'rich' player moved around the board louder, made sounds of dominance and non-verbal displays of power, and became ruder and less sympathetic to the 'poor' player.  After the game ended and the rich player won, the rich player talked about what he/she did and bought during the game to explain the outcome- they did not mention the unfair advantage they were given at the start of the game.

Piff believes that Monopoly can be used as a metaphor for many contemporary societies in which some people are born with more access to resources, money and power. 
 
TED Talks, Paul Piff