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social science research

The things we do: Why those who see the world differently are always wrong

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Have you ever been in an argument that ended badly, after which you expected to receive an apology? Did the apology come or was the other side also expecting one?  Have you ever done an audit or technical assessment and wondered how a team of professionals could have come to such seemingly erroneous conclusions?  How can that be?  How is that people can have such different views of the same thing?  

One reason misunderstandings occur is that people tend to be naïve realists. That is, we believe that we see social interactions as they truly are. Anyone else who has read what we have read or seen what we have seen will naturally perceive them the say way as we do… that is, assuming they’ve pondered the issue as thoughtfully as we have. In short, our own reality is true, so those who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased.
However, one of the most enduring contributions of social psychology is the understanding that two people can interpret the same social interaction in very different ways, based on their own personal knowledge and experiences.
Tim Harford, the Undercover economist at the Financial Times, recently wrote about naïve realism, calling it the, “seductive sense that we’re seeing the world as it truly is, free of bias.”  He goes on to say that this is such an attractive illusion that whenever we meet someone that contradicts our own view, we instinctively believe we’ve met someone who is deluded rather than question our own rationale.

Thinking through funnels of attrition

Heather Lanthorn's picture

When first introduced to the idea of a funnel of attrition (my early attempt at a slightly more nuanced and symmetric — but still generic — version is here), I largely thought of it as a useful heuristic for thinking about sample size calculations, by being forced to think about issues of awareness and take-up as well as a few steps along a causal chain between initial participation or use and longer terms outcomes of interest.

More recently (including here), I  have tried to use it as a tool for thinking about articulating assumptions in a theory of change about where people might ‘fall out of’ (or never join) an intervention, thus leaving the funnelMore specifically, I tried (along with colleagues) using it as a goal for a conversation with implementing partners (that is, “let’s map out the funnel of attrition”), tackling the question from multiple perspectives. Various perspectives were brought in using personae, which I created beforehand relying partially on average results from the baseline as well as some stylizing to try to bring certain features into the conversation. At first I feared being overstylized but, in the end, I think I had too little detail. I reviewed my notes from The Inmates are Running the Asylum and was reminded of the importance of specificity, even at the expense of accuracy.

I liked this idea for guiding a conversation because the funnel of attrition is a little more straightforward than a full theory of change but, in constructing it, you still end up articulating some central assumptions, which can be added to thinking about change may/not happen. It seems like a handy building block in a well-considered theory of change.

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.

Taking What We Don't Know Seriously

Antonio Lambino's picture

There are three criteria for testing hypotheses on why people think and/or act the way they do.  First, there must be covariation.  That is, one phenomenon, such as watching a shampoo ad on TV, must be associated with another phenomenon, such as liking or buying the shampoo being advertised.  Second, there is the criterion called temporal order.  For instance, watching the ad should come before buying the shampoo.  Third, we must make a case against other likely explanations.  Following the shampoo example above, it's likely that a person who is predisposed to buying a product is also likely to pay attention to an ad about it.  Perhaps there's something about the person, such as having particularly thick hair or split ends, that explains both behaviors.  So how do we know that watching the ad causes the purchasing behavior?  We usually don’t know for sure.  But that doesn’t seem to stop intelligent and highly educated marketing and advertising executives from making decisions that lead to a whole lot of advertising. 

Social scientists, including communication scholars, have studied the possible determinants of a host of behaviors -- not just buying products, but also volunteering for community organizations, participating in political activities (e.g., voting), binge drinking, and using condoms.  And empirical research designs range from experiments, with carefully manipulated conditions (attempting to meet the three criteria above) to cross-sectional studies that do not bring us quite as close to being able to say whether a behavioral hypothesis is supported.  There are, of course, pros and cons for various designs and methods, which are standard fare in most introductory methods courses.