thumb_scp01255.jpgAn experience I had this winter stands out in my mind as a wonderful example of diffusion of responsibility and helping behavior. I was waiting at a tram stop and I observed a teenager throw a firecracker not too far from where I stood. The tram eventually arrived and we both got on. He sat in front and after a short while he threw a firecracker out the window, nearly hitting an elderly woman. As he chuckled, I was thinking whether or not I should do something. A few minutes past by and not a single person on the tram reacted even though I’m sure everyone noticed. Eventually I decided to act out of character, go up to him and ask what he thinks he’s doing. We had a brief exchange in which I was slightly nervous so I wasn’t as lucid as I’d like to be, but I basically asked him if he was normal. He said something to the extent of “what is normal”, which is an interesting question in itself but not necessarily in this context. After a while I stepped to the side and didn’t interact with him further. Soon after, a woman from the back of the tram began to tell the teenager off and he began to curse at her. This soon had two older men involved in the confrontation which resulted in the teenager being thrown off the tram at the next stop.

What this experience illustrates is the hesitancy for individuals to act while in a group. The diffusion of responsibility where individuals feel that someone else in the group is going to handle the matter therefore they do not have to. However, once one person breaks the ice and acts it seems as if individuals are more likely to assist. It may not be a stretch to say that as more people get involved the more sanctioned it is to take more drastic measures.

Prejudice

April 28, 2007

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Despite being a database of unlimited information, it seems that prejudice on the internet will not decline any time soon. This is in part due to how many people select information which affirms their beliefs yet ignore information which opposes them. Factors which contribute to the reduction of prejudice are mutual interdependence, common goals, social norms, equal status, informal setting, and interaction with out-group members. The trouble with the internet is that although social contact exists, it is of a very particular quality. Because the information someone receives is primarily text based, it is easy for a prejudice individual to imagine other characteristics of the out-group member he is in contact with via his prejudiced schema. It is undeniable that the internet has brought people together from all over the world but we must also recognize the tendency of people to accept only selected information.

The internet is an informal setting where individuals appear to be of equal status and interact within certain norms of behavior. Nonetheless, it’s uncommon to find an individual of a certain political or prejudiced persuasion to surf the internet and state that they’ve found their beliefs to be inaccurate. People have a strong desire to live in an ordered and predictable world and so it is unlikely one would seek information which questions held views.

Advertising

April 15, 2007

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As we’ve learned about attitude change and the nature of communication, marketing is at its most effective when the target is unaware that someone is trying to persuade them. A quick visit to Alexa.com will reveal that Myspace is usually one of the top 5 visited websites on the internet. It is estimated that the site attracts 230,000 new users every single day. The number of visits per day is easily in the tens of millions. It’s therefore to be expected that this website will feature the latest attempts to draw the attention and clicks of the average web user. These techniques seem to change over a period of several months to draw in more unsuspecting users.

The site is geared to young adults and the sites’ marketing reflects this. One of the first advertisement techniques I saw replicated a ‘mini-game’ designed in flash. The user is tricked into thinking one can win a prize by “swatting a fly” with their mouse. When one clicks on the flash game they are directed to a site where a product is offered and the true nature of the game is revealed.

Perhaps an even more social psychologically relevant advertisement is one which masks itself as a video chat with a woman. An attractive young female is dressed in the appearance of the “girl-next-door”. In various videos she flips her hair, plays with a mug, and portrays other flirtatious social cues. If you sign up with myspace as “female” you’ll be show ads featuring buff men. To top the deception off, a chat window is visible under the video which mimics an instant message service with its scrolling lines of chat. The unsuspecting web surfer will believe there is someone on the other side speaking to them. Then all it takes is a single click and the surfer gets directed to a dating site where one has to pay to subscribe.

I find there to be an incredible discrepancy in attitude reports on the internet, which continues to go unacknowledged by many major news outlets.  Websites such as CNN have polls where surfers can vote on various topics. Besides the usual issues regarding the wording of the poll and the likelihood of getting opinions from certain politically aligned demographics, there are other problems unique to the internet. The most obvious of which is the fact that the poll is only on the internet. Everyone who is voting likely has a computer and is therefore of a certain income level. It’s a large jump to state that the attitude of internet users is similar to the attitude of most Americans.

A greater problem has to do with the mobilization of large groups of users. An excellent example of this was CNN’s poll regarding the belief in a cover up related to the events of September 11th. In 2004 a CNN online poll showed that 89% believed there’s been a cover up by the current administration. Why I view this poll to be inaccurate is because I’m aware of the number of conspiracy website which directed surfers (traffic) to vote in these polls whilst they were up. The number of people who believe in a cover up and were directed to the poll is completely disproportionate to those who just stumbled upon it. It is true that other sites which are oppose this belief could send their traffic to the poll as well, but such sites are less motivated and less popular then the conspiratorial ones.

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Terror Management Theory

March 29, 2007

entershop.pngTo the best of our knowledge humans are the only animals aware of their own mortality. We also have an innate desire for self-preservation and therefore much angst can be generated when exposed to the awareness of the inevitable end of our existence. Terror management theory concerns itself with how we deal with the paralyzing fear of our own death.

Recently there have been a few articles and studies conducted linking terror management and consumerism. It seems that the accumulation of material goods helps us relieve, albeit temporarily, our existential angst. As mentioned briefly in a previous journal entry, one enormous aspect of the Internet is to draw the user closer and closer to the ‘buy’ button. What place could this new form of communication and purchasing tool have in terror management theory? Surely there are many, but I will cover one which can be dubbed bargain hunting.

Many of us know someone who loves to collect coupons for everything. Perhaps some will consider them to be penny-pinchers but I think another mechanism better explains their behavior. From an evolutionary perspectives we as humans have developed to seek out our food. Throughout the ages we have created more efficient tools to kill and grow food with. Participating in the act of obtaining or preparing sustenance likely relieves anxiety, increasing self-esteem, etc. (perhaps this one reason why a housewife finds a degree of fulfillment.) As humans have developed the ease by which we obtain goods has increased immeasurably. Today all we must do is sit in a car, drive to our local supermarket and purchase whatever we like, as long the amount of credit or money we have is sufficient. Alternatively, we can turn on the computer, click a few buttons, and wait for the goods to be delivered in a few days.

Clipping coupons not only allows us to save money but also increases the complexity of obtaining the desired goods. If we assume purchasing products helps us relieve existential angst then finding coupons turns the ‘hunt’ into something more complex, into something resembling a game. Suddenly the phrase ‘bargain hunting’ takes on a whole new dimension. Marketing and large companies have not overlooked this and brought coupons into an electronic format. Now when you purchase a product online you will often find a field where you may insert a coupon code. Because the Internet is at its very basis a tool for communication, these bargain hunters have created enormous communities where thousands of users share coupon codes and links to the latest ‘hot deal’. It doesn’t take too much analysis to see that these individuals no longer dedicate their time to this in order to save a few dollars but rather to increase the complexity and joy experienced while shopping.

Self-Awareness

March 21, 2007

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Self-Awareness can be triggered by various stimuli such as our environment or the presence of other people. Objects such a mirror or photo can also trigger this state. Often this leads us to compare our current self to certain standards. It’s important to note that our perception of our self can be often skewed and inaccurate. We can also experience conflicting feelings as a result of the discrepancy between our actual self, ideal and ought self. Our ideal self is how we want to be and the ought self is who we think we should be. Depending on the extent of these discrepancies we may experience various negative affects such as hopelessness, resentment, regret, powerlessness, depression, etc.  

Because self-awareness can be aversive, people spend a lot of energy trying to avoid such circumstances through a variety of means. These vary in effectiveness and range from alcoholism, self-deception, drug use, isolation, masochism, sex etc. The last method mentioned has particular significance on a biological level. In a 2006 issue of Neuron psychologists revealed that the superior frontal gyrus plays a significant role in self-awareness. In particular, during certain activities such as sex or watching movies, activity in this region of the brain is inhibited.

It could be argued that the Internet is a form of what some have dubbed ‘media addiction’. I would maintain that this is somewhat amplified in such online activities as multiplayer gaming and in communities as Second Life. This is because like communicating over the Internet, individuals can be social anonymously, however online games and other communities allow for the construction of entirely new identities which are less anonymous. Also, these communities have slightly different social standards and indicators of success. In a virtual world it is a lot easier to bring the perceived actual, ideal, and ought into balance. Users can customize their physical experience and behave in ways divergent from their ordinary personality. I do not think this is entirely a bad thing, however the impact this has on individuals in the non-virtual world is not entirely certain as of yet.

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Human behavior can be the result of intentional voluntary cognition or less controlled automatic cognition. In the past psychologists believed that we engage in either controlled thinking or automatic thinking, but newer studies reveal that we can engage in both to varying degrees. I maintain that this co-occurrence is commonly experienced during activity on the Internet, especially in individuals who are well acquainted with its use. For those who grew up with a computer like me, browsing the Internet has become a second nature, or automatic process, not unlike driving a car or riding a bike. However, unlike the latter activities one must be in conscious control when seeking out information. To complete the analogy, it would be more akin to the automatic process of driving a car whilst consciously seeking correct directions on a map.

If you were to observe an older adult lacking expertise with computers and someone highly familiar with them, both attempting to locate a particular type information, you would find the latter to succeed many times faster. True, this is partly a result of one knowing where to click and the other not being so sure, but another aspect to this situation is that the more accustomed individual no longer has consciously think about what the next step is in obtaining the desired piece of information. Often you will find older computer users, even those with many years experience, still speaking to themselves “double click explorer, type the address, hit enter…” etc. Just as such an individual is on one extreme of the spectrum, the opposite extreme is occupied by the computer user who has lost some degree self-awareness in their behavior. These are the individuals who will find themselves browsing the Internet for hours unaware of the amount of time that has passed by and likely not accomplishing their goals. Automatic behavior occurs when we’re not particularly motivated to avoid error and when we are unable to focus on a particular task. This seems to be shared by both the heavy Internet user as well as some with attention deficit disorder.

It doesn’t take much to notice this trend in the development of technology. Simply take the evolution of the Firefox browser as an example. Tabs were created so we could flip from one page to another while each is loading; weather reports and email notification were added to keep us updated, and so on. RSS feeds are now the newest popular innovation allowing users to know instantaneously when their favorite websites are updated. Ultimately, these share the common goal of time-management in combination with multitasking. Certainly we must question what effect this will have on our ability to manage controlled and automatic thinking. I would postulate that although creating a degree of frustration, it is also generating a challenge which we as a continuously developing animal will be exposed to ever more frequently. Perhaps an outcome of this may be a more developed form of cognitive processing.

Conformity

March 10, 2007

One aspect of conformity I found to be fascinating is its role in the phenomenon known as flash mobs. This is where people meet up at a given time in a public space to perform what is usually considered to be a bizarre act. Observing the reactions of the bystanders provides valuable insight into both the personality and situational factors of conformity. One reaction of bystanders which can be observed at almost every flash mob is one of hostility. As observed in this video :

I would argue this to be strongly correlated with personality type. An individual who is disturbed by events out of the ordinary may experience cognitive dissonance and feel distressed. When asked, such individuals try to rationalize their reaction yet they are often inconsistent because most often nothing wrong is done at flash mobs. The very goal of many flash mobs is to do something unordinary yet not evasive or illegal. When I organized a protest against nothing some bystanders felt appalled because we were ‘abusing’ our rights to protest, while others supported us for using them freely.

I would also hypothesize that those individuals who experience less distress by the sight of the flash mob are more likely to engage and thus conform to the behavior of the group.

Non-Verbal Expression

March 3, 2007

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Non-verbal cues such as facial expressions are incredibly important in our everyday interaction with others. As mentioned in the entry regarding information influence, we do not have the person we are communicating with in front of us. In many ways communication over the internet lacks a mechanism by which one can express emotion, which relies heavily on non-verbal cues. Those who are more articulate in their writing have less of a problem here, but a large portion of internet users rely on other ways of conveying emotion instead of text.

One could hardly discuss this topic without mentioning the ‘smiley’ or happy face symbol. Since the beginnings of lay user internet communication, this symbol has evolved immensely. With some chat services it’s possible to convey everything from hunger to frustration however this is not without its own faults. Because the emotions or feelings we are trying to conveyed a reduced to a mere symbol, much of the user’s intent will be lost and there also exists much more room for misinterpretation by someone else. Does the smiley convey happiness? Is it ironic or sarcastic? To encode and decode non-verbal expression over the internet becomes a challenge in some situations.

Update: For related research see PsyBlog

Fundamental Attribution Error

February 26, 2007

grammarFundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to emphasize certain qualities or dispositions of others rather than giving proper weight to the situational aspects which have brought about a given behavior. A person will conclude that someone else has acted in a certain way because they are that ‘type’ of person. However, when an individual is assessing their own behavior they are more likely to attribute their action to a situational circumstance rather than attribute it to their character.

Due to the loss of nonverbal cues, activity on the internet can amplify such social psychological issues. An individual may read an email and assume the author is a slob, clumsy, or ignorant due to the number of spelling mistakes within. However, the same individual will excuse himself from the same behavior by stating that he was distracted by a telephone call while he was writing his response. The way an email is presented may be the only communication we have with the individual. The Internet is a limited environment where stereotypes are quickly established, whereas meetings in person can tell us more about an individual due to the greater number of cues available for perception.