Category Archives: Social Psychology and Lifecourse

Avery Gordon’s “Ghostly Matters” and the Haunting of Sociological Research


Source: Ghostly Matters by Avery F. Gordon

Source: Ghostly Matters by Avery F. Gordon

I recently stumbled upon a unique analysis of the construction of social reality.  In Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters, haunting is a method of sociological research.  She argues, “To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it” (7).  Ghostly Matters is her attempt to understand the complexities of social life through an analysis of the hauntings surrounding Sabina Spielrein, the desaparecido of Argentina and the lingering impact of racial slavery during the Reconstruction period in the United States.  Her book might be a conceptual call within the field of sociology to understand that which it represses, but her approach is truly interdisciplinary, in that she seeks to create a something “that belongs to no one” (ibid).


Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade: The Best and Worst of Sociology?

In Tearoom Trade (1970/1975), Laud Humphreys’ writes about the homosexual relations that took place in various “tearooms” (i.e., public bathrooms) in an unidentified American city during the mid- to late 1960s. By pretending to be a simple voyeur, Humphreys explains that he systematically observed these activities and even recorded the license plate numbers of a sample of tearoom participants. While the systematic observation part of his study permitted an understanding of the rules and roles, patterns of collective action, and risks of the game associated with impersonal gay sex in public restrooms, his tracking down and interviewing a handful of the subjects allowed Humphreys to better understand the identity, lives, and rationality of those men involved in the so-called tearoom trade. While the author defended the ethics behind his research early on, he was still stunned by the backlash it received. Yet, even years after Humphreys’ death, the ethical issues that his study provoked continue to reverberate in the social research community. In response to such issues, I will use this post to critically evaluate the strong and weak points of his book. (more…)

Progressing from game theory to agent based modelling to simulate social emergence

This article discusses some of the fundamental flaws in game theory and discusses agent based modelling as a successor to model social emergence.

Axelrod (1984) made a major contribution to Game Theory in his book “Evolution of Cooperation” but thirteen years later he, dissatisfied with game theory, moves onto agent based modelling to rework his view of cooperation in his book in 1997 “The complexity of Cooperation: Agent-based Models of Competition and Collaboration”.  In a similar move, the Santa Fe Institute in the US was established in 1984 to grapple with complex social issues and used agent based modelling amongst other techniques to “collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields — from physics, mathematics, and biology to the social sciences and the humanities — in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world”.  Additionally, the EU acknowledges the failure of traditional economics so adopts agent based modelling.

Agent based modelling captures the interaction between agents to simulate emergence whether at the physical or social level. NetLogo  provides an extensive library of simulations of both physical and social emergence that shows the diversity of application of agent based modelling.  These sample simulations can be readily tailored to meet the needs of social scientists.  The software is free and there is a thriving enthusiastic community support group.

Why is there a move by a prominent game theorist, the Santa Fe Institute and the EU to agent based modelling?  The article Game Theory as Dogma by Professor Kay (2005) discusses ample reasons to search for alternative techniques to model competition and collaboration  and emergence in general.  For instance.

The trouble with game theory is that it can explain everything. If a bank president was standing in the street and lighting his pants on fire, some game theorist would explain it as rational. (Kay 2005, p. 12) (more…)

Bystander (Non)Intervention: What Separates the “Doers” from the “Ignorers”?

Angel Arce Torres shortly after being hit by a car.
Source: Hartford Police Department via Associated Press

It’s the type of story that we too often hear on the news. In 2008, 78-year-old Angel Arce Torres tried to cross Park Street in Hartford, Connecticut. Before he could make it across, a car driving on the wrong side of the road hit him. The driver left the scene of the accident as the elderly man lay bleeding in the middle of the street in the notoriously high-crime area. Nine other cars then drove around his body and it took about 40 seconds for bystanders to leave the sidewalk to get a closer look at Torres. About a minute later, a police officer in the area saw Torres and called for an ambulance. Before the officer’s arrival, four people had called 911 although no one directly came to the victim’s aid. It was later found that Torres had been paralyzed from the accident; he ended up dying from his injuries about a year later. He never left the hospital. (more…)

Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Topic of Growing Importance

Source: Seattle Municipal Archives

In recent years, debates have swirled over whether or not physicians should be allowed to hasten the death of their incurable patients. Although the Hippocratic Oath forbids medical doctors from prematurely ending the lives of their patients, questions still remain over how physicians should respond to the needs and to the wants of terminally ill individuals. Although the legality and ethics surrounding assisted suicide have been pondered since antiquity, these issues were brought to the forefront in the U.S. during the early 1970s with the arrival of the pro-euthanasia movement. The goal of this movement was to increase the rights of people with terminal illnesses and to give these people more control over their destinies (Menon 1991). Since this time, physician-assisted suicide (PAS)—which Schroepfer (2008)defines as the event wherein a physician provides a competent, terminally ill patient with a prescription of lethal drugs—has become increasingly recognized as a phenomenon deserving of more attention. (more…)

The Power of Comedy

Mark Twain once said “that the human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” Even if this is an exaggeration, it might explain our love for humor, specifically the art of comedy. Humor allows people to approach sensitive issues. No one is better at this than the Stand-up Comic.  The Comic’s job is to create, sustain, and guide the audience throughout their performance. In doing so, the comic touches on material that is taboo to the host society.

Jokes are obviously meant to be laughed at and understood by the way in which the comedian communicates their craft onstage: in front of their audience under terms and conditions that are both relatable and comical. The more a comedian works on their craft, knowing their audience, honing in on the jocular, the more they earn trust and respect from the people that pay to laugh. This trust and respect is crucial to the comic to not only obtain laughter, but also to send a message to the audience, that even in times of difference, we are more similar than we think


Rethinking Behavior Change, Nudge-style

A prevailing regime by which groups, organizations, and institutions attempt to alter the behavior of its members and constituents is through imposing penalties and fines, which seek to deter certain behaviors. Parking tickets intend to prevent people from parking in certain areas, sometimes at certain times. Prison sentences, and the death penalty, are intended to serve as deterrents for serious legal violations.

However, fines often prompt behaviors different from what those trying to mould behavior (e.g., governments or organizations) intend. Many studies have shown that the death penalty/prison is not a deterrent to violent crime (see here). In a study of a daycare where several parents repeatedly picked up their children late from school, researchers found that the imposition of a fine for late pick-ups actually increased the number of parents picking up their children late. Additionally, when the fine was lifted, the behavioral change remained such that more parents still picked up their children late. Gneezy and Rustichini, the authors of the study, argue that parents saw the fine as a cost, which they were willing to pay, when previously there was a moral, not a financial, meaning to picking up children late.

An alternative approach to behavioral change that has received plenty of attention in the last several years is described by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. In it, Thaler and Sunstein argue, using copious evidence from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, that our cognitive architecture creates systematic biases in decision making that cause problems in certain domains. Because we often rely on heuristics deriving from automatic processing of information (as opposed to deliberative processing, see Daniel Kahneman’s new book for far more details about this), we often err especially in domains of logic and statistics.

Enter: choice architects and their nudging solutions.  Thaler and Sunstein argue that, however informal the policy and at whatever level it is enacted, the individuals who design program or policies—choice architects—can exert a good deal of influence over the kinds of decisions others make through “nudges.” These nudges are supposed to a) recognize common decision making errors and b) alter the decision making context in a way that acknowledges those biases. A nudge, for Thaler and Sunstein, is any aspect of design that “alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (p. 6). This caveat, that nudges do not shut off any behavioral options, allows Thaler and Sunstein to call their approach one of libertarian paternalism, whereby freedom of individual choice is preserved (the libertarian part) and  choices are influenced such that the “choosers are better off,” according to their own standards (the paternalism part). So, a woman working in a school cafeteria who recognizes that students’ food choices are determined by the order and arrangement of the types of foods, and who changes the arrangement in a way that promotes more healthy eating behaviors is a choice architect employing a nudge toward a particular goal. And Sunstein, as the current administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, seeks to build these insights about human cognition into a variety of policies.

In a recent Sociology Compass article, Evan Selinger and Kyle Whyte, both professors of philosophy, raise a number of nudge issues. First, they suggest, many of the examples often cited as nudges do not actually meet the criteria Thaler and Sunstein set for nudges; they call these “mistaken nudges.” One of Thaler and Sunstein’s main points is that that nudges are modifications that do not change people’s financial incentives and do not add new costs to situations. But, Selinger and Whyte argue many of the programs that are touted as nudging behavior fail to meet this criterion. They often change financial incentives and expect individuals’ behavior to fall in line with those incentives (often referred to as “acting rationally”) in much the same paradigm of penalties and fines. As an example, Selinger and Whyte argue that the Toxic Release Inventory, which provides information about how much companies pollute, should not be considered a nudge since it actually increases the costs to companies of polluting. In general, Selinger and Whyte note there is some confusion about what constitutes a genuine nudge as defined by Thaler and Sunstein.

In addition to issues of definition, Selinger and Whyte review the ethical concerns other scholars have raised concerning nudges. Do nudges really preserve individual choice? Might they make use morally lazy by letting us rely on the infrastructure set up by others for our decisions? Will the widespread use of nudges lead to less practical wisdom, a devalued public sphere, and a more simplified public life? Others make a slippery slope argument that introducing behavioral changes through interventions might lead people to accept more definitive control from government in their lives. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that some biases might actually derive from something that is otherwise socially useful, so it is worth figuring out which biases should be “worked with,” and which should be challenged. Some of these concerns seem overstated, perhaps relying on an overly abstracted concept of nudges and an imagined future that seems unlikely to occur.

The most important and significant criticism, from my perspective, is that choice architects get to choose which values and preferences they promote with nudges. Here it seems useful to distinguish between nudges that are intended to alter significant lifestyle behaviors in a way that requires privileging a goal (e.g., getting people to stop smoking), and nudges that intend to make the small-scale behaviors individuals are already compelled to do more efficient (e.g., getting people to pay their fines in a more efficient manner or to complete their tax forms correctly). Some nudges change behavior in some direction or towards some end, while other nudges adjust existing policy to take into account how individuals often behave. In the latter case, few would fault the government for trying to improve compliance on tax forms given that tax collecting is a basic task of the state. Using nudges to improve the efficiency and the rates of compliance for basic governmental tasks seems far less ethically problematic than using nudges towards ends about which people disagree.

A final concern of Selinger and Whyte is practical: They argue that Thaler and Sunstein fail to provide an adequate roadmap for implementing nudges, a process which has the potential to be very complicated. In particular, Selinger and Whyte point out that the meaning individuals attach to different nudges might vary dramatically, which has implications both for perpetuating potentially problematic associations (e.g., including a male voice in German cars to inform drivers when they are speeding, as drivers did not respond to female voices) and for the effect of nudges in different situations and populations. It is certainly important to understand variation in how individuals assign meaning to nudges; the upshot seems to be that policymakers and choice architects must fully understand the social context in which they are applying nudges, which likely requires a good deal of groundwork and pretesting before particular nudges are deployed.

What the critics of policies that are designed to address the cognitive underpinnings of decision making might overlook is that most policies currently “nudge” us in some direction simply by virtue of building in default choices (e.g., in the case of organ donation) and assuming particular models of decision making (and, by consequence, decision makers) in policies. If our behavior is currently being shaped by policies and programs based on long-existing structures independent of the intentional designs of others, is that a violation of democratic principles? We might ask what features of organizational structures and arrangements act as nudges for behavior independent of the intentions of others to guide our behaviors in such ways.

 ”Is there a Right Way to Nudge? The Practice and Ethics of Choice Architecture.” Evan Selinger and Kyle Whyte. Sociology Compass, 2011.


The Potential of Epigenetics for Sociology

A careful understanding of epigenetic mechanisms allows sociologists to include a new biological perspective into research designs – when it is incorporated carefully and not used casually or blindly as a deus ex machina explanatory device that is.

Epigenetics provides us with one of several “mechanisms by which social influences become embodied” (Kuzawa and Sweet 2008: 2). A promising place for sociologists to enter into this research or use it fruitfully is to examine how social environments and inequalities become embodied as epigenetic imprints, altering gene expression and consequently affecting a wide array of health outcomes. Additionally, while mapping the epigenome, epigeneticists are exploring differences in the plasticity of particular alleles at various points in the lifecourse. Could the inclusion of epigenetic biomarkers in sociological work allow for the separation of early life events from cumulative ones?

These mechanistic stories are bound to be messy, but such feedback loops and the enmeshment of social and biological processes are inescapable. With the knowledge and technology available today, we are far beyond oversimplified nature versus nurture debates. Many biologists who do epigenetic work realize that in order to get a complete, complex mapping of these mechanisms, the social needs to be included. These biologists view sociological and cultural variables as more of a signal rather than just contextual noise. Sociologists should not only collaborate with such researchers, but also help shape what these projects look like.

Further, sociologists should be aware of developing epigenetic discourse and how it is being received in the media. Over the past year or so, non-scientific magazines from Time to Newsweek have picked up on epigenetic findings, publishing articles for the general public on the topic. However, not all of this reporting clearly emphasizes epigenetics’ softening of geneticization’s hard line determinism. Further, some of it mistakenly over-emphasizes our agency in the changing of our own and our future generations’ genetic code. Sociologists should be aware of such reporting, lest it follow the route of the powerful, persuasive, and pervasive hold the narrative of geneticization has in everyday, non-scientific talk (Chaufan 2007) – especially since general understandings of genetic findings often easily allow genetics to take the stage as a deus ex machina of causal efficacy despite findings that clearly prove otherwise.

What is Epigenetics?


Controlling Your Genes


DNA: How You Can Control Your Genes, Destiny

Ghost in Our Genes


Old=conservative, young=liberal? Age, Generation, and Voting Patterns

We now find ourselves in a unique media period: after the midterm election digestion, and before every news outlet begins twenty-four hour coverage of the 2012 election. So, this seems like a good time to talk about age-related voting patterns.

One of the most striking observations about the composition of voters in the midterm election was how few young people turned out, relative to their numbers in 2008. In 2008, about 18% of the voters were under thirty; about 16% were over 65. This time around, those under thirty made up closer to 11% of voters, and those over 65 made up closer to 23% of voters. (For context, the under 30 figure is close to the 2006 midterm participation of voters under 30 which was 12%– younger people do not relish midterm participation.) A widely circulating idea was that if young people had voted in the same proportions in 2010 as they had in 2008, the Democrats would not have suffered the magnitude of the defeat that they did. Underlying this statement was an assumption that younger people are more liberal and are thus more likely to vote for Democrats, while older people are more conservative, and thus more likely to vote for Republicans. This assumption prompts a question: are younger people are more likely to vote liberal because they are young, and when they age, they too will become more conservative (what demographers refer to as an “age effect”), or are they more likely to vote liberal because they belong to a new generation of voters which is at its core more liberal than previous generations were at that age (a “cohort effect”). (Another possible cause for differences in voting patterns is an event that affects everyone regardless of age (for example, 9/11), in a similar manner– a “period effect.”)

So what empirical evidence is there regarding the relationship between age and voting patterns? (I focus on research on the nature of how people vote over their lifetimes and across generations, instead of whether they vote, for which there is also a large literature.) The evidence is not definitive, at least in part because of the both geographical and temporal variety of the data used, and the lack of longitudinal data, but in general, the time during which you grew up (your generation or cohort) matters quite a bit for your later voting patterns.

There is limited support for the idea that voters necessarily become more conservative as they age.  Instead, most argue that much of the difference between older and younger voters should be attributed to cohort effects; people who grew up during a certain period (e.g. during the depression and WWII) are more likely to be conservative than those who grew up during a different period (e.g. post-WWII affluence) (see Braungart & Braungart 1986). Most likely, the effect age and generation on voting proclivities are interactive. Big events affect how age and generation matters: the voting patterns of individuals in eight post-Soviet countries in the elections of 1989 or 1990 reveal disproportionately conservative (in the sense of preserving the status quo) voting among older voters.  Younger voters, even wealthier younger voters who presumably enjoyed the benefits of previous Leninist regimes, selected change-oriented political parties at a much higher rate.  Schatz (2002) argues that this finding is due to a generational effect during the profound political transition; the effects of the Communist-era socialization of older voters were magnified in the context of the rapid social change.

Like many things, the effects of age and generation on voting patterns may not be consistently predictable and may differ by political context. A study comparing the voting patterns of British and West German voters in data from 1958 to 2002 finds a more nuanced picture that takes into account the nature of the electoral system. Goerres (2008) argues that age and generational effects are not alone sufficient to explain the voting patterns of older voters, because the extent to which these factors matter depends on the nature of the electoral system in which they participate (he discusses dealigned and proportional electoral systems in particular). (For reference, the study does not find evidence that voters choose more economically conservative parties as they age.)

What of the state of affairs in the U.S.?  A 2008 report from the New America Foundation uses data trends from 1972 on voting and political identity and finds a general age effect in previous generations where voters become more conservative as they age, but argues that there is a cohort effect for the “millennial” generation (which they define as those born between 1980 and 1986) such that millennials are substantially more liberal than earlier generations were at the same age).  For the effects of this generational shift, stay tuned…

Read more about determinants of voting behaviors here: Fabrigar & Krosnick on VOTING BEHAVIOR, in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology

Blinded by narcissism?

In the Freudian Era, Narcissism was a central psychiatric concept and diagnosis. In the last several months, the likelihood that the American Psychiatric Association will drop this diagnosis from it’s new, 5th edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has been the subject of a string of articles in prominent newspapers and other news outlets including the New York Times and NPR. Though the debate is one about professional discourse and diagnosis, it extends well beyond this realm and begs the question of whether or not this change represents a larger trend in the US wherein Americans no longer see putting themselves before others and thinking of themselves as better and more capable than others (even with little evidence to back it up) as a problem.

In her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable than Ever Before, Jean Twenge somewhat satirically describes an increasing focus on the importance of self-esteem in American Society. From birth, she argues, children are steeped in the notion that they are important just for being them and that they must make themselves feel good at all costs. Ultimately, Twenge argues, this rather ironically leads to more unhappiness and even mental illness, as the current generation of young adults does not learn how to live in the real world. Their entire educational experience can be captured by several of Twenge’s examples: children receive trophies just for doing their best, rather than for being the best player or the hardest worker on the team; they are content with C grades because teachers tell them they’re good no matter what their grades are; they earn pretty stickers for effort rather than genuine achievement. While there are some wonderful outcomes of the self-esteem movement (for a description of the functions and theories of self-esteem, see the linked article below) that started with the Baby Boomer generation – namely that kids do feel more liberated and, in moderation, self-esteem is certainly beneficial – Twenge argues that the level of self-esteem present in today’s kids is harmful to both them and society more broadly. Ultimately, over-inflated self-esteem can result in narcissistic tendencies that lead to much more than feeling overly good about oneself; narcissism can ruin relationships, cost people their jobs, and even lead to increases in violence.