social psychology

Photo by the World Wide Web Foundation.
New research suggests that women may benefit more than men from national development. Photo by the World Wide Web Foundation.

We’ve known for a long time that economic, social, and public health conditions influence learning in ways that affect people’s abilities to perform well on memory and math tests. But until now, the impact that improving these conditions could have on men and women’s cognitive abilities was not well understood. A new study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis provides a surprising insight into this process: As nations develop, women’s cognitive performance improves significantly more than men’s does. David DiSalvo reports their findings in Forbes.

The researchers used data from The European Survey of Health obtained through interviews with 31,000 European men and women from ages 50-84 living in 13 different countries. Each country was given a regional development index (RDI). The measure of RDI included gross domestic product (GDP), life expectancy, education, and infant mortality rates. The researchers plotted changes in RDI across the life of each participant, in an effort to demonstrate the economic and social conditions the participants experienced.

The interviews also evaluated three levels of each subject’s cognitive performance. The results followed the expectations of the researchers according to gender, but that changed when RDI entered the equation.

“…when RDI was factored in, a remarkable and less expected result emerged: improvements in RDI for each country correlated with cognitive performance improvements for both genders—but significantly more so for women.”

Simply put, the researchers are saying that women get smarter faster, but the reasons why may be complicated. One possibility is that women gain more because they simply have more to gain. If women start at a disadvantage due to fewer opportunities to learn and to practice cognitive skills, changes in RDI might represent the leveling of a gendered playing field. This leveling might look like an increase for women, even if it results in something closer to equality.

While more research needs to be done to determine the reasons underlying differences in gains between men and women, this study shows the important role played by social factors in determining cognitive performance.


Via Don Hankins on Flickr:

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a dose of unromantic social science: dating sites that promise to help you meet your match may be asking the wrong questions to create lasting pairs.

Social psychologists Eli J. Finkel and Benjamin R. Karney summarized their soon-to-be published findings in Sunday’s New York Times. The gist of their argument is that the factors that help relationships last — “things like communication patterns, problem-solving tendencies and sexual compatibility” — can’t easily be captured in the surveys people take before they couple up.

The take-away:

None of this suggests that online dating is any worse a method of meeting potential romantic partners than meeting in a bar or on the subway. But it’s no better either.

Data tells us that as a group, professors are about as self-identifying liberal as they come. In fact, according to an intensive survey ran by University of British Columbia sociology professor Neil Gross and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, “professor” is the most liberal major job group in America. According to the findings roughly 20 percent of professors identified themselves as “any shade of conservative,” a number much lower than a third of the general population. Meanwhile, two-thirds of professors considered themselves some version of liberal as opposed to 23 percent of Americans overall.

Leaning Tower by Kerben via
Leaning Tower by Kerben via

A recent Op-Ed in the Star Tribune sought to explain this pattern and its consequences. Just like the profession the article investigates, the arguement is rife with empirical evidence. Some scholars and pundits are quick to assume this underrepresentation of conservatives is congruent with other instances of underrepresentation, the product of discrimination. Neil Gross, however, claims the data shows otherwise. “If you look at surveys that have asked professors whether they’ve been discriminated against on political grounds… only something like 7 percent of those surveyed said they have been,” says Gross.

Graduate schools, the pipelines towards professorship, are also leftward leaning, which makes sense when observing the  higher proportion of liberal faculty, but also points the discrimination theory towards graduate school acceptance. To test this, Gross crafted an email based experiment to test how subtle expressions of political affiliation were received by various graduate programs. The findings? “Only the slightest hint—no significant evidence—of bias or discrimination.”

If discrimination isn’t the answer, many hypothesize personal reasoning—values, moneymaking, or personality—are behind the political disparity. Gross doesn’t seem sold on these theories, and offers a different explanation, a process of “political typing” that encourages self-selection. For a long time university culture grew along the lines of inquiry and as a challenge to existing systems of power and wealth, something that naturally shepherded in liberals.

So does this liberal lean matter? Gross doesn’t seem to think it distorts the legitimacy of academia. “In my field of sociology, people will say your politics incidentally will shape what you study, but it doesn’t necessarily shape what you find,” Gross argues. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, on the other hand, sees this as a major problem:

When a scientific community shares sacred values… a tribal moral community arises, one that actively suppresses ideas that are sacrilegious, and that discourages nonbelievers from entering. I argued that my field has become a tribal moral community, and the absence of conservatives, not just their underrepresentation, has serious consequences for the quality of our science.

The popular perceptions of academia as a home for liberals makes it seem unlikely it will change any time soon. Especially if Republicans continue to see this exclusion as an advantage by discrediting academia for having a bias. The closing thoughts of the Star Tribune’s Op-Ed eloquently summarizes the consequences of this enduring trend.

Unfortunately, the estrangement will serve only to reinforce the lopsidedness of university politics, undermine the confidence of a large share of the public in expert opinion, and jeopardize the role of the university in public life whenever conservatives are in power.

How to exit an elevator
On April 21st, 2011, Harold Garfinkel, one of the important figures of the sociological canon and the man responsible for countless ‘face the wrong way in an elevator’ or ‘eat like a dog in a crowded cafateria’ introduction to sociology labs, passed away. He was 93.

The New York Times honored his passing with an account of his importance to the discipline and to broader understandings of the social world. In the article Garfinkel is attributed with the ability to draw out the complexity of even the simplest social interaction. His tendency to match the complexity of the social world with the complexity of his writing is also noted when he is characterized as:

an innovative sociologist who turned the study of common sense into a dense and arcane discipline.

Through development of the sociological approach known as ethnomethodology, Garfinkel went against the grain of the discipline by focusing on how members of society worked together to create social order rather than focusing on how the social rules determined the behaviors of individual members of society.

Mr. Garfinkel was sometimes likened to a quantum physicist because, in effect, he suggested that the fundamental building blocks of a social order were much smaller and much harder to observe than had been previously believed. Rules were not the smallest particles of social order, he found; rather, the rules themselves would be impossible without the bits of knowledge, the gestures and the methods of reasoning that allow people to communicate.

John Heritage, a professor of sociology at U.C.L.A., explains,

“His point of view wasn’t that rules aren’t important, but that how they get interpreted and applied is a matter of mutual negotiation. We have to have common resources for any form of coordinated action of human beings, and we use these common resources just to exist in a shared world. It’s a fundamental part of the human condition.”

In Garfinkel’s seminal work, Studies in Ethnomethodology, published in 1967, he introduced sociologists to so-called “breaching” experiments:

in which the subjects’ expectations of social behavior were violated; for example, a subject playing tic tac toe was confronted with an opponent who made his marks on the lines dividing the spaces on the game board instead of in the spaces themselves. Their reactions — outrage, anger, puzzlement, etc. — helped demonstrate the existence of underlying presumptions that constitute social life.

As Professor Heritage explains, the book had influence beyond disciplinary walls.

“Not only did it deal with rules and language, which are fundamental elements of sociological study, but it reached across many fields: cognitive science, artificial intelligence, philosophy. You wouldn’t get any argument if you said it was among the 10 most important books in sociology in the 20th century.”

The nature and importance of Garfinkel’s academic work is best captured in the final line of The New York Times article and the first line of Heritage’s book on Garfinkel, “Notwithstanding his world renown, Harold Garfinkel is a sociologist whose work is more known about than known.” Garfinkel’s ideas are so pervasive that, within sociology, even those who have not engaged directly with his text, have had their basic assumptions shaped by his work.

first grade desk IMG_4744The BBC recently reported on new research that documents the way young boys are negatively affected by gender stereotypes.

Girls believe they are cleverer, better behaved and try harder than boys from the age of four, research suggests.
By the age of eight, boys had also adopted these perceptions, the study from the University of Kent found.

Social psychologist and lead researcher, Bonny Hartley, presented children between the age of four and 10 with a series of statements describing children as being hard working, clever, and timely in the completion of the work. They then chose the silhouette of either a boy or girl depending on which gender they thought the statement most accurately described.

On average, girls of reception age right through to Year 5 said girls were cleverer, performed better, were more focused and were better behaved or more respectful, the study found.Boys in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 gave answers which were equally split between favouring boys and girls, but by Year 3 their beliefs were in line with those of the girls, the researchers said.
Ms Hartley said that children of both genders thought, in general, that adults believed that girls did better than boys at school.

Hartley also documented the immediate impact that gender expectations may have on test performance.

In a separate investigation, she tested two separate groups of children in maths, reading and writing. The first group was told that boys do not perform as well as girls, but the other was not. Boys in the first group performed “significantly worse” than in the second group, which Ms Hartley says suggests that boys’ low performance may be explained in part by low expectations.

The study demonstrates the power of socialization and speaks to the need for teachers to be particularly cognizant of vocalizing any gender-based expectations, as they may create self-fulfilling prophecies.

She also warns against the use of phrases such as “silly boys” and “school boy pranks” or teachers asking “why can’t you sit nicely like the girls?”

First Self Portrait
Contrary to more pessimistic societal assumptions, research has shown that old age often correlates with increased happiness. A recent Washington Post story reports on studies that seek to explain this trend.

One factor that may lead to increased happiness is the emotional and cognitive stability that grows with old age.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

Wisdom, while long associated with age, has always remained a murky term. Ipsit Vahia, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego, explains

“[wisdom] involves making decisions that would be to the greater benefit of a larger number of people” and maintaining “an element of pragmatism, not pure idealism. And it would involve some sense of reflection and self-understanding.”

The source of this wisdom and happiness remains subject to debate. Some emphasize neurobiological changes.

An MRI scan cannot isolate a part of the brain associated with wisdom, says Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist and author of “The Wisdom Paradox.” Still, he says, the aging brain has a greater sense of “pattern recognition,” the ability to capture a range of similar but nonidentical information, then extract and piece together common features. That, Goldberg says, “gives some old people a cognitive leg up.”

While others attribute the change to social and emotional factors such as the ability to regulate emotions. Psychologist Susanne Scheibbe cites a pragmatic basis for cognitive change.

“Old people are good at shaping everyday life to suit their needs,” explains Scheibe. By carefully pruning their social networks or looking at life in relative terms, older adults maintain cognitive control. And although multiple chronic illnesses that cause functional disability or cognitive decline can affect well-being, most older adults are able to tune out negative information into their late 70s and 80s.

So perhaps there is something to that whole ‘respect your elders’ thing. Or as the Washington Post story concludes

If older adults are predisposed to wisdom, perhaps a graying population means a wiser one.

Using Twitter

The Los Angeles Times reports that there can be a disconnect between our “real life” and virtual personalities:

Just because popular social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, encourage members to use their actual identities doesn’t mean people are presenting themselves online the way they do in real life.

Some psychologists and sociologists who have studied usage habits on Twitter, Facebook and popular dating sites say there’s little correlation between how people act on the Internet and how they are in person.

A sociologist argues that people may polish up their online selves, and she thinks that what happens on the web is likely to have consequences for the real world person:

Online, people tend to exaggerate their personas because they have much more time to revise and calculate the content they present than in spontaneous face-to-face interactions.

“The persona online may be much more fabulous, much more exciting than the everyday life that they’re leading,” said Julie Albright, a digital sociologist at USC, “because they see everybody else doing it.”

Twitter, in many ways, has become a personal broadcast medium.

“It has turned people into mini-broadcasters,” Albright said. “It makes them in a way stars of their own reality shows.”

Albright points out that actions online can, however, influence real-life behavior. A new batch of followers on Twitter could translate into a more positive outlook.

“They can go back to their lives and have a boost of confidence,” she said.

100B8130The New York Times recently featured an op-ed by David Brooks on the role of sports in American society.  Commenting on the teachings of sociologist Eugen Rosenstock Huessy:

He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

Brooks summarizes Michael Allen Gillespie’s take on how American sports are organized:

Throughout Western history, Gillespie argues, there have been three major athletic traditions. First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.

Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena. Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of the state.

Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and rule-abidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.

Gillespie argues that the American sports ethos is a fusion of these three traditions. American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. We behave like the British, but think like the Greeks, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former baseball commissioner, once observed.

Brooks also makes the case for the role of collective effervescence that college sports provide:

Several years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., for a conference. It was Saturday morning, and as my taxi got close to campus, I noticed people dressed in red walking in the same direction. At first it was a trickle, then thousands. It looked like the gathering of a happy Midwestern cult, though, of course, it was the procession to a football game.

In a segmented society, big-time college sports are one of the few avenues for large-scale communal participation. Mass college sports cross class lines. They induce large numbers of people in a region to stop, at the same time, and share common emotional experiences.

The crowds at big-time college sporting events do not sit passively, the way they do at a movie theater. They roar, suffer and invent chants (especially at Duke basketball games). Mass college sports are the emotional hubs at the center of vast networks of analysis, criticism and conversation. They generate loyalties that are less harmful than ethnic loyalties and emotional morality plays that are at once completely meaningless and totally consuming.

Professor outfit 1

The New York Times recently highlighted recent research by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse on the tendency for professors to be liberal:

New research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors.

In their findings, Gross and Fosse chalk this one up to typecasting:

Conjure up the classic image of a humanities or social sciences professor, the fields where the imbalance is greatest: tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular — and liberal. Even though that may be an outdated stereotype, it influences younger people’s ideas about what they want to be when they grow up.

Jobs can be typecast in different ways, said Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, who undertook the study. For instance, less than 6 percent of nurses today are men. Discrimination against male candidates may be a factor, but the primary reason for the disparity is that most people consider nursing to be a woman’s career, Mr. Gross said. That means not many men aspire to become nurses in the first place — a point made in the recent Lee Daniels film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” When John (Lenny Kravitz) asks the 16-year-old Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and her friends whether they’ve ever seen a male nurse before, all answer no amid giddy laughter.

Nursing is what sociologists call “gender typed.” Mr. Gross said that “professors and a number of other fields are politically typed.” Journalism, art, fashion, social work and therapy are dominated by liberals; while law enforcement, farming, dentistry, medicine and the military attract more conservatives.  “These types of occupational reputations affect people’s career aspirations,” [Gross] added.

Gross adds a bit of history to where this typecasting came from:

From the early 1950s William F. Buckley Jr. and other founders of the modern conservative movement railed against academia’s liberal bias. Buckley even published a regular column, “From the Academy,” in the magazine he founded, The National Review.

“Conservatives weren’t just expressing outrage,” Mr. Gross said, “they were also trying to build a conservative identity.” They defined themselves in opposition to the New Deal liberals who occupied the establishment’s precincts. Hence Buckley’s quip in the early 1960s: “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

In the 1960s college campuses, swelled by the large baby-boom generation, became a staging ground for radical leftist social and political movements, further moving the academy away from conservatism.

Gross and Fosse also note that stereotyping is not the only reason for the liberal leanings of the academy:

The characteristics that define one’s political orientation are also at the fore of certain jobs, the sociologists reported. Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income. 

A USA Today Op-Ed by Thomas Sander and Robert Putnam reveals a long-term consequence of unemployment:

Recent studies confirm the results of research during the Great Depression — unemployment badly frays a person’s ties with his community, sometimes permanently. After careful analysis of 20 years of monthly surveys tracking Americans’ social and political habits, our colleague Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin has found that unemployed Americans are significantly less involved in their communities than their employed demographic twins. The jobless are less likely to vote, petition, march, write letters to editors, or even volunteer. They attend fewer meetings and serve less frequently as leaders in local organizations. Moreover, sociologist Cristobal Young’s research finds that the unemployed spend most of their increased free time alone.

These negative social consequences outlast the unemployment itself. Tracking Wisconsin 1957 high school graduates, sociologists Jennie Brand and Sarah Burgard found that in contrast to comparable classmates who were never unemployed, graduates who lost jobs, even briefly and early in their careers, joined community groups less and volunteered considerably less over their entire lives. And economist Andrew Clark, psychologist Richard Lucas and others found that, unlike almost any other traumatic life event, joblessness results in permanently lower levels of life satisfaction, even if the jobless later find jobs.

Equally disturbing, high unemployment rates reduce the social and civic involvement even of those still employed. Lim has found that Americans with jobs who live in states with high unemployment are less civically engaged than workers elsewhere. In fact, most of the civic decay in hard-hit communities is likely due not to the jobless dropping out, but to their still-employed neighbors dropping out.

Some possible explanations for this disturbing trend:

What might explain the civic withdrawal during recessions? The jobless shun socializing, shamed that their work was deemed expendable. Economic depression breeds psychological depression. The unemployed may feel that their employer has broken an implicit social contract, deflating any impulse to help others. Where unemployment is high, those still hanging onto their jobs might work harder for fear of further layoffs, thus crowding out time for civic engagement. Above all, in afflicted communities, the contagion of psychic depression and social isolation spreads more rapidly than joblessness itself.