social psychology

Screenshot_15Naama Nagar tweeted us an interesting video commentary about hipsters.  In it, Mike Rugnetta uses Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital to describe the difference between nerds and hipsters.

This is a topic I’ve enjoyed thinking about myself (on CNN and here at SocImages).  I think Rugnetta makes an interesting argument that resonates with the observations of sociologists: being a hipster is about borrowing other people’s authentic cultural signifiers as their main or only consistent cultural practice.  Check it out:

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In honor of yesterday’s game, we’re re-posting two of our favorite football-related posts. This one and one about how much of a three-hour televised NFL games actually involves the game itself.
MontClair SocioBlog’s Jay Livingston posted the wickedly creative football play embedded below.  The play, pulled off by Driscoll Middle School’s football team (Corpus Christi, TX), is a wonderful example of the importance of a shared understanding of context.  Watch the clip:

Understanding the context of interaction heavily influences what you say and do and how you interpret others’ speech and actions. The behavior that you exhibit on a first date, for example, is very different than the behavior you exhibit in your professor’s office hours, or at Thanksgiving, or at a sports bar with your buddies. The situation shapes whether or not you can get away with bragging, farting, or being withdrawn, drunk, or loquacious.  And it shapes what we expect from others too.  In other words, we often think we know who we are, but who we are actually changes quite dramatically from situation to situation.

In this case, the offense did something entirely unexpected given the understanding of the context.  He isn’t supposed to just get up and walk through the defensive line.  And, so, when he did, the defense took several seconds to figure out what to do.  It’d be like your Grandma getting drunk at Thanksgiving (maybe) or your partner farting on the first date; such behaviors are confounding because it involves deviating from the script determined by the situation.  In Livingston’s words:

In this middle-school football play, the quarterback and center do something unusual for someone in those roles. They don’t violate the official rulebook, but their behavior is outside the norms of the game everyone knows. What’s going on? The defense looks around to the others for their cue as to what to do. They see the offensive line motionless in their stances, and they see their own teammates too looking uncertain rather than trying to make a tackle. So nobody defines the play as having started. But it has. Only when the quarterback, having walked past eight definitionless players, starts running do they arrive at an accurate definition, and by then, it’s too late. Touchdown.

See also our post about virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell in the subway.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Cross-posted at Global Policy TV and Pacific Standard.

Publicizing the release of the 1940 U.S. Census data, LIFE magazine released photographs of Census enumerators collecting data from household members.  Yep, Census enumerators. For almost 200 years, the U.S. counted people and recorded information about them in person, by sending out a representative of the U.S. government to evaluate them directly (source).

By 1970, the government was collecting Census data by mail-in survey. The shift to a survey had dramatic effects on at least one Census category: race.

Before the shift, Census enumerators categorized people into racial groups based on their appearance.  They did not ask respondents how they characterized themselves.  Instead, they made a judgment call, drawing on explicit instructions given to the Census takers.

On a mail-in survey, however, the individual self-identified.  They got to tell the government what race they were instead of letting the government decide.  There were at least two striking shifts as a result of this change:

  • First, it resulted in a dramatic increase in the Native American population.  Between 1980 and 2000, the U.S. Native American population magically grew 110%.  People who had identified as American Indian had apparently been somewhat invisible to the government.
  • Second, to the chagrin of the Census Bureau, 80% of Puerto Ricans choose white (only 40% of them had been identified as white in the previous Census).  The government wanted to categorize Puerto Ricans as predominantly black, but the Puerto Rican population saw things differently.

I like this story.  Switching from enumerators to surveys meant literally shifting our definition of what race is from a matter of appearance to a matter of identity.  And it wasn’t a strategic or philosophical decision. Instead, the very demographics of the population underwent a fundamental unsettling because of the logistical difficulties in collecting information from a large number of people.  Nevertheless, this change would have a profound impact on who we think Americans are, what research about race finds, and how we think about race today.

See also the U.S. Census and the Social Construction of Race and Race and Censuses from Around the World. To look at the questionnaires and their instructions for any decade, visit the Minnesota Population Center.  Thanks to Philip Cohen for sending the link.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Originally cross-posted at Family Inequality.

The other day the New York Times had a Gray Matter science piece by the authors of a study in PLoS One that showed some people could identify gays and lesbians based only on quick flashes of their unadorned faces. They wrote:

We conducted experiments in which participants viewed facial photographs of men and women and then categorized each face as gay or straight. The photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos.

…participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation: overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate.

Since chance guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, 60 percent might not seem impressive. But the effect is statistically significant — several times above the margin of error. Furthermore, the effect has been highly replicable: we ourselves have consistently discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.

This may be seen as confirmation of the inborn nature of sexual orientation, if it can be detected by a quick glance at facial features.

Sample images flashed during the “gaydar” experiment:

There is a statistical issue here that I leave to others to consider: the sample of Facebook pictures the researchers used was 48% gay/lesbian (111/233 men, 87/180 women). So if, as they say, it is 64% accurate at detecting lesbians, and 57% accurate at detecting gay men, how useful is gaydar in real life (when about 3.5% of people are gay or lesbian, when people aren’t reduced to just their naked, hairless facial features, and you know a lot of people’s sexual orientations from other sources)? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not much.

Anyway, I have a serious basic reservation about studies like this — like those that look for finger-lengthhair-whorltwin patterns, and other biological signs of sexual orientation. To do it, the researchers have to decide who has what sexual orientation in the first place — and that’s half the puzzle. This is unremarked on in the gaydar study or the op-ed, and appears to cause no angst among the researchers. They got their pictures from Facebook profiles of people who self-identified as gay/lesbian or straight (I don’t know if that was from the “interested in” Facebook option, or something else on their profiles).

Sexual orientation is multidimensional and determined by many different things — some combination of (presumably many) genes, hormonal exposures, lived experiences. And for some people at least, it changes over the course of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to measure.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which someone who felt gay at a young age married heterogamously anyway — not too uncommon. Would such a person self-identify as gay on Facebook? Probably not. But if someone in that same situation got divorced and then came out of the closet they probably would self-identify as gay then.

Consider another new study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which used a large sample of people interviewed 10 years apart. They found changes in sexual orientation were not that rare. Here is my table based on their results:Overall, 2% of people changed their response to the sexual orientation identity question. That’s not that many — but then only 2.5% reported homosexual or bisexual identities in the first place.

In short, self identification may be the best standard we have for sexual orientation identity (which isn’t the same as sexual behavior), but it’s not a good fit for studies trying to get at deep-down gay/straight-ness, like the gaydar study or the biological studies.

And we need to keep in mind that this is all complicated by social stigma around sexual orientation. So who identifies as what, and to whom, is never free from political or power issues.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Over at the Ms. blog, Rachel Kassenbrock posted an adorable video of two Capuchin monkeys given unequal rewards for the same task. The monkey who gets the lesser reward displays her displeasure, in no uncertain terms.

The research, described by primatologist Frans de Waal, has been reproduced in chimps, dogs, and birds. It reveals an inherent sense of fairness, suggesting that social justice may not be a silly fantasy, but quite natural indeed.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

At the GOP convention in August, Mitt Romney’s cavalier dismissal of global warming got the intended laughs.  Today, it seems less funny and the Democrats are capitalizing on the turn of events:

Here’s the transcript:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the
oceans and to heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family.

In two short sentences, Romney gives us the broader context for the denial of global warming:  the denial of society itself.  He echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

This doesn’t mean that there are no groups beyond the family.  But those larger groups are valid only because individuals, consciously and voluntarily, chose to create them.  This way of thinking about the relation between individuals and groups has long been an underlying principle of American thought.  Claude Fischer, in Made in America calls it “voluntarism” – the idea that the only legitimate groups are the ones that people voluntarily form or join.*  The individual has a strong obligation to those groups and their members, but he has little or no obligation towards groups and people he did not choose.

That is a moral position.  It tells us what is morally O.K., and what is not.  If I did not choose to join a group, I make no claims on others, and it is wrong for others – whether as individuals or as an organized group, even a government – to make any claim upon me.

That moral position also shapes the conservative view of reality, particularly about our connectedness to other people and to the environment.  Ideas about what is right determine ideas about what is true.  The conservative rejects non-voluntary connections as illegitimate, but he also denies that they exist.  If what I do affects someone else, that person has some claim upon me; but unless I voluntarily enter into that relationship,  that claim is morally wrong.  So in order to remain free of that claim, I must believe that what I do does not affect others, at least not in any harmful way.

It’s easy to maintain that belief when the thing being affected is not an individual or family but a large and vague entity like “society” or “the environment.”  If I willingly join with many other people, then I will see how our small individual acts – one vote, one small donation, one act of charity, etc. – add up to a large effect. That effect is what we intended.  But if we separately, individually, drive a lot in our SUVs, use mega-amounts of electricity, and so on, we deny that these acts can add up to any unintended effect on the planet.

As Fischer says, voluntarism is characteristically American.  So is the denial of global warming.  At a recent Romney rally (video here), when a protester yelled out the question, “What about climate?” Romney stands there, grinning but silent, and the crowd starts chanting, “USA, USA.”  The message is clear: we don’t talk about climate change; we’re Americans.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University.  You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.  Two more posts on voluntarism are here and here.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that reaffirms our pre-existing beliefs. We may selectively notice information; for instance, if we think the full moon makes people act weird, we’re likely to notice and remember strange things we see people doing during a full moon better than strange things we observe at other times (or than all the people we see acting perfectly normally during a full moon). We tend to perceive what we expect to see, our brains struggling to come up with reasons that justify what we already think.

Dmitriy T.C. sent in a video that illustrates this particular type of selective thinking. Jimmy Kimmel gave people on the street an exclusive look at the iPhone 5 and asked what they thought of it. Except, of course, the iPhone 5 isn’t available yet. What he actually gave them was an iPhone 4S. But when told they’re looking at a new version of the iPhone, everyone immediately perceives clear improvements that make it better than the iPhone 4.

You might expect this from people who don’t have much knowledge of iPhones; they don’t have a clear basis for comparison, so whatever features seem neat, they assume are new. But even people holding their own iPhone 4 up for direct comparison perceive the “iPhone 5” Kimmel hands them to be superior, noting a range of details — it’s lighter, faster, just clearly better. They think a new version of a gadget must be way more awesome than the previous version, and Apple has an aura of coolness that leads people to expect their new products should be extra amazing. Since people expect a new iPhone to be awesome, they notice, or invent, features that confirm that it is, indeed, awesome.

It’s a really fun demonstration of this cognitive bias:

This week on PostSecret I stumbled across the following confession: 

The idea that certain beliefs about college may not be true reminded me of the concept of pluralistic ignorance.  The phrase refers to a phenomenon in which a large proportion of a population misunderstands reality.

For example, while many college students think that lots of people hook up a lot, 80% of college students hook up less than once a semester, on average.  About 40% of those hook ups involve intercourse, while a strong third just involve getting horizontal and making out.  Students, for what it’s worth, also tend to consistently overestimate how much drugs and alcohol other students are consuming.

So, while “everyone thinks” that “everyone has fun during their freshman year.”  In fact, the person who wrote this confession may be a lot less alone than s/he thinks, even if most people think that everyone does, in fact, have fun.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.