Understanding natural science as a social scientist

Even though I study social science, I’m still very much interested in natural science. For this reason, I like to read books on evolution theory by Dawkins. I often like to read about topics associated with this theory, so I don’t find his books hard to understand. However, I also wanted to know more about physics, so I decided to read A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawkings. I must say that I had trouble following Hawkings’ explanations.

Though, his book did teach me something outside of all the theories clarified by the author. As someone who studies social sciences, I often feel looked down upon by other fields of research. Psychology and sociology have really been working hard on their reputations and haven’t been around as long as natural sciences to prove themselves. Physics has this image that natural laws hold truth. We know the Earth is not flat, we know gravity is a thing, and we know molecules exist. Yet, social theories such as the Big Five are still met with reluctance.

But reading Hawkings’ book I realized that a myriad of natural science theories exist that we aren’t as confident in as the theory of gravity. What fascinated me even more is that opposing views exist in the natural science field! I was aware of the opposing views in regards to quantum physics, as it is relatively new. As researchers have used it to back up philosophical claims, such as free will and determinism.

Fortunately, I also gained a better understanding of Einstein’s relativity theory, blackholes, and some of the elementary particles. Although I had to do my best to grasp what the author was trying to explain, I did learn several new things. Even if your understanding of physics is whatever you learned in a physic’s class in high school, I do recommend this book. You do gain a better insight of how natural science works.

social sciences

Why don’t people help each other anymore?

Often you hear people make statements such as: ‘people don’t help each other out anymore!’. This broad claim is applied to many different situations. This idea is often paired with the individualistic mindset that is supposedly growing, especially in western countries. Everyone is only focusing on their own goals and obligations, not paying attention to the ones around them. A second, more practical example is that of crisis situations. This could be a situation in which a stranger needs help, for instance someone being harassed, got injured, or can’t do something. There are so many stories on people suffering while onlookers do absolutely nothing. And immediately it’s assumed that those bystanders are cold-hearted individuals who do not care for others’ troubles.

But I want to argue that there are many factors involved that cause people not to help out, it is a very complex process. Researchers have found that these onlookers are not likely to help out because of the bystander effect. Imagine a scenario in a busy street where a person trips and falls. People either quickly glance at the ‘victim’ or might ignore them altogether. But why doesn’t anyone feel inclined to help out? Before discussing the mechanisms at work I will present a different scenario that was used in an experimental setting.

Imagine sitting in a waiting room with two other people, waiting for the researchers to come and get you. Suddenly a bit of smoke seems to enter the room. You study the faces of the two other people in the room. They do not seem to react to the smoke at all. More and more smoke starts to fill the room, yet no one reacts, including yourself. Now, let’s change the setting a bit. This time you’re alone in the waiting room, smoke starts filling the room. This time you get up to warn the researchers. [Click here to see a video depicting this situation]
This is more or less what was found in Latane and Darley’s (1968) study. People are more likely to report the smoke when sitting alone in the room. This principle can be applied to many different situations in which there is some kind of danger or emergency, and action is required.

So why don’t we help out?
But if you’d ask people how they would react in such a situation, most people would probably say that they would definitely help out. However, social factors are much more important than we think. Unknowingly we are incredibly influenced by the presence of others. But why does this make us less likely to help out? What is going on? First of all, there is uncertainty. Situations are often very ambiguous and it’s hard to interpret what is going on. This makes it even more difficult to react accordingly, we don’t know what is expected of us. Is the smoke filling the room normal? Or is it dangerous? Is the person tripping and falling really hurt? Or do they not want me to approach them? Second, there is the diffusion of responsibility. Others are present, why aren’t they helping out or doing something? Why do I have to be the one to report it? Or: I am sure someone else will help the person that fell down.

When to help out?
It gets even trickier when the bystander effect is present due to the two aforementioned principles involved. Because you could argue that the bystander effect begets the bystander effect. If you’re in an ambiguous situation where no one is helping out, you might look at other people’s reactions to find out whether it’s serious and help is required. But that is the issue, everyone has a straight face, looking at how others are reacting.
Therefore, interpretation of the situation can be very problematic. To draw up another example, imagine a man and a woman fighting in public. They are screaming at each other and at one point, the man hits the woman. Should you step in? Do they know each other? Is that ‘normal’ behavior to them? What if the man (or woman) ends up trying to (physically) fight you if you butt in? I can list many examples from the news of people trying to help out that resulted in their death.

Helping: rural vs urban
There are different factors that can influence bystander effect. It has been hypothesized many times that people in rural settings are more likely to help out than in urban settings. And Steblay (1987) found results in line with this statement. I am going to speculate here that anonymity might play a role in helping behavior as well. In smaller communities, such as rural areas, people might be related to each other in one way or another. And we are more likely help those out that we have some kind of relation to (e.g. acquaintances, coworkers, neighbors).

How to make people help!
If one person approaches a person that needs help, more people will likely follow. This is because someone interpreted the situation, and they assumed the person needed help. Therefore, more people are more likely to follow their lead. We can always ask someone if they need help. In my experience, this is an easy way to find out if you should do something. There have only been a few times that people were unkind, but they might be embarrassed that they fell or really value their independence. If you are the one that needs help, screaming ‘help!’ doesn’t always work. Point at someone and try to directly ask people for help. This way you give people the responsibility to help out, eliminating the diffusion of responsibility principle.

Why aren’t we helping out anymore?
I have read statements by people claiming that we have become individualistic and we no longer help each other anymore. First of all, I would like to challenge this claim by asking what time period we are comparing today with. Was there ever a time when we actively helped each other out? From a sociologist perspective, over the last hundred years, we did become more individualistic. And often the possible negative consequences are discussed and the positive ones are left untouched. I would like to argue that individualism has both detrimental and stimulating effects, both on macro and micro level. However I am not convinced that individualism leads to less helping behavior. Our genetic makeup still influences this type of behavior, as we are likely to carry out altruistic acts, especially for our kin.

Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 10(3), 215.

Steblay, N. M. (1987). Helping behavior in rural and urban environments: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 102(3), 346.

First picture source.

social media

Social Media: fear of missing out

With the emergence of social media, new problems have surfaced. However, the question is whether these problems are substantial enough to consider. For instance, internet addiction can be considered a new issue, but addiction existed in other forms before the internet came to be. And since addiction has been tied to biological processes, these underlying mechanisms could make individuals more susceptible to (internet) addiction (Vink et al. 2015; Kühn and Gallinat, 2015; Zhang et al. 2015). But let’s focus on the social spaces in this virtual world, which created a new fear: the fear of missing out.

However since the fear of missing (FoMO) out is still a new concept in regards to online communication, I still find it quite broadly defined. It seems to be used mainly in regards to social networking sites, but you can imagine that this could also be used in terms of other online services, such as messaging applications. People share social information on sites such as Facebook and people might feel like missing out on such information when not regularly checking this site. Since all of these different services can be accessed through a smartphone, it has become difficult for people to not regularly check for new notifications. Different people have voiced their criticism on device use and often refer to a time when the internet wasn’t a ‘big thing’. But not having access to the internet is almost unthinkable in many parts of the world today. It is not just used to keep in touch with our family or friends, but government departments, schools, employers, etc. expect us to be able to use the internet. Lacking skills or access could ultimately result in digital exclusion.

Though the fear of missing out is also applicable in the offline world. People not being able to attend a ‘get together’ or not being invited to one could also elicit this fear. Przybylski et al (2013) created a FoMO scale to measure this construct for their study. Items included in the scale were:
“Sometimes, I wonder if I spend too much time keeping up with what is going on”.
“When I go on vacation, I continue to keep tabs on what my friends are doing”.
These same researchers found that especially young males are susceptible to FoMO. Those who score high on this construct are more likely to check their social media when waking up, during eating, and before going to sleep. Students high on FoMO were also more likely to engage in social media use during lectures. And lastly, high scoring FoMO individuals tend to use their smartphone while driving.

Dossey (2014) wrote an interesting article about the practicalities of FoMO. For instance, he discusses a new term coined by South Korean doctors, digital dementia. In this new “dementia” people’s right side of the brain become underdeveloped, while the left side is overdeveloped. Symptoms tied to this phenomenon affect memory and attention span, and impulse control.

Here I want to postulate that there could be underlying biological mechanisms at work in regards to online behaviors. There have been studies in such settings, for instance, Sherman et al. (2016) found increased activity in neural pathways (using fMRI) when adolescents were exposed to pictures with many ‘likes’. This activity is related to reward systems.
The feel-good hormones in those reward systems stimulate us to carry out certain behaviors. If we have been enforced to do something that releases such hormones, we are very likely to keep repeating them. That is why we engage in certain behaviors, such as eating delicious food, having sex, and check our phone. And if seeing a notification pop up on our smartphone screens can elicit such strong feelings, it is only natural for us to feel so attached to our phones.

Dossey, L. (2014). FOMO, Digital Dementia, and Our Dangerous Experiment

Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2015). Brains online: structural and functional correlates of habitual Internet use. Addiction biology, 20(2), 415-422.

Przybylski, A. K., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C. R., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1841-1848.

Sherman, L. E., Payton, A. A., Hernandez, L. M., Greenfield, P. M., & Dapretto, M. (2016). The power of the like in adolescence: Effects of peer influence on neural and behavioral responses to social media. Psychological science, 27(7), 1027-1035.

Vink, J. M., Beijsterveldt, T. C., Huppertz, C., Bartels, M., & Boomsma, D. I. (2015). Heritability of compulsive Internet use in adolescents. Addiction biology.

Zhang, J. T., Yao, Y. W., Li, C. S. R., Zang, Y. F., Shen, Z. J., Liu, L., … & Fang, X. Y. (2015). Altered resting‐state functional connectivity of the insula in young adults with Internet gaming disorder. Addiction biology.


Let’s Hypothesize: Critical Thinking and Truth on the internet

In the first part of the ‘Let’s Hypothesize’ series, I discussed the impact of the internet, which can be read here.

I find ‘critical thinking’ a difficult topic to discuss since it seems very vague to me. What is considered to be critical? One idea that I repeatedly hear is that people that attend University are taught to think critically. However, I am not sold on this idea just yet. To me, it seems as if institutions teach you a set of rules to apply to study or understand phenomena and when these rules are actively used it is considered to be critical. And different institutions teach different rules to adhere to when, for example, handing in papers or projects. In my experience, thinking outside the box (rules) barely gets you credit. You might hear words of disapproval such as ‘you clearly didn’t understand the essence of this exercise’ or ‘no, you’re interpreting [insert writer/scientist/painter] wrong!’. I personally felt agitated when literature teachers would look for deeper meanings in famous writers’ texts. I mean, did the writer really intend to ‘add’ a deeper meaning to their texts.

Another anecdotal story is when I visited an art museum. This museum had an entire floor dedicated to medieval art. Those who have been exposed to medieval art might now that the perspective tends to be off and you can run into the occasional fish-human, or goats flying through the sky. So some of these paintings really made me laugh when studying them. However I got very dirty looks from the other museum visitors. And then I wondered, did Jeroen Bosch really want me to take his art that seriously? Or was he genuinely poking fun at the world? Why are we so serious when it comes to art and literature? Or do we have to scrutinize every single aspect of the painting and look for deeper meanings?

 Social media and politics
One of the areas I am most interested in when it comes to the use of scrutiny in regards to analyzing situations or objects, is politics. Right now news outlets spend a lot of time covering today’s happenings in politics. So the public is exposed to this information and there seems to be a demand for it as well. With the existence of spaces on the internet (e.g. social media) where people from most parts of the world can engage in discussion, not only are we exposed to information that is supposed to be factual but also others’ opinions. And this creates new and interesting phenomena when it comes to forming attitudes and critical thinking.

Am I normal?
I feel like on of the important aspects of the internet is that people who felt excluded can look actively look for others just like them. Entire communities erupted that shared the same interest, and sometimes even met up offline through conventions. Nowadays so many different hobbies and interests exist that it seems as if humans are becoming more complex in what they take pleasure in. Individuals who might have initially felt somewhat left out because of their interests can now talk to people online about their favorite topics. I recall a time on Facebook when ‘that awkward moment when…’ was a widespread discussed topic. Same goes for ‘I do this thing where I…’ to express the ‘weird’ things that they do. And what happened? A lot of people pointed out that they felt the same way. And using many online communities online, people could suddenly ask millions of people, anonymously, how to fix all sorts of issues. While before most teen magazines would cover such problems through ‘Ask [insert name]’, now it is much easier and faster to simply browse through questions asked by others.

Being exposed to many different opinions people can also become much more polarized in their attitudes. For instance, before people would solely discuss their political beliefs at parties or family events. But now you can look for others alike and talk about your shared beliefs. Though this might become an ‘echo chamber’, where everyone just repeats the same idea over and over. And we have this tendency to start believing things if we hear them enough times. It is also easier to avoid those who have different beliefs, so it is possible to continuously ignore these opinions. So not only will those who hold extreme views start to feel ‘more normal’, they might also become even more extreme.

New online news sites and objectivity
There seems to an increase in new forms of news sites, there are sites that affiliate themselves with extreme political views. The issue with this is that authors might become more biased in order to justify their political views. There are news sites that aren’t necessarily tied to a political ideology, but it seems to be difficult to write a news article without picking a side. The question is, does objectivity really exist? I fear it does not. Whether you want to add a certain meaning to a text, people will interpret it however they want. Though, I do think it is possible to strive for some kind of objectivity. I am aware of the fact that this sounds very vague, but this is an issue of ethics. If you misinform your readers to fit your ‘agenda’ by (creatively) changing statistics, photoshopping images, or deliberately cutting a video to your liking, what are you trying to tell and sell?

Real truth, science, and philosophy
According to several individuals we have entered a time of reflexive modernization (Giddens, Beck, Lash). In this type of society we are constantly evaluating everything around us. This means that before a policy is implemented it will be scrutinized to ensure that it won’t pose any risks to anyone. We constantly want to create buffers before problems can happen. Because if they do, groups of people will be blamed and will be held responsible. An opinion I often hear from parents on scientists is: ‘with my first child I had to make sure that I positioned him like this and that in their crib, but with my second child I had to do the exact opposite! It is like scientists can’t make up their minds!’. Besides, you want to do the best you can and follow orders from your doctor,
but they cannot anticipate everything, unfortunately!
But then we reach this state where truth becomes this philosophical concept. Because when is something really true? Before you come up with a definition, I can write an essay on how our senses are fallible and that we see and hear things that aren’t even present in the ‘real world’. So when do we observe the absolute truth? Because studies have shown us time and time that we see what we want to see or are primed to see. The image above is a representation of this, why do we perceive a triangle in the top image and a sphere in the bottom image? (This is considered to be Gestalt Psychology)

Critical thinking and truth
I am curious to know whether critical thinking has always been a favorable thing, or was it considered defiance in the past? And will we move to a new phase in the cycle where such thinking will again be reprimanded. I often see the word ‘sheeple’ used as an argument when people have a different opinion in a discussion. Through a quick Google search you will find that sheeple are considered to be people who just follow the crowd and are unable to form their own opinions. But still, what is critical thinking really? Is it when you have an opinion that doesn’t match those the majority hold? Google gives me the following definition: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement. But what is objectivity if we cannot observe the truth?

‘Let’s Hypothesize’ is part of an article series in which I do not rely on scientific references. Instead I will speculate on topics related to consumer behavior. Plus I will include more historical facts and sociological theories.

social sciences

In defense of Psychology: reading your mind?

Unfortunately, psychology is sometimes associated with mind-reading or fortune-telling. However as a psych student I’m still waiting for the part of the curriculum that contains courses on how to successfully read your mind and speculate on your future. These kinds of assumptions often make it difficult to get taken seriously as a science. But I can guarantee you that psychology fits the current science paradigm, we conduct experiments and, yes, we use statistics. 

Matchbox trick
Though there are some ‘tricks’ that can make people seem like mind readers. One of the oldest is the matchbox trick. You can go ahead and write the following numbers on the white surface of a match box.


Ask people to pick a number, displayed on the match box. People are very likely to pick ‘3’.  So write a ‘3’ on the back of the matchbox, so you can show people afterward that you knew which number they were going to pick.
Now I have to disappoint you, no mind-reading goes into this ‘trick’. People behave according to patterns, and that is what psychologists want to figure out. Because it is incredibly imperative to be able to predict human behavior. Because as physical diseases are still seen as more serious, mental disorders are very real. And what is often forgotten is that physical diseases have a psychological side to them. This is due to the fact that a myriad of diseases can take a toll on our mental health as well.

But back to the ‘mind-reading’ skills. Another trick is used by people in daily lives, horoscopes. Statements made in horoscopes are great because they could be applicable to anyone. Also, the wording used is very interesting as well. Using words or phrases such as ‘could happen’ or  ‘it might be a good idea’ indicate uncertainty, your horoscope doesn’t state things that are going to happen for sure. And statements including could and might are not falsifiable, which means they cannot be seen as theories. So you can go ahead a random horoscope and it will still be applicable to you. However we get attached to the horoscope were supposedly born with, therefore we can come up with a million reasons why only our own horoscope fits. A description that can fit almost anyone is also referred to as a ‘Barnum statement’ (Forer, 1949).
The following three statements are examples of this effect:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

Most people will feel like these could accurately describe them, in fact, this has been tested in an experiment. And as it turns out, people will reason that these do apply to them.

Just like the matchbox trick there are more ways to ‘mind read’. For example, if I ask you to name a construction tool or a color, you’re more likely to say hammer and red (or blue). That is because our mind is a semantic network, it has been built up by associations. This is where priming becomes important, which can also help guess what others are thinking of. Priming is when I remind you of chairs, so now you think about chairs. The concept of chairs is now ‘activated’ in your semantic network. This could make you quicker at naming other pieces of furniture, such as tables or couches. All of these concepts are associated in our minds.

So in conclusion, no psychologists do not read your mind, people are sometimes predictable. If you’re currently receiving psychological help, or maybe a tip for the future, please tell your psychologist everything that is relevant — because they cannot read your mind.

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”(PDF). Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 44 (1): 118–123.