social psychology

More and more, I’ve noticed that my online browsing seems to steer me in familiar circles. For example:

  • Facebook makes suggestions on things to read that are very much in line with what I am already reading
  • Amazon suggests books and products based on books and products that I have already searched or purchased
  • Google searches net results that seem tailored specifically to me
  • Twitter, iTunes, Vitacost, Songza, Netflix…..basically anywhere I go on the web seems to make suggestions that are all about ME and my preferences

Coincidence? I think not!

While it is convenient to have information personalized specifically to me and my tastes, I sometimes get the feeling that this constant personalization must have implications for how we develop ideas, come to know about products and people and in general, understand the world.

According to Eli Pariser, a pioneering online organizer, the co-founder of Upworthy and author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, it does.

In a personalized world, we will increasingly be typed and fed only news that is pleasant, familiar, and confirms our beliefs-and because these filters are invisible, we won’t know what is being hidden from us. Our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation, and the democratic exchange of ideas.

Here is a talk Eli gave in 2011 on “filter bubbles”.

The implications for how these filters are affecting what we think we know are considerable and far-reaching.

As humans we are by nature cognitive misers – always looking for mental shortcuts and simplicities as we seek to make sense of the world. These built-in, largely invisible filters make it that much easier for us to ignore and discount all that does not easily fit with our beliefs. And because these filters are largely invisible, in many cases we have no way to know what we do not know.

Want to “pop your filter bubble”? Eli lists 10 practical, quick and easy things you can do to help reduce personalization filters as you navigate the web.


The Almighty Group

by Vicki on February 7, 2014

At least a couple times this week I’ve heard individuals disparaging others who happen to be in complimentary fields. One instance involved a physician and the other a veterinarian. In both cases, they were discounting alternative approaches to achieving well-being and health.

Both of these examples left me scratching my head.

Why isn’t there more collaboration between these two camps? Where does the animosity and distrust come from? Aren’t these people all playing on the same “help creatures be well” team?

As I thought about it more, this tendency for groups of people who “should” theoretically be able to appreciate alternative points of view or methods can be found in many contexts – government, academic circles, parenting styles, health, religion…the list is endless.

What is this about?

I think some of this contention can be explained by economics, differing philosophies and values. But I also think social psychological theories that shed light on the power of the “group” and group behavior also apply:

  • Group think: The tendency for members of a group to reach decisions without weighing all the facts, especially those contradicting the majority opinion. When groups members agree, and are generally happy with that agreement, we typically do not want to hear contrasting ideas.
  • Group polarization: The tendency for members of a cohesive group to make more extreme decisions due to the lack of opposing views. With group polarization, the group gets so focused and energized about a decision, opposing views are not considered and the push to move forward for a given idea is fueled internally.
  • Discontinuity effect of inter-group conflict: The tendency in some settings for relations between groups to be more competitive, or less cooperative, than relations between individuals
  • Realistic group conflict theory: This theory explains how hostility between groups can arise because of conflicting goals and competition over limited resources (e.g., real or perceived scarcity of money, political power, military protection, or social status)
  • In-group favoritism (and the related implicit egotism): The tendency to favor our own group (versus other groups) because of an unconscious preference for things associated with the self. Positive emotions such as admiration and trust tend to be reserved for the in-group (Brewer, 1999).

My list is by no means exhaustive. But just reading through some of the online research on groups helps make sense about the conflicts I’ve heard this week.

It doesn’t necessarily matter if the groups SHOULD theoretically be able to align, what might matter most is that groups are part of the equation.

What groups do you subscribe to? How does it affect your ability to interpret information? How does group identification affect your perceptions of those in other groups?

In a follow up post I’ll explore how social psychologists have managed to get people to see and move beyond the mighty hold of the group.



Internet Anger

by Vicki on January 24, 2014

I’m blogging about the obvious this week – the Internet is an angry place.

If you spend any amount of time online, you know that anger is one of the most common expressions of emotion you see as you navigate the Internet. Bloggers write angry posts, podcasters spew angry rants, Facebookers somehow get into battles of words over seemingly trivial issues and Twitter-ers manage to get into scuffles that even make the news.

According to Nick English of USA Today,

Beihang University researchers studied 70 million Weibo “tweets” over a six-month period, sorting them into the emotional categories of anger, joy, sadness, and disgust. While sadness and disgust didn’t appear to cause sympathetic emotion, happy tweets were likely to cause joy among those who follow and retweet them. Unfortunately, rage was the emotion most likely to spread across social media…

But I don’t think this completely explains what prompted me to write this post – a question on a nearby Facebook community site that asked about residents’ interest in a new business opportunity. To date there are almost 200 replies and many of them ooze with anger and hate.


Why do people get so inflamed by online interactions? Is it the proverbial chicken or the egg? Do people come to the Internet angry or is it something intrinsic to online interaction that invites anger to brew?

Without any empirical data to support my claims, here’s what I think:

    • One logical explanation is that the anonymity the Internet offers makes it much easier to spew anger than it would if you were in the local grocery store interacting in person. This stuff doesn’t happen very often when you are face to face.
    • Communicating our thoughts and feelings is tough at the best of times. It is even tougher through a medium where you don’t have the luxury of seeing how your words are affecting others.
    • The Internet affords us a medium of communication where you can spend hours crafting the message and nobody interrupts. It is the perfect medium for a monologue. If you do have a bone to pick, you can pick it really really well online.
    • On the flip side, you can type up a quick response and let it fly into cyberspace with very little thought. It is SO easy to put something out there without thinking it through.
    • People pay more attention to negative information. The negativity bias refers to an asymmetry in the way we perceive good and bad information in that we give more weight and consideration to bad than we do to good (for more info, check out this post)

And finally, I do think that people might be coming to the Internet angry. Or at least open to the emotion of anger. And the Internet most definitely delivers!

When you beat up someone physically, you get exercise and stress relief; when you assault him verbally on the Internet, you just harm yourself.
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
― Aristotle


Happy New Year!

January 10, 2014

Happiness. We all seek it. We include it in many of our greetings. Some of us seem better at achieving it than others. What is it? A mindset? A mood? A way of looking at things? Over the Christmas break, I watched a documentary on Netflix called HAPPY – HAPPY is a feature-length documentary that […]

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This is Water

October 25, 2013

Every once in a while I come across some tidbit online that I really connect with – a photo, a video, a posting. It might connect the dots for me, help me understand my view of the world or really make me feel something (good or bad). Yesterday morning, I followed a link to a […]

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