Networks are endlessly interesting. They shape the world around us like almost nothing else, yet we spend very little time thinking about them or recognizing the non-obvious ways effects they have on our world. Because we tend to think in bell curves, we get tricked by networks pretty often. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of feeling like everyone is talking about something when it turns out to be pretty self-contained to your little group. Well, some folks at USC have spent some time looking into just how networks create that illusion, which they call the majority illusion:
The majority illusion occurs when the most popular nodes are colored. Because these link to the greatest number of other nodes, they skew the view from the ground, as it were. That’s why this illusion is so closely linked to the friendship paradox.
Interestingly, the majority illusion can even show up when a node isn’t globally popular:
That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.
As with most things related to how ideas spread throughout networks, the more popular something is seems to be the only reliable indicator to how popular it will become.
This critique of Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment is really fascinating. Basically the author, who writes intro to psychology textbooks, suggests that the experiment was flawed because it urged students to act in the way they thought typical guards and prisoners would act. Here’s an excerpt that captures it pretty well:
In a nutshell, here’s the criticism, somewhat simplified. Twenty-one boys (OK, young men) are asked to play a game of prisoners and guards. It’s 1971. There have recently been many news reports about prison riots and the brutality of guards. So, in this game, what are these young men supposed to do? Are they supposed to sit around talking pleasantly with one another about sports, girlfriends, movies, and such? No, of course not. This is a study of prisoners and guards, so their job clearly is to act like prisoners and guards—or, more accurately, to act out their stereotyped views of what prisoners and guards do. Surely, Professor Zimbardo, who is right there watching them (as the Prison Superintendent) would be disappointed if, instead, they had just sat around chatting pleasantly and having tea. Much research has shown that participants in psychological experiments are highly motivated to do what they believe the researchers want them to do. Any characteristics of an experiment that let research participants guess how the experimenters expect or want them to behave are referred to as demand characteristics. In any valid experiment it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics. In this experiment, the demands were everywhere.
I find stuff like this really interesting. I think most research is flawed in that it asks people questions they aren’t really prepared to answer and in turn forces them to come up with a conclusion. I thought about this a lot when I made Brand Tags and people were asking me to put up logos that no one had seen before so they could get feedback. I would always argue that this was measuring brand perception and if no one knew your brand they would just comment on your logo, which isn’t particularly helpful. Brands, ultimately, are the sum total of all the experiences one has and no one ever experiences one by just seeing a logo on a blank page. They hear about it, see it on a shelf next to another product, or any number of other contextual clues. Obviously this situation is pretty different, but I think it’s part of a very broad mistake research makes in not controlling for context (or lack thereof).
I’ve been thinking about big data lately. Mostly I’ve been trying to articulate why it’s a big deal, which I know, but isn’t often put succinctly. Recently I had a thought that the reason it’s such a big deal is because it means we can move away from using samples to infer to using actuals to understand. That seems really obvious, but it wasn’t a connection I had made before (though I sort of think it was obvious to everyone else).
Anyway, on the big data tip, I found this Wired piece on “long data” pretty interesting (even though I thought I was going to hate it based on the title). The gist:
By “long” data, I mean datasets that have massive historical sweep — taking you from the dawn of civilization to the present day. The kinds of datasets you see in Michael Kremer’s “Population growth and technological change: one million BC to 1990,” which provides an economic model tied to the world’s population data for a million years; or in Tertius Chandler’s Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth, which contains an exhaustive dataset of city populations over millennia. These datasets can humble us and inspire wonder, but they also hold tremendous potential for learning about ourselves.
Not the most in-depth piece in the world, but I like new concepts, and this is one.
AllThingsD has an interesting little story about some recent Forrester research on internet usage. The gist is that Forrester asked people how much time they spend online and the number went down from 2011 instead of up. This would be shocking if it were true, but it’s not, and presents an interesting case of the problem with self-reporting in research. The article sums it up like this:
“Despite the fact that they always have connected devices and are always online, they don’t really realize they’re online,” said Forrester analyst Gina Sverdlov. “They’re using Google Maps or checking in on Facebook, but that’s not considered online because it has become such a part of everyday life.”
It’s actually amazing to me we don’t spend more time talking about the issues with self-reporting because this stuff happens all the time. People classically overreport the good things about themselves and underreport the bad stuff (if you compared the number of New Yorkers who say they read the times with the traffic/newspaper sales something doesn’t add up). On top of that, though, we ask seemingly innocuous questions that actually turn out to be confusing for regular folks (I don’t know how I’d answer how much time I spend “using” the internet either).
There is something important here as the web continues to shift to an ambient medium that is just tied into our lives. I think for those of us that have been living online for awhile now it’s no surprise, but it’s interesting to see others catching up to that way of thinking.
The data here is sort of interesting, but I’m not sure I buy the premise:
Ask Americans if they are willing to spend more to buy American-made products, and nearly half say they are often willing to do this. But in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, the country where a product is made trails price, quality, and even convenience, as an important factor in consumer decision-making. The public gives even less importance to a product’s brand, its impact on the environment, or the political leanings of the company that produces it.
Basically it breaks down that 76 percent say the price of the product is extremely important, 85 percent say quality is extremely important and only 31 percent say the brand is extremely important. I think the price thing is probably right, quality sounds like something people like to talk themselves into (if we cared that much then why do we buy so much Ikea furniture?) and brand seems like a classic case of people not understanding their own motivations. Sure, it might not seem like it, but when someone walks down the aisle and buys Crest instead of store-brand they’re choosing brand over quality and price and probably not even thinking about it. In fact, to most people I’d guess that brand equals quality.
[via Marginal Revolution]
Facebook did a big study on how we find information and, not entirely surprisingly, our weak ties tend to give us stuff we wouldn’t otherwise run across. Nothing really shocking there, but, as Slate notes, the scale of the study was:
The other crucial thing about this study is that it is almost unthinkably enormous. At the time of the experiment, there were 500 million active users on Facebook. Bakshy’s experiment included 253 million of them and more than 75 million shared URLs, meaning that in total, the study observed nearly 1.2 billion instances in which someone was or was not presented with a certain link. This scale is unheard of in academic sociological studies, which usually involve hundreds or, at most, thousands of people communicating in ways that are far less trackable.
Hardly shocking, but it turns out people are much better at predicting the behavior of others than themselves:
Psychologists have identified an important reason why our insight into our own psyches is so poor. Emily Balcetis and David Dunning found that when predicting our own behaviour, we fail to take the influence of the situation into account. By contrast, when predicting the behaviour of others, we correctly factor in the influence of the circumstances. This means that we’re instinctually good social psychologists but at the same time we’re poor self-psychologists.
It’s interesting to think about what puts us in social-psychologist mode and whether we can switch that on for ourselves. Obviously it’s not natural, but it’s got to be possible, right?
[Via Barking Up The Wrong Tree]
Some interesting data and thoughts on what people choose to read later from Nieman Journalism Lab. The gist: “But the evidence seems to be that people find time-shifting useful regardless of length, and that using these tools for really long work is more of an edge case than common usage. It appears the user’s thought process is closer to ‘Let me read this later” than “Let me read this later because it’s really long and worthy.'”
Just in case you weren’t sure of just how much people like congress, here’s a shortlist of the organizations, ideas and individuals that beat them: The IRS, airline industry, lawyers, Nixon during Watergate, banks, the oil and gas industry, BP during the oil spill, Paris Hilton, US going communist and Hugo Chavez. Luckily, congress can sleep tight knowing they’re more popular that Fidel Castro was in 2008. (Two politics links in a row. Crazy.)
Experiments show that the shape of the human ear canal is to blame for the reaction we have to fingernails on a chalkboard. With that said, the more interesting part of the research is this:
A powerful psychological component was identified. If the listeners knew that the sound was fingernails on the chalkboard, they rated it as more unpleasant than if they were told it was from a musical composition. Even when they thought it was from music, however, their skin conductivity still changed consistently, suggesting that the physical part of the response remained.
Sounds sort of like the research around the effect of knowing the price of wine on its taste.