Saturday, October 22, 2011

Still Too Pretty to Write this Blog Post: Gender and the STEM Fields Revisited

Just a quick post to revisit a topic I've covered before. One of my past blog posts was about two articles, one covering a controversial t-shirt marketed to young girls and the other discussing a study of men's and women's spatial ability in two cultures.

I just read an article about women in science that also provides some support that women are just as capable as men if given the right environment in which to thrive. It's interesting, though, that the professor in charge of the lab discussed in the article, worries that cultivating an all-women lab (at least by accident) may be as negative as the "old boys" labs of the past.

Some research has found that single gender classrooms are actually beneficial for both male and female students. Of course, at what point should integration happen (because it will have to happen eventually, unless you plan on the workplace also being divided)? And are there any long-term negative consequences associated with single gender classes? Does it make it difficult when the student finally encounters a member of the opposite gender in an academic setting? Or do these students, because of the lack of variability in gender in their classrooms, never learn that gender might be related to academic skills?

It seems, though, that Professor Harbron has every reason to be concerned. After all, even though you could argue, "Male students just don't seem to be interested in joining her lab, so why should we force them?", that argument has been used for a while to rationalize doing nothing to deal with many female students' lack of interest in the STEM fields.

I'm all about encouraging people "follow your dreams", but at some point, we have to recognize the powerful outside forces that can influence those dreams. As someone who discovered a love of math later in life, I wish I had had someone to help me with my struggles and push me to keep trying. In fact, it seems to me, the best way to encourage students to follow their dreams, is to get them to try everything and hold off on deciding what they want to do as their career until it is absolutely necessary for them to decide.

Yes, I know that sounds kind of counter-intuitive, but hear me out. In many other countries, students are tested early on to discover what they're good at. At some point, educators determine what Joe Student is good at, and begin training Joe in that discipline. Sure, our system is not as structured as that. Even if Joe is good at a certain thing, Joe can choose to go into another discipline all on his own. Still, once Joe has decided what he likes, we direct him toward activities and classes that will get him to his goal. And, if we think Joe is making a bad choice, we may try to direct him toward something else. But, if instead, we give Joe a taste of all his options without influencing him toward one field over another, and keep doing that until it's time for him to decide, who knows?

You may be saying, "We already do that." But do we? If Jane Student expresses an interest in math, do we encourage her with the same vigor as we do Joe? Do we place equal value on all the different options students have, or do we make casual statements that direct students to one option over another (by suggesting one option is better than others)? If we can get rid of preconceived notions about who is suited for a certain field (and who is not), we can create an environment where students thrive. Perhaps Professor Harbron is right that her lab is no more ideal a set-up than the all-male labs from before. But by examining her lab, and other educational environments, maybe we can discover the best approach.

Thoughtfully yours,

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Need to Personalize: Why Consumer Data is More Important Now than Ever Before

As a long-time researcher, my answer to many questions is, "What do the data say?" I consider myself to be a very empirical person, so having data to support views or my approach to life is very important to me. Even in parts of my life where no data are available, I continue asking questions. And, like most people, I constantly observe other people and draw inferences from their behavior. So when I read about some of the cutting edge work the Obama campaign is doing with supporter data, I wondered, "Why aren't more politicians doing this?" and more importantly, "Why aren't more people doing this?"

I'll be the first to say that too much personalization is not necessarily a good thing. For one, I'm really not a fan of design-your-own-major programs and would be happy to go into the "whys" of that sometime. But when it comes to marketing or informing people about causes they can join, personalization is an excellent idea. In fact, it's the logical continuation of what market researchers have been doing for years.

When a company creates a new product, designs a new ad campaign, etc., they want to get consumer perspectives. They do this through things like focus groups, where a group of similar people are brought in to try out a new product or view a new ad and discuss their thoughts as a group (I also frequently use focus groups in my research - you can get a lot of really useful information and they're fun to do!), and survey research, where people may (as an example) hear a new product slogan and rate it on a scale.

Market researchers also often collect demographic information from their participants, things like age, gender, race & ethnicity, and education, to see how these factors relate to responses to the product. This gives some basic information on who is likely to buy your product, and what approaches those groups respond to. A company who wants to appeal to many demographic groups may develop more than one ad campaign and put certain ads in places likely to be seen by certain groups. If you want to see some basic personalized marketing in action, grab a couple of magazines, say a fashion magazine and a sports magazine. Take a look at the ads in each - the ads in the fashion magazine may be for different products than the ads in the sports magazine. Not only that, you may notice that even ads for a product found in both of the magazines are different in terms of color scheme, layout, and writeup. You'll probably even notice different people featured in the ads.

The same is true for advertising during certain shows. Market researchers know what kinds of things their target demographic likes to watch on television and will buy ad space during that time.

Of course, I call this "basic" because it's not really personalized to one specific person; it's aimed at a specific group who have some feature or features in common. But advances in technology have made it even easier to gather information about a specific person, and in some cases, deliver that personalized advertising directly to that one individual. Google has been doing this for years. Facebook is also doing more and more of this targeted marketing. Using data from people's search terms or status updates, specific ads are selected from a database and displayed to that person.

Why is this personalization such a good idea? People respond to (e.g., process) things that are personally relevant more quickly. Research shows that people, for instance, show stronger preferences for the letters in their own names, probably because these letters are more familiar and therefore more fluent (easier to process - discussed in a previous blog post). When we're feeling especially miserly with our cognitive resources and are operating on auto-pilot, such highly personalized information can still "get in" and be noticed and processed by the brain.

Personally relevant information also appeals to our sense-of-self, our identity (also discussed in a previous blog post). We view the world through the lens of our personal experiences and details; some people may be better at considering another person's viewpoint than others, but we can never be separate from the self, so our view of the world is always going to be self-centered (and I use that term in a descriptive, rather than judgmental, sense).

Even in theories developed in fields like psychology, we recognize that the perspective of the theorist receives a lot of weight (this is why following the scientific method to develop testable and falsifiable hypotheses and gather empirical data, is so important; it's also one reason why theories are developed by many studies on a subject, hopefully performed by more than one individual, and no single study is the end-all, be-all on the topic).

I remember reading a quote in college by a great psychologist about Freud, and after much searching, could not uncover the quote or the source, but the person (I want to say Gordon Allport, who met Freud briefly when he was 22 and became disillusioned with psychoanalysis as a result) essentially asked of Freud's theory, "What kind of little boy would want to be so possessive of his mother?" - that is, he suggested that Freud's theory, specifically its emphasis on the Oedipus complex, was more about Freud himself than normal human development.

These days, individuals are doing things with computers that were once only reserved for the nerdiest of super-nerds sitting in front of a computer the size of a small house.

And if we leave it running all night, we could have our checkbook balanced by tomorrow morning! Who has the punch cards?
The people who are embracing today's technology to personalize content are the ones who will be sticking around as the market becomes more and more saturated. That's why I would argue that this kind of personalization is so important - there are almost 6.8 billion people on this planet, nearly all of whom will make their livelihood off of selling something (whether that something is concrete, like a product, or abstract, like a skill). As the population continues to grow, getting even a minuscule percentage of that total to see what you have to offer and show an interest in buying it, is going to take some serious data-crunching ability.

If you sell a product, any kind of product, you should be collecting data on your customers and using their information to make important decisions. And if you've got any kind of computational and statistical know-how, work those skills, because you are going to be sorely needed as the market continues moving in this direction.

True, some people are just born to sell things - they can convince you that you need this product, that your very life depends on having this thing. We can't all be Steve Jobs, walking into a room and presenting the product with such flair and resonance that we all suddenly wonder how our life was ever complete before iPod. (Years from now, when people look at the products Jobs was responsible for and think, "Oh, a personal music player, how quaint", they're still going to be watching and dissecting his presentations to find that magic formula.  If only it were that easy.)

And perhaps part of Jobs's genius was that he could do some of this data-crunching in his head, examining how people are responding to his presentation in real-time and making subtle shifts to bring the message home and get people on board. Few people possess that ability.  But for the rest of us, we can perhaps get by with a little help from our data.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Whatever They Offer You, Don't Feed the Trolls

You may have noticed that I talk a lot about the media on this blog. The media is one of my main research interests - one that I've retained despite respecializing as part of my post-doc. I find it fascinating. Media information is everywhere and, as people become more and more connected through the Internet and mobile devices, its influence is only likely to grow. Though media research has been conducted since the early 20th century, one area that has really taken off is research on Internet media. This is not only because the Internet is becoming people's main sources for information, but also because the Internet is inherently different from other forms of media as well as constantly in flux.

Even with reality television taking off like it has, it's not easy to get onto television. Movies, music, and similar forms of media are not as easy to get into either. You need things like talent, good looks, and connections (unless you're Shia LaBeouf - in that case, your celebrity is inexplicable). The Internet, however, is one big free-for-all. Anyone can get online and create a webpage, post a music video on YouTube, start a blog ;). Thanks to the Web 2.0 movement, the tools are available to allow anyone, regardless of technical know-how, to get his or her message out there. Because of the ease with which individuals can add content to the ever-growing World Wide Web, the Internet is constantly changing. New information is becoming available, and new tools are being created to allow individuals even more control over content.

Obviously, there are many aspects of the Internet that are worthy of further exploration, but today, I'd like to write about an Internet phenomenon that has been around probably as long as the Internet itself, and is only becoming worse thanks to Web 2.0: trolling.

They may look cute and cuddly, but it's best to ignore them.
Last month, BBC news featured a story about trolling and a few cases in which people were arrested and jailed for trolling. In these cases, the trolling was really over-the-top bad: for example, a young man posting really thoughtless remarks on a memorial website for a young woman who was killed. Still, websites are cracking down on trolling in a variety of ways, such as by requiring comments to be approved before appearing on the site. Some argue that simply requiring people to register should be sufficient, because people are no longer anonymous.

The argument is that people troll because they are "deindividuated" in a place like the Internet: they can shed their usual identity and adopt a new persona, which research suggests can lead to bullying and outbursts of violence. This is the phenomenon behind "mob mentality", where people in a large crowd can begin engaging in antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, physical assault, etc. So take away the opportunity to hide one's identity, and problem solved, right?

Yes, I tend to ask questions right before I'm about to argue the opposite. I'm totally predictable. :)

Let's be honest, other than my friends who read this blog (and perhaps my entire readership is made up of my friends, but hey, that makes you guys great friends :D), do you honestly know me? I'm not anonymous here; you can find out my name, my general location, my education and background. I drop autobiographical statements here and there. Still, your entire experience with me is online. I could be totally different here than I am in real life.

So what's to stop me from adopting a new personality entirely for my online interactions, that differs markedly from the "real" me? And what's to stop me from adopting the persona of a thoughtless jerk who trolls message boards trying to get a rise out of people? (This is just hypothetical, BTW; I have never, say, inferred a singer sucked on a comment board of their YouTube video… or anything like that.)  Honestly, even on a site like Facebook, where it's super-easy to figure out who I am (and getting easier each day), I'm more apt to call someone out on something I would never utter in person.

I suppose if someone says something truly awful, requiring registration would make it easy to track them down for disciplinary (and even legal) action. But just like other forms of bullying and harassment, there is always a gray area where the behavior, though repugnant, is not punishable. Even online behavior that has led to a person's death went unpunished for fear that it would lead to a precedent that could make creating false online identities illegal. And as this case showed us, even requiring a person to register doesn't guarantee they are who they say they are. And requiring comments to be approved before appearing leaves too much room for bias; can't the moderator simply choose to accept the comments with which he/she agrees and reject the rest?

Perhaps the issue, then, is not deindividuation, but distance from the target.  Stanley Milgram, who conducted one of the most unethical (aka: most awesome) social psychology experiments ever, found that people were more likely to follow the experimenter's instructions to shock another participant when they were farther away from the person getting shocked.  On the other hand, if people were in the same room as the participant being shocked, they were much less likely to follow the experimenter's orders.

If the issue really is distance from the target, then we'll always have this issue in Internet-mediated communication.  In fact, as people spend more and more time communicating with people via the Internet, the problem is only likely to worsen.  Can we ever get away from the trolls? Other than "not feeding them" - and seriously, DON'T FEED THE TROLLS - what can we do to prevent trolling?

Thoughtfully yours,