kottke.org posts about sociology

Keeping too many doors open narrows ourMar 03 2008

Keeping too many doors open narrows our options.

"Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss," Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious -- wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.

How to foil bank robbers: excessive friendliness. "Apr 12 2007

How to foil bank robbers: excessive friendliness. "The premise is that an overdose of courtesy will unnerve would-be robbers and get them to rethink the crime."

Update: Heard from a reader that Apple Store employees are trained in this technique to deal with theft. Even if someone has stuffed a MacBook under their overcoat, employees chat with them happily as if they're interested in purchasing it.

In a money game with anonymous richApr 11 2007

In a money game with anonymous rich and poor players, rich players will give up some money to help the poor but poor people are more likely to spend their money to make the rich players less rich. Reminds me of the ultimatum game in which people reject free money when they feel like they're getting a raw deal in comparison to someone else.

The blog commentor's gazeDec 15 2006

The cover story of the December 9th issue of Science News, The Predator's Gaze, is about psychopathy. The whole article is worth a read, but the brief description of psychopathy at the beginning got me thinking about something that Anil Dash wrote the other day. He highlighted a review of a B&B made by a potential guest that was upset that his many attempts to persuade the owners to accept his expired gift certificate. Anil labeled this person a sociopath:

As a public service, I offer you my analysis. This quote is how you can tell this guy is a sociopath. Not that he merely went online and vented to random strangers about his greediness. No, rather, that he was willing to concede his own willful ignorance (or illiteracy?) while complaining. The web is littered with these chuckleheads who point out their own sociopathic behavior while complaining about others.

At dinner the other night, a group of us were talking about a particularly irksome message board contributor and the subject of sociopathy came up again. This particular person seemed to be oblivious to the rules of the board, didn't pick up on the social cues of other participants or moderators to modify his behavior, and was making public personal attacks against others while complaining that others were doing the same to him, even though they were not. Anyone who runs a community site, has comments on their blog, or participates on a message board knows this guy -- and it usually is a guy. He's the fly in everyone else's ointment, screaming in the middle a quiet conversation, and then says things like "if you hate me, I must be doing something right".

With that in mind, some quotes from the Science News article:

Psychopaths lack a conscience and are incapable of experiencing empathy, guilt, or loyalty.

People with psychopathy don't modify behaviors for which they're punished and don't learn to avoid actions that harm others, Blair proposes in the September Cognition. As a result, they fail to develop a moral sense, in his view. Blair's theory fits with previous observations that psychopaths have difficulty learning to avoid punishments, show weak physiological responses to threats, and don't often recognize sadness or fear in others.

He views psychopathic personalities as the product of an attention deficit. Psychopaths focus well on their explicit goals but ignore incidental information that provides perspective and guides behavior, Newman holds. Most other people, as they take action, unconsciously consult such information, for instance, rules of conduct in social settings and nonverbal signs of discomfort in those around them.

Sounds a lot like the fellow we were discussing at dinner. I don't think most of the people that demonstrate antisocial behavior in comment threads are actually psychopaths or sociopaths (there is a difference) in real life. Rather, interacting via text strips out so much social context and "incidental information" that causes some people to display psychopathic behavior online and fail to develop an online moral sense.

Thinking about disruptive commenters in this way presents an interesting challenge. According to the article, psychopathy seems to be genetic in nature and curing people of this extreme antisocial behavior can be difficult. An Australian study cited in the article found that boys with behavioral problems reacted better to rewards for good behavior than to punishments for bad behavior. Maybe looking for ways to reward bad online community members for their good behavior as well as trying to replace some of the stripped away social context is the way forward. (A quick idea for replacing some social context: add a graphic of eyes to the text-posting interface?)

Holding hands is increasingly seen as aOct 06 2006

Holding hands is increasingly seen as a sign of commitment and intimacy, while more seemingly intimate acts like kissing and sex are more likely to occur earlier in a "relationship".

The advantages of showing up early toJun 12 2006

The advantages of showing up early to parties. I am a party early-goer for the reasons Tyler describes here...staying longer generally results in diminishing returns for me.

Findings indicate that behavior in online worldsMar 21 2006

Findings indicate that behavior in online worlds mirrors that of the real world, namely than men stand further away from each other than women, men maintain less eye contact with each other than women, and the amount of eye contact decreases when people stand close together.

The Matthew effectOct 04 2005

Nick Paumgarten's Talk of the Town piece opens with an anecdote about the doorman's role in elevating the social status of their building's tenants:

When Peter Bearman, a professor of sociology, moved from North Carolina to New York, seven years ago, to take a post at Columbia, he found his new colleagues unusually arrogant and difficult, even for the Ivy League. After considering other factors, he laid the blame on the doormen in their apartment buildings. He reasoned that the doormen had an interest in elevating the status of their tenants in order to enhance their own status, and so they treated the professors like big shots -- for example, by addressing them as "professor" -- until the professors came to believe that they really were big shots. Bearman felt that he had discovered a previously unobserved variant of the Matthew effect, Robert K. Merton's theory concerning the compounding of iniquity among prominent and marginal individuals -- the rich getting richer, and so forth.

I'd never heard of the Matthew effect before, so I looked it up in Wikipedia:

In sociology, Matthew effect was a term coined by Robert K. Merton to describe how, among other things, eminent scientists will often get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher even if their work is similar; it also means that credit will usually be given to researchers that are already famous...

Here is Merton's original paper.

Tags related to sociology:
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