Sign of the Times

People . . . people who need people . . . are the luckiest people . . .

If you’ve been on the internet lately, you will have heard something about Cambridge Analytica. The private company used profile data from Facebook to better inform the Republican Presidential Campaign. Those of you who have pre-ordered my book (and if you haven’t – here’s how you can) will have the opportunity to read about how these big data sources like social media can be so informative. My final chapter is dedicated to the way personality research is changing, and how it will change in future, and it highlights the importance of the so-called ‘softer’ sciences. Next time someone dismisses the importance of psychology, or thinks the replication crisis refutes all psychological research, point out just how much money Cambridge Analytica made from those ‘fluffy’ old likes.

There are two kinds of responses to this story that I commonly see. The first is “You should all give up the social media like I do” and the second is “Social media is dangerous!”  I don’t think either of these are helpful, and here’s why: people like other people.

Much of social media’s appeal comes from Basic Principles of Psychology. Let’s do a quick recap. Things which make somebody more likely to do a behaviour again are called a ‘reward’. Rewards can be ‘positive’, the addition of something nice, like how I give Athena’s ears a scratch when she comes to see me, making it much more likely she’ll come to see me again. Rewards can also be ‘negative’, or the removal of something unpleasant, like how when I pay attention to Athena she stops screaming at a very loud and high pitch. The quiet is my reward.

Social media’s main way of rewarding you is to give you something the scientist in me would call ‘attention from a conspecific’, or a ‘like’. It can be a like, a comment, a tag in a photo, or a reminder of how much you’ve shared with another person – it’s all a form of attention.

You might ask “but what about that photo Kelly tagged me in at Christmas where I’m stuffing my third helping of Christmas pudding down my tearstained face because I got too in to Call the Midwife – that’s not rewarding attention at all!”

I’ve been there, fam, but the problem is – it does reward you. It might not be the attention you want, but it’s better than nothing at all. See also: ‘naughty’ children. And here’s the interesting part. When your phone buzzes to get your attention, you don’t know if that’s an amazingly juicy piece of gossip on your group chat, someone you fancy liking your latest selfie, or just a notification that Jane was checked in to Nandos.

This brings us to another aspect of social media and psychology: variable reward schedules. These are extremely common in gambling, particularly in slot machines. The essence of this is that the value of the reward you get is random for the same behaviour. For some reason, it drives those biological grey machines in our skulls wild. Is this notification going to be the big one? Will this pull of the lever get us a million pounds? It’s an extremely effective technique, one that has kept casinos going for years, and partly why we regulate gambling. We know this works.

My version of Clinton’s saying is It’s Behaviour, Stupid. These tricks of our psychology are so fundamentally tied to our being, and so unsuited for the world we live in, that we cannot say to people “Stop eating and you’ll not be fat” or “Stop smoking and you’ll reduce your risk of cancer” or “Stop using social media and it’ll improve your mental health and probably also your country’s political stability.” The trouble is that these appeal to the basic human need for pleasure. Social media companies want to keep you engaged, and use your ‘vulnerability’ to reward to do it. But it’s in their best interests not to farm us too aggressively. They don’t want us to stop using their services, they don’t want to lose their product. They need to think, just as the agricultural industry has had to think, about what kind of product they deliver. A happy, healthy product with the financial ability to purchase goods and services? Or a product that is tearing itself apart?

Ultimately, social media will need to think about how it incentivises people to use its service. Not just because regulation is on the horizon, more and more so with the Cambridge Analytica story, but because their product works best in a stable, thriving economy. Social media will be regulated, either by us, or by themselves. Telling people to simply ‘stop gambling on the likes’ ignores the fundamental aspects of human behaviour that makes social media so very profitable.

In the mean time, if you are worried about your addiction to social media – take the time to go through your settings. Revoke permissions for apps you don’t use, and turn off all side notifications (or even all notifications). Discourage push notifications on your phone.

It’s a perfectly normal human state to be in.

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Who’s a Pretty Boy Then?

Working in the world of international animal welfare as I have been doing in the last couple of months, you are confronted by your own innate biases. These are little (or big!) ideas you have about animal welfare that influence the way you think about it and the choices you make for animal welfare.

These biases are often problematic as one of our main messages is “It is the animal’s point of view which matters”, and the animals don’t know about our biases. 

Now biases are hard to recognise because they are part of the way we think about the world. I’ll give you an example from my own background. I did a zoology degree which, in all honesty, was not big on the animal welfare side of things. ‘Naturalness’ was prized above all, because  we were conservationists and behavioural ecologists. I then went to work in wildlife rehabilitation with the RSPCA where we did our utmost to avoid interacting with the animals because if we were to accidentally tame one, it would not be appropriate to release that animal back into the wild. This meant that for orphaned wildlife such as foxes we went to great lengths to get them to behave naturally, with so-called ‘soft releases’ where they’re given a cage outside and then allowed out of the cage, getting maintenance feed for a period. This enables the orphans  to learn how to fend for themselves in a manner that attempts to mimic their wild counterparts. 

I then went to work in the world of agriculture, where animals are production units. While I worked in the field of welfare in both of these roles, it is frowned upon, culturally, to show affection to the animals. Most animals would be distressed by what we think of as human affection.

So I have developed an idea about most animals that aren’t dogs, cats and horses, that they really don’t particularly want or need human attention. 

But this isn’t necessarily 100% true. Many exotic animals in the pet or zoo trade, have been raised by humans. While not domesticated (genetically selected for traits that make them more suited for human-association), they have learned to cope with humans, and even desire human contact. It is a bias I have had to confront myself, seeing instances, particularly in primates, where human contact appears to be enriching.

The most difficult part about a bias is that seeing your bias contradicted feels wrong. On my holiday I visited a parrot sanctuary, which rescued former pet parrots. I noticed my bias creeping in as dozens of birds chirruped “Hello” and “I’m a pretty boy then” at me, beckoning to climb up on my shoulder and engage with me. One little cockatoo wanted very much to play with my hair, a parakeet was reciting its full repertoire of phrases  to my aunt while it sat on her shoulder in a  behaviour I could only describe as ‘desperate for attention’.

These birds are very intelligent and, at most, only one or two generations away from their wild ancestors. My training tells me they need all the complexity and diversity of a wild environment.

But behaviourally, I can see that many of those individual birds desperately wanted and craved human affection. They found it enriching and pleasurable, possibly only because their environment was not sufficiently complex without it, but could it be that some animals can simply enjoy the company of humans, much as we enjoy theirs?

This is a difficult question for me to parse, going against the grain so to speak. And yet if we ask the question “what does this animal perceive”, the right kind of human attention must be very positive for them.

You can’t shed a bias overnight, and my (many) cultural biases will remain with me, affecting the way I think about animal welfare. I’ll try and talk more about them in the blog, and hopefully by recognising our own biases, we can move past them to help the animals that need it. 

Bird sits on shoulder
Some animals crave human attention

Old People Make Culture

Human culture fascinates me. I’d like to do more in anthropology, I always enjoy the little snippets I find out as part of my research. Culture amazes me so much because we’re so similar to animals in so many ways, and yet we do things like build skyscrapers, write epic novels, judge each other on how we cook . . .

Some anthropologists think that human culture happened pretty late in our timeline. I came across an article by Laura Helmuth on Slate.com today about how growing old helped us grow a culture. It’s fascinating and well worth a read. I particularly laughed at this excerpt

As Barbara Tuchman points out in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, one of the reasons the Hundred Years War lasted a hundred years is that repeated plagues killed off anyone, including kings and other established leaders. Again and again, teenagers or very young people inherited the throne and promptly did stupid, aggressive, frontal-lobe-deficient teenage nonsense like invading neighboring countries.

Read the rest here