Monday, January 31, 2011

Good News for the Future?

Yep, my headline above is the beginning of an article title published in the latest Communication Research.  And it has a question mark, the up-and-coming trend in academic punctuation.

The full title is:

Good News for the Future?
Young People, Internet Use,
and Political Participation

We can use some good news, right?  This survey of 2,409 people, ages 16-24, found that "a variety of Internet uses are positively related with different forms of political participation."  That's good news, in particular since it kinda sorta runs counter to both intuition and Bowling Alone suggestions about the Net's impact on people, especially young people.  There's also a positive impact for traditional media use, but the authors say it's weak in comparison.  Duration of media use isn't what matters, they argue, but rather the type of media used.

In other words, young folks are taking Internet-based media and making it their own -- and such exposure does indeed positively predict participation.  That's important for scholars who begin with the assumption that this Net stuff ain't so good.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Facebook Makes Us Sad

An interesting Slate column discusses recent research on Facebook and its impact on our own attitudes, in particular whether seeing all those shiny happy people makes some folks sadder.  It makes sense.  Rarely do we post to our newsfeeds the bad stuff, so for some people, seeing this constant feed of happiness, this may result in them reacting negatively. 

In general research shows we project more happiness on others than really exists, so the FB thing just feeds it further.  The power of projecting such happiness on others, in other words, can influence our own emotional state.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Driven to Distraction

Sexy News Babes
Drive Male Viewers
to Distraction

Okay, I wrote the above to grab the attention of those all-important bots that surf the net and end up driving people this direction.  But apparently it's true, at least according to this news story about research published in Communication Research (a fine journal because, if for no other reason, I've never appeared in it).  An experiment used two primary conditions: one in which a broadcast female news reader wore a tight jacket and skirt that, and I'm not making this up, "accented her waist-to-hip ratio."  In the alternate version, the same woman wore "a shapeless and loose-fitting" jacket and skirt.  In the previous, lipstick and a necklace, in the latter, neither of them.

According to the story (I've not read the journal article):
The researchers found the men recalled “significantly more information watching the unsexualized anchor deliver news than her sexualized version.” For women, the opposite was true, but the effect was far less pronounced.
And yet again, research I wish I had done.

We've all heard about news babes, which demeans hard-working women struggling to make it in journalism, but there's a significant grain of truth to it as well.  You don't see a lot of ugly women -- or men -- reading the news.  But apparently this gets in the way of learning, which isn't surprising.  We've known since research in the 1950s that humor or other factors can get in the way of learning.  We can only process so much.  There was even the infamous Reagan case in which his PR folks didn't care what the TV reporters said, as long as their visuals got on the screen. 

Attractiveness does have positives: it makes a person seem more believable and may even aid in persuasion, or so suggests persuasion models such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model

So our takeaway?  The story says it best:  "The study provides evidence for a basic theory of evolutionary psychology: When it comes to processing information, visual tends to trump verbal."

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Palin-Less February?

Columnist Dana Milbank vows to not write about Sarah Palin for the month of February.
I have written about her in 42 columns since Sen. John McCain picked her as his presidential running mate in 2008. I've mentioned her in dozens more blog posts, Web chats, and TV and radio appearances. I feel powerless to control my obsession, even though it cheapens and demeans me. 
Milbank goes further, calling out out others of the chattering class to do the same.  In other words, just take February off, at least when it comes to mentioning Palin.
And so I pledge to you: Sarah Palin's name will not cross my lips - or my keyboard - for the entire month of February. Who's with me? 
I with ya.  But let's be clear: I'm no Dana Milbank -- and this blog is no Washington Post-- but after a quick search I find there are 20 whatpeopleknow blog postings that include Palin.  Wow.

The first step in recovery?  Admitting you have a problem.

Clearly, I have a Palin Problem. Now's the time to kick the habit.

Wanna Learn? Take the Test

Taking a practice test beats studying -- even cramming -- when it comes to learning.

A NYTimes story on this research is all about efficient retrieval of information, a topic near and dear to the heart of this blog.  It's based on a pair of careful experiments that pit four approaches to learning.  Rather than spend the words here repeating the methodology, you can check out the links yourself.

But for me here's the really cool part:
In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite. 
 I love this -- people who took the practice test perceived themselves as learning the least when, in fact, they did the best when it came to learning the material.  This gets into projection, into expectations, and probably a little bit of obsessive-compulsive behavior due to a lack of good, solid cramming.  When we take a practice test, we recognize gaps in what we know and at the subconscious level perhaps we take care of business, figuring it out.  There's a lot to be explored here.

This isn't easy to translate into the real world of media, politics, and knowledge -- I just find it fascinating -- but it does get at our ability to underestimate, and overestimate, what we know depending on the kind of "news" we consume.  I've written at length about how certain "news" or media content can lead more to the perception we are informed rather than actually informing us (entertainment programs such as The Daily Show, talk radio, etc.).  I'm certain this recent study is getting at the same or a similar mechanism.  And that's heartening.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Prejudice and Perception

We tend to see more people agreeing with our viewpoints than actually share our opinions.  This false consensus effect is well established by hundreds of studies.  And, according to a new study, prejudiced people are even more likely to engage in these cognitive biases -- or as the authors put it: "prejudiced people perceived more consensus for their attitudes toward Aboriginal Australians than did nonprejudiced people."

The explanation?  People are motivated to justify socially undesirable beliefs by extending those beliefs to a majority of others, even when the majority doesn't actually share those beliefs. 

Prejudice, you might say, loves company.

The media side of all this?
We tested whether three sources of normative information (own prejudice, peer prejudice, media prejudice) would predict estimates of normative community attitudes. Of these, only media prejudice contributed to estimates of community attitudes. The more participants believed media attitudes to be negative, the more negative they rated the community's attitudes toward Aboriginal Australians, and this was independent of one's own level of prejudice. That is, prejudiced and nonprejudiced people alike perceived the same level of media attitude and the same level of community attitudes. Community attitudes then mediated a relation between media prejudice and consensus, whereby more negative community attitudes predicted less perceived consensus.
 That's interesting, the sentence I bold faced above.  I'm not sure how well this applies beyond this particular topic, but given the times in which we live, there's a lot of room here for exploration. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is Keeping Informed: Worth the Cost?

Is the cost of staying informed worth the price of staying informed?

Or to put it in a cost-benefit perspective, is the cost in money (Internet access, owning a TV, buying a newspaper and the cost in time (watching or reading the news) worth the benefits one receives?  What benefits? 
  • The Warm and Fuzzy Benefit.  In other words, the sense that you've done your bit to participate meaningfully in a democracy
  • The Work Benefit.  A lot of jobs, especially in an information society, require you to be up-to-date on what's happening.
  • The Interpersonal Benefit.  Or, simply put, having something useful to say in a conversation, especially when it turns to the day's events.
I'm sure there are other benefits, but let's go with the three above.  Is the cost of staying informed worth the benefits one receives?  Yes, if you look at The Work Benefit. Maybe some, if you consider The Interpersonal Benefit, particularly if your boss (or significant other) begins to think you're something of a dolt.  But The Warm and Fuzzy Benefit?  I'm doubtful of that one.

How about the cost?  In some ways, it's become more expensive to stay informed.  Newspapers and magazines cost more, for example, but the 24-hour availability of cable television news reduces the cost of at least being somewhat informed (the best TV can manage, given its constraints) to next to zero since most Americans, even the poorest, have access to cable or satellite TV.  In all, the costs have gone down, in part due to all the money people spend on smartphones and the Internet also, coincidentally, gives them access to quality news and information.

So costs have, in many ways, decreased.  And the benefits, for many, are significant.  But a lot of people have simply given up on keeping up.  They find the news irrelevant -- to their lives, to their work, to getting by on a paycheck or getting by on government support.  In part I blame Journalism with a capital J and the kinds of stories we cover and the ways in which we tell them.  And in part I blame the partisanship of the times.  And let's not leave out schools and parents and a host of other responsible parties.

All this begs the question -- is it really worth the hassle to stay informed, at least for a lot of people out there?  A Downsian economic approach would suggest no, it's not worth the time, it's not worth the cost, at least not for many.  And there are so many other ways to spend one's time -- entertaining ourselves to death -- that I can see the argument by many that the News simply doesn't mean anything to them.  And so, why bother?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Interesting Stats Day

In a broader NYTimes story today -- based on this CDC report -- about various racial health disparities, a few factoids deserve special attention and a little discussion because (drumroll ... it's Interesting Stats Day).
  • Prescription overdoses now kill more Americans than overdoses of illegal drugs.  We might conclude that illegal drug users are just smarter than prescription drug users, but it's probably a function of all of those easy-to-get painkillers and the like, plus all those silly pharmaceutical pushing drugs on us.  A liberal will blame drug companies.  A conservative will blame the idiots who take the wrong dose.  As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the radical moderate middle.  By the way, this is a flip on the old data, which used to find illegal drug overdoses caused more deaths than legal drug overdoses.  Interesting.
  • People in three very different states report the most healthy days (Utah, North Dakota, and Connecticut).  People in three very similar states report the most sick days (West Virginia, Kentucky, and my home state of Tennessee).  My first reaction to this is obesity, based only on what I see on my trips home.  Of the three "healthy" states, I see Utah and the Mormon effect, but the other two?  No idea.  But, the reporting of "healthy days" is correlated with income.  But ... and more important ... the states "with that have the highest mean healthy days have the lowest health inequality, and vice versa," according to the full report.  In other words, the state health systems do a good job of breaking down health inequality in access to care.
  • Binge drinking "is more common among the better-educated and more affluent, including college students. But poor people, and especially American Indians, drink much more heavily when on binges."  As a university professor, I can confidently support the first sentence.  Our students definitely binge drink.  They're amateurs, mind you, but they try hard, usually with cheap, crappy booze that no one else will drink, so it gets sold to college kids.  Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son. And I say "son" because men far outnumber women, according to the full report (20 percent of men, 10 percent of women).  Only 3.8 percent of those 68 years or older binge drink; that's heartening, I suppose, since we do not want to combine cheap liquor with Alzheimer's.
So that's my Interesting Stats Day.  At least until later, when I'll probably find something else to go on about instead of finishing a review of a textbook that's due -- rut roh -- today.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What People Know --
about Batman

Okay, I'm getting a bit punchy after days of snow squatting like an uncomfortable 9-inch-thick mattress on my front yard. So today, in my ever-continuing quest to explore what people know and supply that information to tens of readers worldwide, I give you . . . what people know about Batman (from this web site).  Yeah, I really need for this snow to melt.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Stories of The Decade

The Pew Center, using audience interest figures, has come up with its own list of the top stories from 2000 to 2010

You can follow the link or check out the graphic below.  It's hardly surprising that 9/11 ranks at #1 or Katrina as #2.  After that, I'm a bit surprised about gasoline prices being #3, but then again this is a survey of reader interest, the percent who said they followed a story closely, so of course people vote with their billfolds.  Interesting factoid -- the falling gas prices makes it to #16.

I would have put the economic meltdown as #3, perhaps pushing #2 since it affects more people.  And it's a bit sad that the nation can be at war and yet the war is only #6.  There are some interesting results deeper in the list.  At #18, the Pledge of Allegiance court decision?  I'd forgotten all about that one.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Curing Myopic Voting

It was a snow day, so I had time to scour the net for -- to me -- obscure research.  This draft of a study examines how people consider the economy in their voting.  The research itself is a bit complicated, but basically the author argues people over place too much weight on recent economic information when voting and fail to consider the cumulative economic data.  No surprise there.  This "end bias" makes sense, a recency effect of sorts, but it is a bias -- a failure to consider everything and an over-reliance on what's most recent.

Or, as the author notes:
Using a three-year panel survey, I showed that citizens' memories of the past economy are inconsistent with their actual experience of the economy as they reported it in earlier panel waves. They fail to remember the past correctly in part because the present shapes their perceptions of the past.
How do you fix this?  Not easily.  News reports, obviously, could focus on the big picture and not the most recent data, but you can be damn sure partisans will focus on whatever numbers make their candidate look best, or the other candidate look worst. This seems to be the cure, says the author.
Presenting participants with cumulative information on performance (e.g., total income growth) cures myopia. On one hand, these results are troubling for democracy because they confirm citizens’ incompetence at retrospection. On the other hand, they point to a remedy, one that candidates and the news media could adopt.
Using this study, imagine the 2012 election.  Let's say unemployment is down a bit, but is still too high.  The economy is doing okay, but not great.  If journalists focus on the long-term picture, the improvement, that's a more reasonable economic approach and one less "myopic" -- to use his term.  That kinda helps Obama.  But I don't see Fox News playing it that way.  And you can certainly argue that it should be better than it is, even if there is a slight improvement.  So in this hyper-partisan times, I'm not sure the "cure" for myopic, short-term voting, will find its way to the public.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Scary Twitter Research

As the one or two people who actually check out this blog know, I spend a lot of time scouring the Net and academic journals for appropriate stuff to talk about.  Well, I hit the jackpot on this one -- the scariest Twitter study ever imagined.  Why scary?  Because it goes so far in compiling data even I, a numbers geek who loves data analysis, finds this one a bit too much to contemplate.

Lemme hit you with some of the abstract below.  Warning ... it's dense.  Just skim it and you instantly see we're talking a whole different world of data gathering.

We have crawled the entire Twitter site and obtained 41.7 million user profiles, 1.47 billion social relations, 4,262 trending topics, and 106 million tweets. In its follower-following topology analysis we have found a non-power-law follower distribution, a short effective diameter, and low reciprocity, which all mark a deviation from known characteristics of human social networks [28]. In order to identify influentials on Twitter, we have ranked users by the number of followers and by PageRank and found two rankings to be similar. Ranking by retweets differs from the previous two rankings, indicating a gap in influence inferred from the number of followers and that from the popularity of one's tweets. We have analyzed the tweets of top trending topics and reported on their temporal behavior and user participation. We have classified the trending topics based on the active period and the tweets and show that the majority (over 85%) of topics are headline news or persistent news in nature. A closer look at retweets reveals that any retweeted tweet is to reach an average of 1,000 users no matter what the number of followers is of the original tweet. Once retweeted, a tweet gets retweeted almost instantly on next hops, signifying fast diffusion of information after the 1st retweet.

To the best of our knowledge this work is the first quantitative study on the entire Twittersphere and information diffusion on it.

Holy quantitative hell, Batman!  This scares even me, an SPSS guy who never met a multiple regression he didn't enjoy running twice, just because he can.  But these South Korea guys?  I am humbled.

Okay, but what does it all mean?  I dunno, beyond the sheer amount of information fed into Twitter and then spread, byte by byte, out into the Twittersphere.  For those who specialize in Twitter, this study not only reinforces your argument that the social networking site matters, but gives a sense of how much it matters. But I do find it fascinating that 85 percent of Tweets are news of some kind. 

Wow.  I'll never make fun of Twitter again.

Okay, yes I will.

The News, Cancer, and a Counter-Intuitive Result

It's a given -- we learn a lot about disease and illness from the media, either in the news, or from those annoying pharmaceutical commercials, or in entertainment programs.  Me, I get all my medical knowledge (and behavioral modeling) from House.

Cancer in particular gets lots of media attention, as it should given the number of people who suffer and die from the disease every year.  But is it accurate media attention?

This study suggests not, at least when it comes to the news.  Only the abstract is available (I bet Gregory House gets access for free).  But what's really interesting is not that the news media isn't as accurate as it could be -- surprise -- but the direction of that inaccuracy.  Stay with me here.  It's kinda sorta fascinating.

The content analysis of cancer coverage by eight newspapers and five magazines reaches a counter-intuitive conclusion.  News reports often discuss aggressive treatment and survival, according to the study, but rarely touch on the bad news.  All that emphasis is mine because I love doing it.  Think about it.  How's this result for turning the traditional criticism of journalism on its ear?  We (the royal we, as in journalists) focus too much on the bad, or so goes the criticism by just about everyone on the planet who isn't a journalist, but according to this study, the news "may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatment, outcomes, and prognosis."

Wow.  Journalists optimistic?  Something's deeply wrong here.

Unfortunately we can't judge the quality of the research, given all we have a measly abstract.  And when non-media scholars attempt a content analysis, they often screw the pooch -- as in no inter-coder reliabilities, no cleanly drawn categories, no sense of the difficulties of analyzing a text or constructing units of measurement.  Sure, it's The Archives of Internal Medicine, a pretty damn good medical journal, but too often medical folks conduct really bad behavioral research.  For them, a media study can seem like slumming it.  That attitude often shows in the work.

But if we assume for the moment the study was done halfway well, then this result does surprise. Clearly someone in journalism is asleep at the switch.  Get back to that bad news!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Constitution and the Nutjobs

As the U.S. Constitution was read today in the House, during the part that says "no person, except a natural-born citizen, or a citizen of the United States" is eligible for the presidency, a woman yelled out that it didn't apply to President Barack Obama.  Yes, the wingnuts and nutjobs are out.  Story here.

Move Over TV News

A new Pew study shows that, among college grads, the Internet has begun to rival television news as a source of information.

First off, let's establish that a historical point -- the greater the education, the less the reliance on TV for news and information.  It's that whole delusions of adequacy thing.  The audience for TV news, local especially, tends to skew to the less educated.  So the Pew report is not all that surprising, but it does document quite nicely the growing power of the Net when it comes to how the educated keep informed.

Blogger is in one of its moods, so I'm having trouble dropping in a key graphic from the report.  Here's a few key numbers.  For those with a high school education or less, 75 percent said they rely on TV news and 29 percent said they rely on the Internet.  For those with a college degree, the same numbers are 54 and 51 percent.  That's huge, and telling.  And problematic for the TV folks. 

What I find interesting is the lack of a partisan effect.  Dems, GOPers, Independents, they all break down more or less the same in the aggregate media use columns.  Now if we get into the nitty gritty, not provided here, we'd find the usual partisan migration to Fox or MSNBC, but it's interesting as hell to see that at the aggregate media use level, your partisan leanings don't seem to correlate with a general preference for TV news versus that of the Net or other sources.

In terms of what people know, we can make a few assumptions based on these results.  First, TV news appeals to the less educated not because TV news is dumb, but because it's more easily consumed, provides less detail, but makes the world's events more understandable given the way TV tells a story.  We know from other studies that TV news seems to inform only those with little or no information in the first place -- which is a fine and useful mission, though it might raise certain issues when it comes to selling advertising that appeals to a prime audience.  Print, especially, seems to require a lot more background knowledge and certainly motivation in order to grasp the content. 

What we may see, as this migration among media continues, is a growing knowledge gap between those of less and more education. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reading the Constitution

Consonants and vowels alike have tragically died as people write about the U.S. House of Representatives and its reading aloud of the U.S. Constitution -- for apparently, as best we can tell, the first time in history.  That alone is kinda interesting.

But whether this is a cynical gimmick or meaningful gesture, it probably depends in part on your political predisposition.  I'd side with gimmick, if only because the document itself is dense, disconnected from everyday policy, and will have little or no informative or educational benefit.  In other words, people won't suddenly learn anything by hearing it read aloud.  There will be no "Oh my God" moments, assuming anyone can stay awake long enough to listen to the thing.  It's a brilliant piece of writing and political thinking, but in terms of suddenly having people think a certain (or any) way about democracy and Congress and policy and laws?  No, no effect at all.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Increasing Trust Through Knowledge

Natural experiments are terrific -- if you can plan ahead or have the resources to quickly take advantage of one as it occurs.  This study does just that, finding that people who received information from the Social Security Administration gained more knowledge and had more confidence in Social Security than people who did not receive the information.  And this includes statistical controls for such predictors as age, education, race, and gender. 

The study, published in a recent The Journal of Politics, includes a neat structural equation model for those who like pretty pictures and smoke-and-mirrors statistical analyses to arrive at an interesting conclusion, that knowledge leads to confidence.  And not the other way around. 

Oh, and Happy New Year.