Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What People Know -- about Energy (social media angle)

When it comes to energy knowledge, says one study, consumers can be a bit dim.

Sorry, I shamelessly swiped that bad pun from this story.  It continues:
IBM surveyed 10,000 people across 15 countries on consumers’ energy wants and needs. The survey found a sizable gap between what consumers know and what they should in order to benefit from smart grid energy initiatives designed to boost efficiency, cut waste and save money.
Some of the findings, easily available from the story itself, include that nearly a third of those surveyed had never heard of "dollar per kilowatt hour" and more than half didn't know if their utilities had a green energy program.

Here's a less-than-shocking finding -- money motivates people.  But it's not the motivator it used to be.  As the story notes (and this is important for you advertising and public relations folks):
The No. 1 single influence on the consumer was an insert in their energy bill. However, the combination of traditional media, social media  and the opinions of friends and family outweighed the influence of a bill insert.
Yes, this is a rather specialized topic, but it easily falls in my territory of media and knowledge.  I think that italicized graph above is rather important -- energy, or not.  Social media matters now, especially when friends are making suggestions and recommendations because, let's face it, we often trust our family and friends first.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

People Don't Lie (as much as we thought)

My dad always told me people lie about three things: how often they vote, how often they went to church, and the gas mileage they get on their vehicle.

It's an accepted truism in the political science literature that survey respondents overestimate how often they vote.  Studies in the past have attempted to gauge this by checking the voting records of survey respondents, with some success.

(as a matter of information for you budding public records access scholars, you can't tell how someone voted, but you can tell if they voted, at least in most states)

There's a new report out at the ANES web site in which the authors examined the voting records of their 2008 national survey sample (report pdf here).   In surveys, the proportion of folks who say they voted is notoriously higher than the actual proportion of people who cast a ballot -- hence we know some folks are, to put it nicely, fudging.  Or so we thought.  See below.

In examining public records, the authors reported four findings:
  1. Official government records "contain numerous errors" that makes voter validation difficult.
  2. These errors differ widely from state to state.
  3. How states report their data makes it tough to compare across states.
  4. And here's the biggie -- "We found that for respondents whose government records can be identified, the records and self-reports show very high levels of agreement. This finding implies that overestimation of turnout rates by surveys is attributable to factors and processes other than respondent lying."
In other words, people aren't lying as much as we thought they were lying, and the gap between what people say in surveys about their voting habits may be due, in part, to crappy government record keeping.   Sure, people still fudge, but the difference is partly attributable to lousy records.

This is comforting for scholars who use survey data to study voting turnout, though it kinds makes my dad's advice from above a bit out of date.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eyewitnesses: The courts, and journalists

The courts are turning a skeptical eye toward the "troubling lack of reliability" in eyewitness testimony.  Should journalists do the same?

The New Jersey Supreme Court, for example, is making it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness accounts.  Here's a telling quote from a judge:
"From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country."
The U.S. Supreme Court has its own doubts.  "Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations," according to this NYTimes lede. "Those identifications are wrong about a third of the time, a pile of studies suggest."

If you're a reporter, your first response should be:  "Oh, crap."

Journalists rush to crime scenes, to tragedies, to bars at happy hour.  Eyewitnesses are sought out, quotes dutifully recorded, stories carefully crafted.  Nothing beats being there, I always tell my journalism students, but if you can't be there nothing beats talking to someone who actually was there when an event occurred.

If the courts have some doubts about the quality of eyewitness accounts, shouldn't journalists share these doubts?  Absolutely.

The easy solution is for a reporter to judge whether a description sounds right, smells right, and is corroborated by others on the scene.  Even then, groupthink can kick in.

Cop reporters know this one.  Rush to a crime scene in a less-than-savory neighborhood where maybe a cop shot someone, say a kid.  All the witnesses share a similar story, and sometimes they're right, but sometimes they tell the story they want to believe or the story they think they saw -- versus what their eyes actually soaked up.

We're all flawed cognitive processors.  We often see what we want to see in a situation, a finding confirmed by hundreds, if not thousands, of published psychology studies.  Not only do we see what we want to see, we remember it in ways that fits our predispositions (racial, ethnic, religious, partisan, and all the rest).

If roughly a third of eyewitness accounts in court cases are wrong, is it possible roughly a third of our reported eyewitness accounts in news stories are also wrong?  Perhaps.  And that's enough to give most journalists pause.  Take the extra time to make sure other eyewitnesses share the same story.  Even then you may be wrong.  But at least you made a good-faith effort to provide the best obtainable version of the truth.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Social Media, Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n Roll

Compared to teens who do not use social networks, teens who do are five times likelier to use tobacco, three times likelier to drink alcohol, and twice as likely to smoke marijuana, according to a new report getting splashed all over the Internet today.

And you always thought it just seemed people on Facebook, etc., are having more fun than you.  They really are having more fun than you.

Images of teens on social media are "rampant" with booze pix, pot pix, and all the rest.  Also tied to this, according to the report, is watching suggestive television.

There's little reason for me to repeat what you can easily see on the report itself.  Here's also a good Chicago Tribune story on the same report.

What makes me curious, and honestly I don't want to dig so deeply in the methodology today, is who the hell are these teens who don't use social media?  I strongly suspect we're not talking about a cause-and-effect relationship here, but rather the authors of the study failed to account for any number of third variables that may better explain the findings.  This often happens when people who don't normally conduct research on the media try to conduct research on the media.  They suck at it. 

If you'd like to dig deeper, here's a pdf of the report.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Recycling and the News

People who regularly read newspapers are more likely to -- Captain Obvious time -- say they recycle newspapers and other papers.  

It's hardly surprising that people who regularly read a paper version of the newspaper are four times more likely to recycle paper, but how about recycling other things, like glass and plastic?  Glad you asked.
  • Newspaper readers were four times more likely to recycle cans.
  • They were twice as likely to recycle glass.
  • And they were three times as likely to recycle plastic.
So reading the dead-tree version of a newspaper makes you an environmentally sensitive recycling type?  I don't think the causality is that simple, but I wonder if being forced to do one leads you to also do the others.

To test this I constructed a quick-and-dirty logistic regression model to predict the likelihood to say you recycle paper.  Note my italics on say.  I have no doubt many overestimate such positive behaviors like voting, attending religious services, and yes -- recycling.  But let's fight with the measurement we have.  To predict recycling of paper I threw in some basic demographics like age, education, and the like.  I threw in whether you're a strong Republican or strong Democrat.  I included political knowledge.  I threw in another recycling behavior, cans, as a control.  And then I added reading the newspaper to model. Yeah, it's an ugly equation, but allow me have my geeky fun.

Below are the results, vastly simplified and stripped of statistics.  Keep in mind this is a regression, meaning all these factors are statistically controlling for one another.
  • What does NOT predict recycling paper?  Being a Republican or Democrat.  In other words, your party affiliation doesn't really matter.  I like that.
  • What does predict recycling paper?  Just about everything, even controlling for each other.  Older, more educated, higher income, non-black respondents all report higher recycling.  Females more than males.  The greater your political knowledge score, the more likely you recycle.  And yes, recycling cans means you are 14 times more likely to also recycle paper.  Even after controlling for all this -- regularly reading a print newspaper means you are more likely to recycle paper.  Duh, I know, but kinda interesting nonetheless.
Yes, but what if you flip it?  Does reading a print paper predict recycling cans?  Oh yeah, it does.  Not as strong a relationship, but statistically significant even after all the controls, including one about recycling paper.


I'm fairly sure it has something to do with good citizenship.  That's roughly what I'm going to play with for a paper, not a blog entry, but that's going to take more time and won't include such quick-and-dirty analyses.  You get roughly the same results if you replace print newspaper reading with watching television news.  But you get no effect for those who read Internet news sites or blogs. This supports my working hypothesis that there's something different about mainstream news and how it promotes good citizenship.  Be watching an academic journal near you for the results.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Biblical Orthodoxy

A traditional survey question for those who study religion is to ask about people's perception of the Bible.  Is it literally the word of God?  Inspired by God but written by men?  Or merely written by men and full of fables and fairy tales?  Often we use this as a standalone measure or combine it with the "born-again Christian" question to create a measure of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Have beliefs about the Bible changed over time?  Not so much.

Using Gallup data, we can see the following:
  • The question was first asked in 1976, with 38 percent professing a belief that the Bible is the literal word of God.
  • This climbed to 40 percent by 1980.
  • After this peak, it dropped as low as 27 percent and no higher than 34 percent over the next several years.
  • The latest poll, in May 2011, pegs it at 30 percent believing literally in the Bible.
Okay, but what about the fables and legends response?  Any change there?  There's been a slow, persistent growth in this position.
  • In 1976, only 13 percent believed the book is fables, legends, and moral precepts written by man.
  • This peaked at 22 percent thinking so by 2008.
  • It's now at 17 percent, according to the May 2011 survey.
What can we take away from this?  Attitudes about the Bible remain relatively stable over the last 35 years, at least as measured by Gallup.  Some change.  Nothing dramatic, but I do think we're seeing a slow, modest shift to secularism, but it's one so small that current events can easily shift it one way or the other.  The campaign of a couple of GOP candidates (Bachmann and Perry) will bring such views in full relief over the next several months.  It'll be interesting to watch.

Religious Freedom

It's the first day of classes, so little time to sit, think, and write.  But there's a new report out by the fine folks at Pew on religious freedom:
Rising Restrictions on Religion, a recent report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, finds that restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose between mid-2006 and mid-2009 in 23 of the world’s 198 countries (12%), decreased in 12 countries (6%) and remained essentially unchanged in 163 countries (82%).

Friday, August 12, 2011

America's Most Hated Person

No surprise who is #1 when it comes to most hated.  Casey Anthony.  But who comes next?  Here's the results.
  1. Casey Anthony
  2. Spencer Pratt (who the hell is this?)
  3. Octomom (Nadya Suleman)

What the Elderly Know ... about Gays

In my never-ending struggle to bring you obscure and perhaps overlooked studies about what people know, I bring you this one.  The lede:
A small but groundbreaking survey of seniors and caregivers at two facilities in the East Bay has revealed mostly positive attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders.
There are a few methodological issues here.  The surveys are of 92 caregivers and 64 elders.  That makes the margins of error at just over 9 for the larger sample and just over 11 for the smaller sample.  And some folks don't get the difference between a sample and a census.  Here's a line from the story:
Researchers acknowledged the survey likely doesn't reflect the full range of attitudes among staff members because it only represented 26 percent of the total 350-member workforce at the facilities who participated. 

Twenty-six percent, that's impressive.  The point is the sample size, not the proportion of the population.

There is an important finding:
Despite the low participation rate, responses did demonstrate that caregivers have little knowledge about how to deal with LGBT seniors or family members. Lavender Seniors will design training for administrators and front-line staff about bathing and other forms of personal assistance, as well as handling legal issues and communication with lesbian or gay partners of clients or their next of kin.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Election Knowledge

Think you know a lot about electoral politics and straw polls and the like?  Take this test at the Washington Post.  I missed several.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Do You Know a Scientist?

Just a quick shoutout at this NYTimes story in the paper's science section.  It's mostly about getting scientists involved in politics, but it does open with how little Americans know even about scientists. 

I love this bit (the lede):
When asked to name a scientist, Americans are stumped. In one recent survey, the top choice, at 47 percent, was Einstein, who has been dead since 1955, and the next, at 23 percent, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4 percent of respondents could name a living scientist.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Who Watches Faux News?

Faux news -- and here I do not mean Fox News -- is generally considered satirical in nature.  Ya know, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  There has been lots of research done, and quite a few trees killed, in discussing the impact these late-night programs have on news, on politics, and most especially on young voters.  I've done a study or two myself.  Die, tree, die.  I was looking to see if anything new has cropped up of late and came across a new one.

I unfortunately do not have complete access to this study in Communication Monographs, so all I can do is briefly note the abstract.  The good?  Rather than rely on secondary analysis, the authors did their own statewide survey to find four variables did well in predicting political TV satire exposure: "age, exposure to satirical sitcoms, exposure to liberal cable news programming, and the newly explicated and operationalized Affinity for Political Humor scale."

So we don't have a lot to work with from the abstract above.  Age makes sense, and I'm guessing the "exposure to satirical sitcoms" means that you're drawn to certain kinds of programming.  Being liberal and watching liberal cable news, that makes sense too.  And then we have a "newly explicated" scale that, I'm guessing, measures how much one likes, or responds to, political humor.  I love individual differences research, so seeing a scale being developed to get at this, that warms my psychological heart.  I will have to look this one up once I can get full access to the article.

I also came across this Communication Research Reports article that, best I can tell with access only to the abstract (sense my growing frustration?) argues that we cannot consider these late-night programs as monolithic, that Colbert and Stewart differ from all the other programs.

Now we all kinda know this, but it's important to systematically examine and establish these points.  As the abstract notes:
Results suggest that viewing satire or parody has positive and significant effects on political participation through the mediator of political efficacy, as does viewing traditional TV news. However, this relationship is not borne out for viewers of traditional late-night comedy. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.
That's fascinating stuff, the different relationships as pertaining to political participation.  Somehow efficacy matters.  While it's hard to tell from the abstract, I'm guessing that for differing levels of self efficacy we see different effects on political participation -- but only when it comes to news or parody faux news programs -- not traditional late-night comedy like Jay Leno.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

We're All Good Drivers. Or so We Think

We all believe we're better than average drivers, according to a new survey.  What's wrong with this picture?
  1. We're also mathematically challenged.  After all, we can't all be better than average given the very definition of average.
  2. The world is far too full of bad drivers for the above statement to be true.
  3. I, on the other hand, am better than the average driver.
People often overestimate themselves, particularly on how much they know.  Actual knowledge and perceived knowledge do correlate with one another.  In other words, survey a thousand people and ask them questions to measure what they know and what they think they know and the two tend to be positively correlated.  In general, those who tend to think they are more knowledgeable also happen to be more knowledgeable.  But there are exceptions.  It's where perceived knowledge outstrips actual knowledge that people get into trouble.

According to the story:
U.S. drivers believe their own driving knowledge, ability and safe driving habits are better than other drivers on the road, 64% rating themselves as “excellent” or “very good” while dishing out those high marks to only 22%t of other drivers their same age. Even among close friends only 29% of motorists ranked their buddies “excellent” or “very good” drivers.
We always overestimate (lie about) certain positive behaviors (voting, church attendance, gas mileage for our SUVs.  We tend to underestimate our negative behaviors (eating at McDonald's, watching Sponge Bob, picking our nose).  And when it comes to estimating the abilities of others?  Well, we tend to underestimate the positive, overestimate the negative.  Such is human nature.

So what's all this mean?  In part it's based in self esteem.  We want to feel good about our abilities and knowledge.  We need to.  I did not use "need" accidentally, because this is a major motivational factor in how we think about ourselves and our world.  We see the same thing when asking people what they know about politics and what they think they know about politics.  Certain kinds of news consumption (talk radio, for example) tends to increase our perceived knowledge but not really doing much for our actual knowledge.  TV news has the same effect, but for those of the lowest educational level or knowledge, TV actually does help.  This is a function of how TV tells stories and a function of those who tend to rely on TV and not print.

When it comes to driving, I'm not surprised by the result.  But the story itself is quite interesting.  Teen and senior drivers get rated the lowest, and that's no doubt true.  It's worth a read and worth thinking about outside and beyond driving as a domain.