Thoughts: What is Pyschology?   no comments

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It’s taken a long time for me to make this second blog post and in the meantime I’ve read a lot. I started with Atkinson and Higard’s Introduction to Psychology and that made me realise something essential that I’d managed to miss – Psychology is a discipline that looks at a lot of things. That might sound obvious but the big problem is that the various things that psychology studies are all different and looked at in different ways. And so it became important to decide what it is that I actually need to study…

One of the big mysteries of viral media is why they go viral. At first, I assumed it was always a positive thing. People might find something funny or find a song catchy and so they might share it with friends who share it with more friends and hey presto, you’ve got a viral object. And this is the assumption I was operating on right up until a few weeks ago when an article was published in the Guardian newspaper about an advertising campaign which had gone viral because (and this is important) people were offended by it. It portrayed ‘stereotypical’ Islamic women with soldiers as some kind of cheesy example of something people might find surprising. And it had been shared by so many people, as an example of something negative, that it had gone viral. So viral, it had ended up in the Guardian.

And that rather ruined all my nice ideas, but helped cement one very important one – The idea of the importance of emotions. People share viral media, generally, when the media illicits an intense emotional response. And if there’s one thing that psychology definitely studies, it’s emotions. But things aren’t as easy as I had first thought. The more I read into emotions in psychology, the more complex things got. Atkinson and Hilgard made it clear that emotions can be deceptive and through Google searches, I started to learn how deceptive. It’s easy to think that when you feel angry, that’s because you’re literally feeling angry. But emotions are in fact simply hormonal and chemical changes in the body. And they can be the result of hormone imbalances as opposed to, say, an external stimulus causing anger. But more than that, the way we perceive other people’s emotions is incredibly deceptive. Images of a ‘sad’ expression on a man’s face tend to appear much more angry than an identical expression on a woman’s face. And then when you get into the issues of ‘projecting’, where you perceive someone else’s emotions as your own, when they might be quite different…Well, that’s where it all gets complicated. So I’m trying to understand emotions at the moment, which is pretty much what I have been doing for some time. Seeing how to study these emotions and how to understand their effects, while not allowing myself to be ‘tricked’ into seeing what I want to see is the big problem of the moment with psychology. It looks like the best way to study these things is through very small scale, tight projects – Measuring hormone levels in subjects, for example. Not the traditional way Web Science might seek to solve these issues. But there aren’t many simple ways to just overcome the problem of emotional biases. And there are other issues which make this more complicated and introduce the importance of the ‘small scale’ nature of these projedcts.

Herd behaviour is a big one. People might see an item becoming popular and then ‘share’ it to become part of a group. This is particularly popular among teenagers and that’s a problem – It might lead to say, a feedback loop – People see item x become cool. They then share item x. This leads to item x becoming cooler and more people sharing item x…But it might be none of these people really like the item, or have the same emotional response as the earlier sharers…They just share it because it’s the cool thing to do. Then if you throw in ‘hipsters‘ or people who are anti-mainstream, they might refuse to share something even if they enjoyed it, to avoid being part of the crowd. People are very complicated…

However, I feel emotions are key to this. Unlike I first thought, these emotions don’t need to be positive, but they do start to dictate whether an item becomes ‘popular’ – famous or infamous – and that is the most important factor for these other behaviours.

So that’s where I’m at with psychology. The more I read, the more things get complicated and the more I seem to have to read. Next time an update with where I’m at with complexity science, which I almost gave up on for a time…

Written by Neal Reeves on November 25th, 2013

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