Tuesday, September 18, 2012

NPR, Social Media, and Changing Human Behavior for the Better.


NPR is once again doing me a great service, in broadcasting just the right stories to help me think about all of the things in my head.

Recently, researchers collaborating with Facebook released this report on how people's FB networks affect their behavior in terms of registering to vote.  One conclusion that caught my attention was that people's closest friends (in particular, those FB friends with whom they interact a great deal, and who are likely to also be in their face-to-face network) were particularly influential in people's decisions to register to vote.

On Science Friday, our friend Ira Flatow brought in Todd Rodgers, a social psychologist who has experimented with the phenomenon of politicians dodging questions.  His intent was not to prevent the dodge (that would be amazing, if hard to imagine), but rather to investigate people's reactions to the dodge, and to try to figure out ways that people could think critically about the content of what candidates were saying.  He pointed to two strategies in particular:  in a television context, having the original question displayed on the screen allowed viewers to keep the original question in mind (and therefore more effectively judge whether or not the question was ever answered), and using SMS like Twitter as a way of calling out the dodges (this has been done by Fox news, with the #dodge hashtag).  The point is to allow for people to not just evaluate what is a dodge (and therefore have more information about how candidates approach issues that voters might consider to be important), but to be able to communicate with other people in one's network about that dodginess, and therefore disseminate the critical thinking process across a wider range of the potential electorate.

Ira brought James Fowler, one of the authors of the Facebook study, into the conversation, and what resulted was a very interesting discussion of the reasons that people would or would not change their behavior.  Central to the discussion was the idea that people are most affected by the people they are surrounded by and connected to.  People are, apparently, most likely to change their minds or behavior because of what someone they know and care about does or thinks.  They are far less likely to be affected by distant friends of friends.

But NPR didn't stop there--they broadcast another report, this one about the role of teachers' expectations of students in student success.  The research discussed looked at how teachers responded to training around expectations of students (in a context where it is clear that high expectations can lead to greater student success).  The most effective training, that is, the training that changed teacher expectations of students for the better, was that which emphasized behavior.  Teachers who were given behavioral strategies for dealing with disruptive students that allowed them to communicate high expectations fared far better than those teachers who were simply told that they should have high expectations of their students.

For me, the common thread in all of these discussions is the continuing importance of face-to-face interactions and relationships, and the role of behavior in shaping the thoughts and motives of people who are making judgement calls about people and information.  This is important to me not just because I am an anthropologist, but because I am an anthropologist who works in an academic library, and who is doing research on, among other things, how it is that people make decisions about what information is reliable, and which is not.

Amanda French tweeted the other day, "email is made of people."  Which is funny, obvious, and brilliant all at once.  We cannot forget that SMS are also made of people--Twitter is people, Facebook is people.  Therefore, understanding how and why people behave the way that they do must be central to any analysis of the impact of social media and other digital tools/environments.

What I am getting out of some of our findings in the Visitors and Residents project is that people are primarily influenced by those who are firmly embedded in their own social network (whether that network is a digitally-facilitated one, or not).  This helps us answer questions like, Why do undergraduates (in particular, freshmen) ask their friends about their research papers rather than their professors?  Answer:  they are drawing upon their social network.  They frequently try to ask friends who have taken the relevant classes for help, but their professors are not a part of the first line of inquiry, despite frequently being the "best" ones to go to for answers.  As they go through the higher education system, and acquire more experts in their close social network, the ability to ask experts for advice nicely overlaps with the content of their social network (this is particularly true of those who go on to graduate school in a particular field).

The importance (and authority) of people's face-to-face social networks is shot through all of the reports above.  It needs to be in the front of our minds when we try to analyze the behavior of students and faculty in the current information environment with which they (and we) are confronted.   And it cannot be enough for those of us who work in higher education to simply tell students what is best for them.  That clearly doesn't work.  They need to be shown, they need to be embedded in the social networks that comprise the university community so that they can engage in the behaviors that result in success.  Abstract discussions about what is successful and effective will never be enough.