Social Science Saves Your Life

8 Mar

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

Do you remember back in 2013 when Nigella Lawson was assaulted by her (then) husband, Charles Saatchi? One of the reasons the story shocked people around the world is because no-one stepped in to assist. Given the assault happened in the middle of the day, outside a busy restaurant in Mayfair, any number of people could have stepped in. So why didn’t they?

If you’re wondering that, then you probably also believe that you would have behaved differently. When we read of events like the assault on Nigella, it’s always tempting to think that we would have been the ones to intervene. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

The tendency not to act is known as ‘bystander apathy’ and cases like Nigella’s are all too common.

Bystander apathy happens because, when people get together in groups, it is common to think that someone else will be the first to act (what psychologists call ‘diffusion of responsibility’). We are also reluctant to act because situations are often ambiguous, and most of us do not want to appear foolish (by acting inappropriately) in front of others.

Both of these effects are magnified with the size of the crowd, which means we are less likely to act when there are more people around. This is because groups of people behave differently from the individuals within them. A major reason for this is in what social scientists call ‘deindividuation’. This describes the reduction in a sense of individual identity within groups and crowds. It isn’t always negative (as anyone dancing with abandon at a concert knows) but it is most frequently used to explain why people behave worse in crowds than they would on their own.

Deindividuation leads to ‘bystander apathy’ because people in crowds tend to think that someone else will act (that is, the responsibility to act diffuses through the crowd). And the larger the crowd, the less likely to act we all become. There also seems to be no difference in this kind of apathy by gender, age, or ethnicity. We’re all as likely as each other to stand by and do nothing.

The good news is that, while deindividuation (in all its guises) is common, it is remarkably easy to overcome. To do that, we simply need to re-engage with people in the crowd as individuals.  If you’re ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in a situation like Nigella, the way to get help is to focus on someone particular in the crowd and ask them, specifically, for help. Try something like ‘you in the green jacket, please help me’. Be specific and direct. This will cut through the diffusion of responsibility and any lingering sense among bystanders about the ambiguity of the situation.

Make sure to share this tip with your family and friends. One day it could make all the difference in the world.

 

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

Trumping fake news

3 Mar

Written by Leanne Rate, MPRINZ, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand and Central Committee member

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‘Fake News and How to Trump it’ was the topic up for discussion for panel members Dr Catherine Strong (Senior Lecturer at Massey University), Patrick Crewdson (Editor of Stuff.co.nz) and Raphael Hilbron (General Manager at SenateSHJ Wellington) at a recent PRINZ Central Division event.
Catherine says the fake news industry is new, and is not simply about wrong information being shared, but that the waters have been muddied by the Trump camp defining any news they don’t like as ‘fake’. During the US elections Donald Trump enjoyed support from 62 million voters – with many clicking on the fake news websites that said what they wanted to believe i.e. pro-Trump, anti-Clinton stories.
The large population behind Trump meant big money for the purveyors of fake news, more clicks = cash. Interestingly, fake news is a big industry in the financially depressed nation of Macedonia, where out-of-work teenagers found that they could make good money by sharing fake news about the US elections.
Fake news is causing a confidence issue for Americans says Catherine, as they become unsure about what news is real vs. fake, with the dilemma meaning an increase in traffic for reliable news sites like the New York Times and Washington post.
For PR professionals concerned about fake news affecting their organisation, she offers the 5 P’s:
• Prevent – make sure you are not contributing to the spread of fake news – don’t re-tweet or re-post stories if you haven’t researched their origins and veracity – be vigilant.

• Pick-up – keep on top of what’s been said about you in your social media monitoring, and then get on to it quickly if its fake.

• Percolate – if there is a fake news story about your organisation, Catherine says “Don’t be quiet. Put out your own correction and drive it through social media as hard as possible. Put ‘fake’ in the headline or in the first part of the tweet.” This will help social media aggregators identify fake news and remove it. It also means your own stories will rank in Google alongside the fake ones, giving readers a chance to be more informed. She also recommends posting comments under fake news stories, alerting readers to the fact it’s not true.

• Place –get your media release used by the most trusted mainstream media sites. Concentrate on that rather than a scatter gun approach sending your media releases wide and far.

• Polish – Headlines are important, it’s a catchy headline that gets shared most on social media, says Catherine. “Make sure your headline gets the gist of the message in it. It is no longer a teaser into the story – it is the story.”
For Patrick Crewdson, it’s a particular type of fake news that worries him the most. He’s less concerned about the parody of fake news generated by Macedonian teenagers becoming a problem in NZ with our small population, and is more worried about how the label of fake news has morphed. He says Trump is now using the term to describe any news story he doesn’t agree with, aiming to shut down coverage by major news organisations like CNN who he labels as hostile.
It’s a theme Patrick says he is starting to see at Stuff, with readers sending complaints to the editor on stories they don’t like, calling them ‘fake’. Bizarrely he’s starting to see these types of complaints even about weather and entertainment stories. “It’s increasingly a problem if people dismiss real stories as fake news because they don’t like the content,” he says. He argues that journalists and media outlets will need to work harder to maintain their credibility.

He believes the best way to increase credibility for media outlets is to:

  • Ensure reporting is beyond reproach
    Be as transparent as possible
    Publically advocate for themselves as media, including doing their own PR and explaining themselves
  • Get better at representing diversity and a range of voices. People are less likely to deem something as fake news if they can see themselves in it.

Raphael Hilbron represented the PR voice at the panel event, pointing out that “fake news is a problem for society, media and PR.” He said fake news is benefiting from the distrust the average citizen has of the media and other institutions, in part aided by the blurring of opinion and editorial.
He pointed to the gap in reporting that would have alerted the public earlier that Trump was winning the US election, instead the wide range of biased reporting meant we were blindsided, wondering what we had missed when he won. Highlighting the distrust of the media, Raphael cited a recent Gallop poll which said that in the USA only 32% of respondents said they trusted the media – the lowest result since the poll started.
He argues we are now seeing the rise of the ‘echo chamber’ where people are getting their news from very narrow spheres of influence, and are simply starting to believe what they want to believe, which leaves them “susceptible to the suspect agenda of others.”
He also referenced an opinion piece by Karl du Fresne which lamented the death of objective journalism in the Sydney Morning Herald, where journalists mixed comment with fact to offer their biased detrimental view on Trump. “Traditional media should uphold independence, accuracy, accountability and transparency. They have to prove that facts do matter, they need to convince readers there is a value in investigative journalism.” To be able to fund investigative journalism, media outlets will have to figure out how to convince online readers the news is worth paying for says Raphael.
He ended his time by reminding PRINZ members that our ethics are paramount, no-one in our profession should endorse lying or fake news, and that our own interests, and that of our clients, is best served by keeping to our code of ethics.

 

Thanks go to Central Division PRINZ committee member Annalie Brown (MPRINZ) for organising such a great panel and topic for Wellington’s first event for the year.

2017: Through the Looking Glass

8 Feb

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

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“I daresay you haven’t had much practice… why, sometimes, I’ve
believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass,

There really is no polite way to say this: the world is awash with bullshit. We can dress this up in all the ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ packaging we want, but it’s much more useful not to mince our words. After all, one of the golden rules of psychology is that ‘to name it is to tame it’. Working in the world of research and policy, we confront this problem every day. We see it in ‘voodoo polls’ that take on the appearance of science without any of the substance. And we see it in ‘experts’ who clearly have no idea about how little they really know.

Facts may be stubborn things but assertions are clearly more of a push-over. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr put it, “certitude is not the test of certainty”. The key is not to dismiss all research and evidence but to be clear about when you can trust it.

Back in the mid nineties Carl Sagan compiled a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ that remains a great resource for anyone dealing with claims made from evidence. It also outlines a number of the common rhetorical tricks that get rolled out to shift your attention away from the quality of the research. There is a version of that article on Research First’s website (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/The%20Fine%20Art%20of%20Baloney%20Detection.pdf), and we have a shorter, easier to use, checklist version you can use too (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/files/users/30375/RF_Research_Ninja.pdf).

But fact-checking is only part of the way to hold back the tide of bullshit. As well as being able to check the quality of the evidence used to support an argument, we need to be able to interrogate the quality of thinking that sits behind it. This is the notion of ‘critical thinking’, which is the art of thinking about thinking. What critical thinking often shows us is that the weakest part of an argument is not the facts it ends up with but the assumptions it starts with. There is nothing hard about critical thinking, but it is a skill that needs instruction and practice. Given how often we see the need for this in the organisations we work with, we now offer a range of seminars in how to improve your critical thinking (see a list here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/index.php?page=seminars).

It may be unfashionable to say this but I can’t help thinking that the best way to beat back the wave of bullshit washing over the world is by encouraging more students to study the liberal arts and the humanities. These subjects let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, while training graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.

If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ (or, in 2017, think they are about to) then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need more Arts graduates.

 

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

Internships: time consuming but worth it

19 Dec

Internship

The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Alex Lyall, PRINZ Student Ambassador at University of Canterbury.

Though internships aren’t exactly how they are in the movies – I have not once followed my boss around as they eccentrically dictate to me their exotic coffee orders – they’re still jobs which eat up an enormous amount of time in your day.  And as all students know, no day is filled with empty hours as it is. We all have about a billion other commitments, on top of socialising and sleeping.

It’s probably worth asking why I, or anybody, would take on an internship with a schedule as crammed as that. Why add more work when you’re up to your neck already? Well, I realised I needed to work harder after attending the PRINZ Young Professionals event with a panel fitted with young public-relations professionals with 1-5 years experience. They were inspiring (and I don’t use that word lightly) not just in their successes but through their words too. Their bluntness alone made attending the panel worth it. The key quote of the night was this:

“Even though you have a degree, so does everyone else.”

Basically, once you begin looking for jobs you can’t rely on your degree alone to land you that dream job. Or any job, for that matter.

I honestly hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made sense. It bugged me for the rest of the night as gaining a degree was all I had been aiming for. As if from a cheesy movie, the next day an invitation arrived in my university inbox looking for internship applications. I put myself forward with the panellist’s words in mind.

My conclusion from three months of interning is that internships are worth it. Even though time has often seemed restrictive, their importance has revealed itself in several ways.

First of all, internships can lead onto better things.

My internship originally asked for me to perform for three months, that has since extended and I am now able to be with my organisation for as long as I like. Internships provide opportunity: the chance for you to really go and prove yourself. It is not uncommon at all for employers to be so wooed by your work that they end up offering you permanent employment.

Even if employment doesn’t eventuate, internships are fantastic opportunities to learn on the job. Some internships provide this in a setting that is calm, encouraging and fun – mine very much falling into this category. Calmness especially has been important for mine. Once when writing a weekly review, I came across some news on the internet about a certain rapper facing criticism. It seemed too juicy to leave out however the subject matter seemed a little ill-fitting for my organisation’s aim. I grappled with its inclusion, ultimately deciding to put it in. Wrong move. I got an email a few days later asking for its removal. Hindsight is 20/20 but you live and learn. It was one lesson I still refer to when making decisions – trust your instinct. In this case, I knew it was wrong to include in my article but that other, more troublemaking, side got to me. Often, those words of advice from your supervisor can be an invaluable reward. You will realise for yourself that it’s affordable to make those mistakes now while you’re young and learning and not after you’ve started your first proper job.

Secondly, internships by design exist in order to give you a wee taste. This taste can influence you, before it’s too late, as to whether or not you feel that working in this line of work is right for you. For me, three months was enough for me to realise that I enjoyed music journalism a lot and that it was definitely something I would want to pursue further. Then on a side note, while some don’t offer payment they make up for it in freebies. In the music journalism world, albums, downloads and press passes are frequent. It’s the kind of currency that gets you involved in the first place.

For me, interning has been like riding my bike with the training wheels still on. It’s this stage where I’m doing something really exciting, and the support is there if I happen to fall. You mustn’t neglect the other busy parts of your life, but give it a go and see how far you can ride.

Image credit: @Istock

 

How Did the Polls get the US Elections so Badly Wrong?

14 Dec

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

USA Map Vote and Elections USA Patriotic Icon Pattern

The day after Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election, The Dominion Post ran a headline saying ‘WTF’. It left off the question mark so not to cause offence (and asked us to believe that they really meant ‘Why Trump Flourished’). But the question lingers regardless.

For those of us in the research business, WTF? was quickly followed by ‘how did the polls get it so wrong?’.

It’s a good question. And coming hot on the heels of the polls’ failure to predict Brexit, an important one.

People have attempted to answer this question in a number of ways, and each of them tells us something a little different about the nature of polling, the research industry, and voters in general.

The first response might be called the ‘divide and conquer’ argument. This is the one that says not all the polls got the election result wrong. The USC/LA Times poll, for instance, tracked a wave of support for Trump building and predicted Trump’s victory a week out. Similarly, the team at Columbia University and Microsoft Research also predicted Trump’s victory. But this seems to me to be a disingenuous argument because most polls clearly got the result wrong. And with enough polls running, some of them have to give the contrary view. Another way to think about this is that even a broken watch is right twice a day.

There is a variation on this argument that we might call ‘divide and conquer 2.0’. This is the argument that says people outside of the industry misunderstood what the polls actually meant. The best example here might be Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com. Before the election 538 gave Trump about a thirty percent chance of winning. To most people, that sounds like statistical short hand for ‘no chance’. But to statisticians, it means that if we ran the election ten times, Trump would win three of them. In other words, Silver was saying all along that Trump could win. Just it was more likely that Hilary would. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb might put it, the problem here is that non-specialists were ‘fooled by randomness’. There is merit in this argument but it seems too much of ‘a bob each way’ position (and note how it shifts the fault from the pollsters to the pundits).

The next argument might be called ‘duck and run’. This is the argument that says the fault lies with the voters themselves because they probably misrepresented their intentions. Pollsters typically first ask people if they intend to vote, and only then who they’re going to vote for. But, of course, there’s no guarantee the answer to either is accurate. This seems to be the explanation that David Farrar (who is one of New Zealand’s most thoughtful and conscientious pollsters) reached for when approached by Stuff. Given how many Americans didn’t vote in the election, expect to hear this argument often. But surely all this really means is that the pollsters asked the wrong questions, or asked them of the wrong people?

A variation on this ‘duck and run’ argument is that polls are at their least effective where a tight race is being run. On election night nearly 120 million votes were cast but the difference between the two candidates was only about 200,000 (or less than one third of one percent). It could be that no polling method is sufficiently precise to work under these conditions. If you want to try this line of argument in the office, award yourself a bonus point for referring to the ‘bias-variance dilemma’.

But I think all of these arguments are a kind of special pleading. Worse than that, much of what the industry is now saying looks like classic hindsight bias to me. This is also known as the ‘I-Knew-It-All-Along Effect’, which describes the tendency, after something has happened, to see the event as having been inevitable (despite not actually predicting it). While it’s easy to be wise after the fact, the point of polling is to provide foresight, not hindsight.

And no matter how well intentioned any of these arguments might be, it’s hard not to think we’ve seen them all before. Philip Tetlock’s masterful Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? reports a 20 year research project tracking predictions made by a collection of experts. These predictions were spectacularly wrong but even more dazzling was the experts’ ability to explain away their failures. They did this by some combination of arguing that their predictions, while wrong, were such a ‘near miss’ they shouldn’t count as failure; that they made ‘the right mistake’; or that something ‘exceptional’ happened to spoil their lovely models (think ‘black swans’ or ‘unknown unknowns’). In other words, the same arguments that we’re now seeing the polling industry rolling out to explain what happened with this election.

For me, all of these arguments miss the point and distract us from the real answer. The pollsters (mostly) got the election wrong because the future – despite all our clever models and data analytics – is fundamentally uncertain. Our society loves polls because we crave certainty. It’s the same reason we fall for the Cardinal Bias, the tendency to place more weight on what can be counted than on what can’t be. But certainty will always remain out of reach. What Trump’s victory really teaches us is that all of us should spend less time reading polls and more time reading Pliny the Elder. It was Pliny, after all, who told us ‘the only certainty is that nothing is certain’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

PRINZ event – Creating a movement for change

10 Nov

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The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Charlotte Wright, PRINZ Student Ambassador at Massey University Wellington.

On Thursday 13 October, PRINZ hosted members in the stunning setting of the Grand Hall at Wellington’s Parliamentary Buildings. The event which was hosted by Melissa Lee, National MP bought together three political experts Andrew Kirton, New Zealand Labour Party; Richard Harman, Politik; Jenna Raeburn, Barton Deakin and one experienced journalist Sean Plunket. The event led to an impassioned discussion on the insights of political campaigning. The panel was asked a variety of questions that both allowed them to provide insight to their thoughts on successful campaigning and also challenged their perspectives. PRINZ was fortunate to have Sean Plunket as the interviewer, who has a strong background in politics, leading the discussion.

Richard Harman gave some interesting points on how campaigns have changed over the last forty years, saying that what was once a “linear, rigid, and sometimes totally boring” subject to report on, political journalism is now focused more on entertainment and encouragement of ‘gotcha journalism’. He went on to explain that “a lot of people out there are looking to ankle tap politicians” to get noticed in the media space.

Jenna Raeburn elaborated on this and explained how campaigns are “changing exponentially” and that the use of data, technology and social media are all now critical tools in targeting specific demographics during campaigns. “You used to have to call, and then visit a target to find out which way they might vote, but now data on Facebook shows us this already, so we can target instantly and with purpose,” she said. She also discussed how the immediacy of social media and online news made rectifying media errors a tough task, saying that it was a long a difficult process to unwind what people hear in the media to ensure accuracy.

Andrew Kirton agreed that it was important for campaigns to integrate social media into their strategies, but assured that the Labour Party were not going to ignore more traditional methods of outreach in next year’s campaign. He said that the way news operates was changing, and by analysing the way people are using media, they would re-balance their campaign priorities and tactics accordingly. He noted that he didn’t think that the New Zealand media would act like the U.S media have in the lead up to the U.S election, saying that the Kiwi culture understands “not to be too silly” when it comes to political reporting.

After some moments of heated discussion, the conversation closed with the panellists’ final thoughts on the New Zealand media space and the role of journalism in society. They all agreed that good journalists were the ones that fact checked, got both sides of the story, and acted as a fourth estate – however, this was at risk with journalistic pressures and the likely possibility of a Fairfax and NZME merger. “Duplicating stories across the media space with no fact-checking and taking out the competition will be bad,” Richard Harman concluded – and an equally risky possibility could be that access to the media could be restricted with a pay-wall, which will mean that media consumption could soon be “a thing for the rich,” he said, looking concerned.

You’ve Got to Know When to Fold ’em

9 Nov

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

Businessman standing on stack of books with a magnifying glass. Business vision

If you have read The Luminaries then you will know that it’s a substantial book. Indeed, one of the reviewers on National Radio joked that it’s a book that ‘gets better after page 400’. Regardless of what this says about the merits of The Luminaries, it raises an interesting general question about when it is okay to abandon a book you have started reading. After all, if you give up too soon then you might miss an amazing plot twist that transforms your experience. But if you plough on regardless, you’ll lose those precious hours you could have used doing (or reading) something better.

Clearly this is not a recent problem. Mark Twain once famously said that a ‘classic’ book is one that ‘everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read’. A quick search of the internet demonstrates that little has changed since Twain’s day, with any number of sites listing books that people pretend they have read. Amazon will even sell you a book to help with the pretense (Anne Taute’s Bluff Your Way in Literature).

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that social scientists have something to say about our reading behaviour, but you may be surprised about what that is. In short, the view from the social sciences is that we should all learn to ditch unsatisfying books sooner.

The first part of this argument arises from what is known as ‘the sunk cost trap’. This describes the tendency to stay with an activity simply because of the time (or money) we have already spent on it. It’s also known as ‘throwing good money after bad’. But we all fall for it to a lesser or greater extent because overcoming sunk costs first means accepting that we have made a bad choice. Our reluctance to make this admission explains why people finish movies or meals they aren’t enjoying; hold on to investments that are underperforming; and keep clothes in their closet that they’ve rarely worn.

The second part of the argument focuses on what is known as ‘loss aversion’. This shows that we feel the pain of losing much more acutely than we do the pleasure from winning. The fear of losing may be what motivates the All Blacks to their great heights of performance but it often inhibits the rest of us. This is because when it comes to making a decision, we are always confronted with the possibility that we’ll make the wrong one. Given this possibility, sticking with the status quo can often seem safer. And I don’t mean a little bit safer – the evidence from the psychology lab suggests that losses are felt about twice as powerfully as similar gains.

Finally, social scientists point to what is known as ‘the Zeigarnik Effect’. This describes how we remember incomplete tasks much more readily (and vividly) than we do complete ones. This Effect has been shown in a number of studies but it began when Zeigarnik’s professor noted how a waiter in a local restaurant could recall unpaid orders but not those that had been paid. The subsequent research demonstrated that the things we start and don’t finish weight much more heavily on our minds than tasks we finish.

Taken together, ‘the sunk cost trap’, ‘loss aversion’, and ‘the Zeigarnik Effect’ mean we are predisposed to staying with tasks long after we should have given up on them; are intrinsically biased towards the status quo; and much more likely to remember our failures than successes.

But while the psychologists have much to say about why it’s so hard to give up on a book you have started to read, they provide little guidance about when we should stop. For this, we need the no-nonsense wisdom of aviation. Mark Vanhoenacker is a 747 pilot and the author of Skyfaring. In his book, he notes that on the final approach to an airport there is a point where the pilot in command has to make a ‘decide call’. To make sure this happens, when the plane reaches the decision-altitude, the flight computer says ‘DECIDE’ out loud and unmistakably. Vanhoenacker talks about how this has become a tool that he uses in his own life when he finds himself procrastinating.

I like the idea of readers creating their own ‘decide’ calls for books. This decision point might occur after you have read the first 60 pages, the first three chapters, or after spending one whole morning reading. But an idea I like even better is to deduct your age from 100 and reading that many pages before giving up. After all, the older we get the less time we have to spend on bad books. And we really do need to know when to walk away and when to run.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

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