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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

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

What do you do when you feel an inch of self-inflicted pressure?

16 Aug

Written by Deanna Morse, PRINZ Student Ambassador

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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 Deanna Morse, PRINZ Student Ambassador at University of Waikato.

Self-inflicted pressure is what you see when people are lining up for a job interview; slightly slouched and folded in, protecting themselves. Within PR, this pressure can be found before pitching to a new client, public speaking or any stressful activity – no matter how confident you feel within your presence and knowledge – it’s nerve-wracking.

When productivity, results and reputation are on the line, how can you feel less stressed and more confident?

“Our bodies change our minds. Our minds change our behaviour. Our behaviour changes our outcomes.”

‘Communication’ – we’re trained professionals in our natural habitat, our passion and purpose at least five days a week. What about non-verbal communication? This is still part of communication after all. We often think about how our verbal communication governs how other people think and feel about us, but it is even more influential to understand the potential of how our non-verbal communication governs how we think and feel about ourselves – our thoughts, feelings and psychology.

Your body language shapes who you are. Do you know how to control and influence this?

Amy Cuddy- social psychologist, author, and lecturer at Harvard Business School offers us a life-hack: change your posture. By doing so, you can significantly change how your life unfolds.

Right now – make an audit of your body. Audit your posture throughout the day during different situations. Do you typically hold your arms, cross your ankles or hunch forward?

Expressions of power dynamics are universal and traditional. Let’s implement this expression into our daily life and see what happens.

What to do? Power pose.

Step 1: Dedicate two minutes in a comfortable setting

Step 2: Hands on hips, stand up straight, tilt your head slightly upwards and breathe.

Step 3: Feel the power – if you feel silly, remove all negativity from your thoughts and solely concentrate on feeling powerful within your posture. All it takes is two minutes.

Science works. Your testosterone rises and your cortisol drops, meaning your hormones configure your brain to be more assertive, comfortable and confident. You will also be less reactive to stress.

How can power posing really change your life in meaningful ways? Try it in evaluative situations: public speaking, delivering pitches or job interviews. As public relations practitioners, we’re pushing boundaries. We’re constantly making noise and forming relationships – we need our body and brain to be on our side.

What will happen?

You will feel it, you will become 100% ‘you’. Experiments show your presence will be captivating, comfortable, authentic, confident, passionate and enthusiastic. Tiny tweaks equal big changes.

It only takes two minutes, what’s stopping you? Try the pose then share the science.

To watch to Amy Cuddy’s ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’ TED Talk, click here.

Picture credit: iStock

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