Sociologist who studies fear at and collects stats for a haunted house

Here is one way to put sociological training into practice: working for a haunted house.

Ms. Kerr’s equivalent of a coffee break was the ScareHouse in Etna, which bills itself as “Pittsburgh’s ultimate haunted house” and has earned accolades from national publications, trade magazines, horror movie directors and other outlets to buttress the claim…

A part-time professor at Pitt and Robert Morris University, Ms. Kerr’s appreciation for the macabre also led to a job at ScareHouse, where she’s worked since 2008 as an administrator, statistician and resident sociologist…

Though the ScareHouse, which opened in 1999, had long taken customer surveys, Ms. Kerr added a new dimension, he says, polling not just on what aspects of the haunted house worked but what customers’ fear most deeply…

Ms. Kerr’s book, based on her haunted house experiences, deals with “the real benefits of experiencing thrilling or scary materials.” Those can range from the endorphin and adrenaline rush and confidence boost of surviving a dicey encounter to the stronger bonds formed in social groups that experience a scary situation together. Of course, there’s an important caveat.

“To really enjoy thrilling situations, you have to know that you’re safe,” she added.

“Thanks for experiencing our haunted house – now please take our exit survey.” Yet, it sounds like an interesting place to collect data. It would be interesting to hear how generalizable the findings about fear at a haunted house might be to other situations.

I often tell my statistics and research methods students that all sorts of organizations, from NGOs to corporations to religious groups to governments, are looking to collect and analyze data. Here is another example I can use that might prove more interesting than some other options…

Mapping England’s emotional mood in real-time

A group of researchers have developed a real-time map of England’s emotions based on Twitter:

The team, from Loughborough University, say it can scan up to 2,000 tweets a second and rate them for expressions of one of eight human emotions…

The team, from the university’s new Centre for Information Management, say the system can extract a direct expression of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, shame and confusion from each tweet.

The academics said that using the Emotive software to geographically evaluate any mass mood could help police to track potential criminal behaviour or threats to public safety.

It may be able to guide national policy on the best way to react to major incidents, they added.

There have been several projects like this in recent years. The algorithms to sort out all of the language must be intricate. But, I’m skeptical about two things. One is a sampling issue. Just how many people in England are using Twitter? In the United States, the figures about regular Twitter users are still quite low. You can map the moods of Twitter users but this doesn’t necessarily represent the larger population. The Twitter population probably trends younger. At the same time, responding to vocal responses on the web or on Twitter might be effective for public relations. A second issue is how exactly tracking moods could be used to help police. So police will be sent to places that show high concentrations of disgust or anger and pay less attention to places experiencing happiness? Or, such a system might alert police to trouble spots? I suspect it is more complicated than this yet I imagine such talk could make Twitter users nervous about how exactly their moods will be analyzed.

The similarities between opera and sports fans

People can be fans of a lot of things including sports and opera:

The sociologist Claudio Benzecry spent years studying opera fans in Buenos Aires and observed that their love of opera happened just the way other forms of love do — through an experience that made them want to keep going back for more. Not through reading up on it or going to lectures about it. I discuss Benzecry’s book along with a well-meaning tome called “Opera” that’s designed to deepen opera-lovers’ love, and conclude that Benzecry is right. Opera fans are like sports fans; you get into it, and you start to learn about it, and pretty soon you’re reeling off stats with the rest of them.

More from the review of Benzecry’s book on opera fans:

Benzecry’s book doesn’t try to communicate a love of opera: It simply depicts how that love happens. His subjects, none of them wealthy, attend the opera several times a week (often in standing room or the upper balconies, where tickets are not prohibitively expensive). They are not intellectuals; they are certainly not elitist; and they were not drawn to opera by any sense of social obligation. Secretaries and sports writers and blue-collar retirees, they argue passionately about singers, productions and composers, drawing on their own experience and on a wealth of information passed on orally by older and more experienced devotees.

And how did they fall in love with opera? Certainly not through academic introductions, or books, though many of them, Benzecry shows, do attend music appreciation lectures to augment their knowledge. But the initial spark is more likely to have been a powerful “aha” moment at the opera, when first taken by a parent, or a friend: an experience of falling in love that awakens in them a thirst to go back, and back, and back.

Benzecry’s book depicts a world that’s familiar to any frequent opera-goer. Such fandom is a long-standing part of opera tradition. Nineteenth-century opera was a populist art; most audiences experienced it viscerally, singing Verdi’s tunes on the street or swooning in titillated delight after hearing Wagner. You can still get dizzy listening to Wagner — I remember experiencing the “Tannhäuser” overture, at an early encounter, as a kind of psychedelic drug trip — and you can still get passionate about the opera singers who bring these works to life.

Yet few opera guides touch on these aspects of opera. This is partly because even the hardest-core opera fans tend to put opera on a pedestal, subscribing to the notion of it as something better, something higher, something that gives color and meaning to life. This worshipful attitude toward opera, through which even the drollest opera buffa is seen through a more rarefied lens than much more serious but populist contemporary art, is part of what makes the form so off-putting to first-timers, who see it as something that involves unfamiliar rituals, special clothes, expense and jargon, and that is probably boring.

Two things I like here:

1. Sports fans are sometimes used as examples of people who have irrational emotions about something that is just a game. How could they get so worked up over something so trivial? But, lots of people have deep interests and emotions wrapped up in all sorts of activities and hobbies. Indeed, I’ve thought over the last few years that one true sign of being part of the American middle upper class or above is that a person has to have some “irrational” interest to show that they not only enjoy something but they are wholeheartedly devoted to it and are willing to spend a lot of time and money on it. Perhaps it is physical activity, perhaps it is woodworking, perhaps it is sports, perhaps it is indie music, perhaps it is snowboarding. Perhaps this is all driven by the need to feel like an individual?

2. I bet there is some fascinating sociological material here. When people start talking about “falling in love” with opera, there have to be some underlying processes behind this. This reminds me of sociological research in certain areas like fashion or stock trading where employees talk about having “intuition” but there is actually a long process by which someone acquires this “intuition.”  I bet there is something similar going on here: opera fans have developed ways of talking about their interest but there are some common themes across them as they moved from an initial exposure to a full-fledged fandom.

Paris’ transit authority has new campaign asking local residents to be less rude

The transit authority in Paris has a new campaign aimed at getting users to show more etiquette:

Likening Parisians to animals, it shows a variety of them horrifying onlookers with their selfish behaviour.

A hen is shown screaming into a mobile phone while sitting on a packed bus, a buffalo shoves his way on to a commuter train, and other shameless beasts are shown annoying people…

Sociologist Julien Damon, who helped carry out the RATP survey, said: ‘These types of bad behaviour have always existed, but what has changed is that we are less prepared to tolerate them.

‘Our behaviour is more and more geared towards cleanliness and hygiene, like spitting on the ground or smoking in a restaurant now both very frowned upon, and less about common courtesies like simply being polite and nice to each other.’…

The study comes two years after a separate survey of foreigners visiting Paris voted them the rudest people in Europe...

Cecile Ernst, French author of the sociological and etiquette essay ‘Bonjour Madame, Merci Monsieur’ argues that the shockingly loutish behaviour of France’s football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the players went on strike, was a symptom of a broader social trend.

Two quick thoughts:

1. This seems to be motivated in part by perceptions of tourists. Since Paris is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, this is no small matter.

2. I wonder how successful this campaign will be as it utilizes shame and guilt. The posters shown here basically suggest that some current riders are acting like animals. Could a more positive campaign be more effective or would it not attract people’s attention effectively? Imagine if ads like these went up in a major US city…

The increasing sadness in pop music songs

A psychologist and sociologist looked at Billboard pop music hits since 1965 and found that the songs have become more sad:

“As the lyrics of popular music became more self-focused and negative over time, the music itself became sadder-sounding and more emotionally ambiguous,” according to psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve.

Analyzing Top 40 hits from the mid-1960s through the first decade of the 2000s, they find an increasing percentage of pop songs are written using minor modes, which most listeners—including children—associate with gloom and despair. In what may or may not be a coincidence, they also found the percentage of female artists at the top of the charts rose steadily through the 1990s before retreating a bit in the 2000s…

Strikingly, they found “the proportion of minor songs doubled over five decades.” In the second half of the 1960s, 85 percent of songs that made it to the top of the pop charts were written in a major mode. By the second half of the 2000s, that figure was down to 43.5 percent…

“The present findings have striking parallels to the evolution of classical music from 1600 to 1900,” Schellenberg and von Scheve write. “Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries …. Pieces tended to sound unambiguously happy or sad. By the 1800s, and the middle of the Romantic era, tempo and mode cues were more likely to conflict,” which allowed composers to express a wide range of emotions within a single piece.

I would be interested to hear how they relate these changes to larger social forces: does this line up with a greater sadness in society or perhaps the ability or proclivity to express negative emotions? I also wonder if the data is skewed at all by only looking at Top 40 songs – does all music reflect this or only the most popular songs (which then reflect the influence of musical gatekeepers such as radio stations, journalists, critics, and music labels)?

Also: could we have a period where we return to more major mode music? Can a musical genre, whether classical or pop music, recover from an extended period of “sadness”?

Argument: “Academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture”

In a discussion of reforming PhD. programs, one academic suggests that frequent meetings between students and faculty are needed to speed up the process because shame motivates more than guilt:

David Damrosch, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University, said that Ph.D. students and professors in his department have been thinking more carefully about coursework. “Very often, students drift for extended periods,” he said. Frequent meetings with dissertation committee members are helpful, he said. “All this result in fewer incompletes in coursework … and more consistent progress in the dissertations,” said Damrosch.

“In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture: you may feel some private guilt at letting a chapter go unread for two or three months, but a much stronger force would be the public shame you’d feel at coming unprepared to a meeting with two of your colleagues,” he said. “It’s also ultimately a labor-saving device for the faculty as well as the student, as the dissertation can proceed sooner to completion and with less wasted effort for all concerned….” With frequent meetings, the students doesn’t lose time on “unproductive lines of inquiry” or “tangential suggestions tossed out by a single adviser,” Damrosch said.

Neither shame or guilt seem like the best motivation…

I wonder how many Ph.D. students say they feel positively supported by their institution and faculty. This doesn’t necessarily mean that students are the only ones who have a voice in this but I wonder if a lot of these issues are due to a poor match of (unclear?) expectations.

A follow up to a Charles Darwin experiment shows how emotions change over time

Wired explains how several researchers followed up on an experiment Charles Darwin conducted:

Charles Darwin liked to freak out his friends—for science. Guests visiting the famed naturalist in 1868 were shown a set of “ghoulish” photos of a guy being prodded in the face with an electrical current. Darwin then asked his guests-cum-guinea pigs to describe the emotion displayed in each photo. Was the subject happy? Sorrowful? Cheeky? Darwin hoped to determine what universal core emotions exist (if any) and what culturally modified variations branch from them. The result was Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Interesting, sure, but not the best science: The Victorian-era crowdsourcing experiment lacked consistent materials, a control group, and enough test subjects—he had only 24.

Fortunately, the University of Cambridge’s Darwin Correspondence Project picks up where Darwin left off. It has re-created his study online using the same images, taken by French physiologist Benjamin Duchenne. Yes, they look like yearbook portraits from a sanitorium. But more than 18,000 participants’ evaluations have now been tallied, and the project may actually yield defendable results. And they include a dimension Darwin didn’t intend. “There are different emotional vocabularies and repertoires in different periods,” says Cambridge research associate Paul White. For example, whereas Darwin’s posse perceived the conveyed emotion in one image as “hardness,” today’s majority describes it as “bored”—a word that in the 1800s only described what you might have done to a piece of wood. Emotions, it turns out, vary not only cross-culturally but also cross-historically. You might say they’ve evolved.

This makes me wonder about the research of Paul Ekman, the inspiration behind the TV show Lie To Me and the author of the interesting book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. Ekman can identify micro-expressions, the almost instantaneous emotional reactions we have and display on our face before we try to cover them up (within a few tenths of a second). Are Ekman’s understandings of these expressions cultural and historically informed, meaning that his reading of micro-expressions 100 years ago or 100 years into the future would be less accurate?

This article hints at a fascinating topic: how are our own reading and naming of our emotions and those of others influenced by different social, cultural, and historical factors? Take the example above of boredom: did the concept simply not exist several centuries ago before individualism? This is related to but different from current debates about questions like what counts as addiction or what should be included in the new DSV-V manual.

Fighting the “artificial positivity” on Facebook with EnemyGraph

A new Facebook app called EnemyGraph allows users to openly mark their “enemies” on Facebook:

EnemyGraph, a new app for Facebook, allows users to do just that: Declare their enemies on the world’s most popular social network.

It may sound sinister, but the motivation is more sociological, say the developers, a group from the Emerging Media + Communications program at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Facebook has this artificial positivity kind of forced upon it,” said Harrison Massey, a student at UT Dallas who, along with Dean Terry, the director of the program, and Bradley Griffith, a graduate student, collaborated to develop the app. “We believe that there is a certain amount of health in saying that you don’t like something, that something is your enemy, because you can create conversations about that. You can bond with people over that.”

Massey said, for example, that users could bond over the common dislike of a company or a political party…

“We are misusing the word ‘enemy’ the same way that Facebook misuses the word ‘friend,”‘ Terry, the UT professor behind the project, told HuffPost. “It’s totally inaccurate. It’s not about individuals. It’s really about things in popular culture.”

Several thoughts about this:

1. I think Facebook is pretty smart by limiting the negativity within the software itself. Of course, users can make negative statements on walls but even these can be deleted. Since Facebook is about connecting people, formal negativity could detract from this. Let’s say that you don’t like someone’s posts: Facebook’s easiest answer these days is to simply block them from showing up on your news feed. The genius is that the other person doesn’t know this so the negative interaction between the two people is limited and life goes on.

2. EnemyGraph seems to be channeling the sort of sentiment sometimes expressed by users asking for a “dislike” button to balance the “like” button. Isn’t it more “balanced” to have both options?

3. Perhaps in EnemyGraph’s favor, social interactions, particularly group interactions, are often reliant on clearly labeling who is “in” and who is “out.” Without the easy ability to mark who is “out” in Facebook, marking symbolic and moral boundaries becomes more difficult. Developing deeper relationships through having common enemies could be more difficult. Of course, drawing strong subgroup boundaries can lead to other issues such as antagonism between groups.

4. I bet Facebook would argue (and perhaps could even prove) that their current system actually increases social interaction and introducing more negative capabilities would limit social interaction. Think about other areas of web interaction (comment sections or pages like Digg) and see how the ability to formally report negative feelings leads to a different kind of environment.

5. I’m amused about broadly defining “enemy” just as Facebook broadly defines “friend.”

Sociologists tracking “global mood swings” through Twitter

New social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are ripe data sources. A new study in Science done by two sociologists examines the world’s emotions through Twitter:

The research team, led by Scott Golder, a PhD doctoral student in the field of sociology, and Professor of Sociology Michael Macy, tracked 2.4 million people in 84 different countries over the past two years. Clearly the team working on the project didn’t read through 2.4 million people’s tweets. Instead, they used a text analysis program that quantified the emotional content of 509 million tweets. Their results, featured in the paper “Diurnal and Seasonal Mood Tracks Work, Sleep and Day Length Across Diverse Cultures,” were published September 29 in Science.

The researchers found that work, sleep, and the amount of daylight we get really does affect things like our enthusiasm, delight, alertness, distress, fear, and anger. They concluded that people tweet more positive things early in the morning and then again around midnight. This could suggest that people aren’t very happy while they’re working since their happy tweets are at the beginning and end of the day. Saturday and Sunday also saw more positive tweets in general. The weekend showed these peaks at about 2 hours later, which accounts for sleeping in and staying out late.

Of course, all of the trends weren’t the same throughout every country. For example, the United Arab Emirates tend to work Sunday through Thursday, so their weekend tweets happened on Friday and Saturdays. The results also found that people who live in countries that get more daylight (closer to the equator) aren’t necessarily happier than people in countries that get less daylight (closer to the North and South Poles). It seems that only people who have a lot of daylight during the summer and then very little in the winter feel the affect of the change in seasons as much.

Clearly the results of the research aren’t perfect. There may be some people who only share positive things on Twitter, or some people who love to be cynical and use Twitter to complain about problems.

This sounds interesting and the resulting maps and charts are intriguing.  However, I would first ask methodological questions that would get at whether this is worthwhile data or not. Does this really reflect global moods? Or does this simply tell us something about Twitter users, who are likely not representative of the population at large?

Another article does suggest this study makes methodological improvements over two common ways studies look at emotions:

None of these results are particularly surprising, but Golder and Macy suggest that using global tweets allows them to confirm previous studies that only looked at small samples of American undergraduates who were not necessarily representative of the wider world. Traditional studies also require participants to recall their past emotions, whereas tweets can be gathered in real time.

These are good things: more immediate data and a wider sample beyond college undergraduates. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Twitter data is good data. The sample still probably skews toward younger people and those who have the technological means to be on Twitter consistently. Additionally, immediate emotions can tell us one thing but inquiring about longer-term satisfaction often tells us something else.

On the whole, this sounds like better data than we have before but until we have more universal Twitter usage, this data source will have significant limitations.

How sociology can “unravel the [London] riots”

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association explain how sociology can help explain the London riots:

One of the first things that disappears when considering disturbances such as these is perspective. One loses sight of the fact that nine out of 10 local residents aren’t rioting, that nine out of 10 who are rioting aren’t local to the area, and that nine out of 10 of these non-locals aren’t doing it to commit crime. That is to say, it is a tiny minority who are participating and, of those that are, it’s a tiny minority who are doing so solely to commit crime. Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a more complex process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour.

Crowds are irrational. Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably. But has anyone made a connection with the two media events that dominated media coverage on the same day – the irrationality of crowds on the streets and of traders on the stock market? Both sorts of behaviour are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears. Economists are lauded for their accounts of the irrationality of the market traders, but sociologists get criticised for suggesting that allegations of criminality are a poor account of the irrationality of crowds.

Sociologists seek to explain – not explain away – these events. An understanding of the impact of social inequalities and deprivation, youth unemployment, racism and ethnic conflict, and crime and policing forms a large part of the concerns of UK sociology. Since most politicians and the police seem to have been taken unawares by the events of the past few days, it seems we need more understanding and explanation, not less, if we are to be able to draw lessons from the current events and prevent their recurrence. The British Sociological Association would be happy to put London’s mayor and his staff in touch with sociologists who could add real understanding to the all-too-easy condemnations of these disturbing events.

Several things stand out to me:
1. I like the opening suggestion and make a similar argument to my Introduction to Sociology class: instead of asking why a few people commit crimes or are deviant, why not ask why most people are so willing to follow social rules and norms?

2. I like the comparison of the role of emotions in stock trading and crowd behavior on the streets. Arguably, emotions may a large role in social actions but generally get short shrift from commentators and researchers.

3. But, why suggest that sociologists are bitter because economists “are lauded” for their explanations?

4. I like the distinction between explaining and explaining away. I’ve seen some commentators suggest that we shouldn’t talk about the class status or alienation of the rioters because this may suggest that their actions are justified. But, at the same time, there is something that set off these riots and sociologists are often looking to understanding why something happened and not something else (to paraphrase Weber). We should not be afraid of explanations though determining how one should respond once the explanation is known is another matter.