The difference between a psychological and a sociological story

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci describes what makes a sociological story different than a psychological one:

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In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil character and good people, where you just identify with the good ones – which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one – it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.

The second sign of a sociological story, for me, is when nobody has plot armor because it’s the setting that’s carrying the story, with lots of people, but it doesn’t rely on one person dying or not dying. For six seasons, you have a very institution sociology, very interesting. It’s like The Wire. People can die, but the story is still gripping because it’s sociological…

They took a great story that was going to be how power corrupts, which clearly was the story, and in the end, they made the dragon lady snap just because she heard the church bells or something. [laughs] That’s not a good sociological story.

The key to the explanation above seems to be that a institution or a social group or a particular moment is the focus of the story, not a particular character or two. By shifting the narrative away from the actions and/or thoughts of a certain person, the story can be about the social setting.

Since it is hard to imagine compelling stories without any focus on individual characters, perhaps this dichotomy between a psychological and sociological story is more like a continuum. On the psychological side, I could think of stories like Crime and Punishment where so much is about what is going on in one person’s head. On the sociological side is The Wire or War and Peace where the focus is more on the setting and the larger social and historical factors at play.

With this said, I would love to have a list of sociological stories in various genres and mediums. This could be useful to share with students and to explore on my own.

Adding social norms and social pressure to seeing lawns as “a window into your soul”

Do lawns say something about a homeowner?

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To our neighbors, our lawn was just another suburban expanse of green. But to my dad, like millions of other yard-having homeowners, it was a canvas, a psychologist’s couch, a playpen, a physical manifestation of his deepest fears and greatest joys. Our lawn was one of the few places in my father’s world where he could impose his will. Plus, it was a respite from his three children. It was a miracle he ever came inside.

Watching my dad out there year after year taught me this: A lawn can tell you an awful lot about its owner.

This fits with the American idea that things you own, ranging from a home to a car to your smartphone, say something important about you. They are not just items to use or enjoy; they reflect your personal brand, even as millions of others may have the same things.

People might also do this with lawns. If people keep up their lawn, they assume the homeowner cares about their property and home. Americans generally like this. Those who do not keep up their home and lawn are less trustworthy as are people who do not own homes.

At the same time, lawns are also the product of social norms. What do the neighbors do with the lawn? How might a messy lawn be perceived by neighbors? Are nicer lawns connected to higher property values? How do different brands sell grass seed and other lawn products? I have argued before that a well manicured and clear lawn is connected to social class. Communities have expectations about what lawns should look like and can exercise both formal and informal sanctions, whether mowing lawns for residents and sending them the bill if the grass is too long to dirty looks.

More broadly, the idea of a green and lush lawn is tied to the American suburban dream. The nice single-family home surrounded by an oasis of green hints at private property, nature, and an attentive homeowner. A neighborhood with such lawns is a sign of care and neighbors who value their community.

Defining and measuring boredom

Learn more about “boredom studies” here. On the definition of boredom:

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Contemporary boredom researchers, for all their scales and graphs, do engage some of the same existential questions that had occupied philosophers and social critics. One camp contends that boredom stems from a deficit in meaning: we can’t sustain interest in what we’re doing when we don’t fundamentally care about what we’re doing. Another school of thought maintains that it’s a problem of attention: if a task is either too hard for us or too easy, concentration dissipates and the mind stalls. Danckert and Eastwood argue that “boredom occurs when we are caught in a desire conundrum, wanting to do something but not wanting to do anything,” and “when our mental capacities, our skills and talents, lay idle—when we are mentally unoccupied.”

Erin Westgate, a social psychologist at the University of Florida, told me that her work suggests that both factors—a dearth of meaning and a breakdown in attention—play independent and roughly equal roles in boring us. I thought of it this way: An activity might be monotonous—the sixth time you’re reading “Knuffle Bunny” to your sleep-resistant toddler, the second hour of addressing envelopes for a political campaign you really care about—but, because these things are, in different ways, meaningful to you, they’re not necessarily boring. Or an activity might be engaging but not meaningful—the jigsaw puzzle you’re doing during quarantine time, or the seventh episode of some random Netflix series you’ve been sucked into. If an activity is both meaningful and engaging, you’re golden, and if it’s neither you’ve got a one-way ticket to dullsville.

On measuring boredom:

The interpretation of boredom is one thing; its measurement is quite another. In the nineteen-eighties, Norman Sundberg and Richard Farmer, two psychology researchers at the University of Oregon, developed a Boredom Proneness Scale, to assess how easily a person gets bored in general. Seven years ago, John Eastwood helped come up with a scale for measuring how bored a person was in the moment. In recent years, boredom researchers have done field surveys in which, for example, they ask people to keep diaries as they go about daily life, recording instances of naturally occurring lethargy. (The result of these new methods was a boon to boredom studies—Mann refers to colleagues she runs into on “the ‘boredom’ circuit.”) But many of the studies involve researchers inducing boredom in a lab setting, usually with college students, in order to study how that clogged, gray lint screen of a feeling affects people.

The study of human behavior continues. A few quick thoughts:

  1. Boredom often comes in solitary conditions. In addition to study social interactions and collective, looking at what people do on their own is worthwhile – and is connected to broader social interaction.
  2. The article mentions various dimensions of boredom as well as its persistence throughout time periods. I would be interested to hear more about how boredom has changed.
  3. In terms of measurement, why not more observational studies? If parked in a public space or granted access to living spaces, I would think researchers would have ample opportunities to see boredom. And the smartphone would seem to be a great device for tracking boredom given its ability to sense movement, keep track of particular uses, ask survey questions when boredom is sensed, etc.

The study of human behavior continues!

We need more research to confirm or dispute the first study to claim a causal connection between social media use and depression and loneliness

A new psychology study argues that reduced time spent with social media leads to less depression:

For the study, Hunt and her team studied 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania over a number of weeks. They tested their mood and sense of well-being using seven different established scales. Half of the participants carried on using social media sites as normal. (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat did not respond to request for comment.)

The other half were restricted to ten minutes per day for each of the three sites studied: Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, the most popular sites for the age group. (Use was tracked through regular screen shots from the participants’ phones showing battery data.)

Net result: Those who cut back on social media use saw “clinically significant” falls in depression and in loneliness over the course of the study. Their rates of both measures fell sharply, while those among the so-called “control” group, who did not change their behavior, saw no improvement.

This isn’t the first study to find a link between social media use, on the one hand, and depression and loneliness on the other. But previous studies have mainly just shown there is a correlation, and the researchers allege that this shows a “causal connection.”

I’m guessing this study will get a good amount of attention because of this claim. Here is how this should work in the coming months and years:

  1. Other researchers should work to replicate this study. Do the findings hold with undergraduate students elsewhere in similar conditions?
  2. Other researchers should tweak the conditions of the study in a variety of ways. Move beyond undergraduates to both younger and older participants. (Most social media research involves relatively young people.) Change the national context. Expand the sample size. Lengthen the study beyond three weeks to look at longer-term effects of social media use.
  3. All the researchers involved need time and discussion to reach a consensus about all of the work conducted under #1 and #2 above. This could come relatively soon if most of the studies agree with the conclusions or it could take quite a while if results differ.

All together, once a claim like this has empirical backing, other researchers should follow up and see whether it is correct. In the meantime, it will be hard for the public, the companies involved, and policymakers to know what to do as studies build upon each other.

Zuckerberg on the role of sociology in Facebook’s success

A doctor recommending the liberal arts for pre-med students references Mark Zuckerberg describing Facebook in 2011:

“It’s as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

Zuckerberg went further in discussing the social aspects of Facebook:

“One thing that gets blown out of proportion is the emphasis on the individual,” he said. “The success of Facebook is really all about the team that we’ve built. In any company that’s going to be true. One of the things that we’ve focused on is keeping the company as small as possible … Facebook only has around 2,000 people. How do you do that? You make sure that every person you add to your company is really great.”…

On a more positive, social scale, Zuckerberg said the implications of Facebook stretch beyond simple local interactions and into fostering understanding between countries. One of Facebook’s engineers put together a website,, which tracks the online relationships between countries, including those that are historically at odds with one another.

Clearly, the sociological incentives are strong for joining Facebook as users are participating without being paid for their personal data. The social network site capitalizes on the human need to be social with the modern twist of having control of what one shares and with whom (though Zuckerberg has suggested in the past that he hopes Facebook opens people up to more sharing with new people).

I still haven’t seen much from sociologists on whether they think Facebook is a positive thing. Some scholars have made their position clear; for example, Sherry Turkle highlights how humans can become emotionally involved with robots and other devices. Given the explosion of new kinds of sociability in social networks, sociologists could be making more hay of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all of the new possibilities. But, perhaps it is (1) difficult to asses these changes so close to their start and (2) the discipline sees much more pressing issues such as race, class, and gender in other areas.

“The Psychology of Living in Skyscrapers”

What are the effects of living in a very tall building?

Why should we even think that high-rise living has an effect on us? One does not, after all, see detailed psycho-architectural studies of ranch houses. The primary reason may be sheer novelty. “Given the age of our species, living more than a few stories up is a very recent phenomenon,” writes Robert Gifford in Architectural Science Review. “This tempts one to conclude that high rises are unnatural, and some would argue that what is unnatural must be, in some way, harmful.”…

So how to square this with a body of research that seems to conclude that most people find high-rise living less satisfactory than low-level living; that tall buildings seem to breed more crime than their lower-situated counterparts; that small children seem to develop (by reading and other measures) less quickly the higher up they live; that tall buildings might even invite suicide? Could an architectural form really do all that? Architecture is never more than a container for social relations. And so high-rise sociology is troubled by larger factors—who is living in the high-rise, and under what conditions? Pruitt-Igoe became synonymous with the problems of high-rise housing; it was considered the death knell of modernist social planning and modern architecture all at once. The backward, revisionist look has been more nuanced…

Much of the research about the problems of tall-building living is really research about, as the sociologist Gerda Wekerle put it, “the problems created by concentrating multi-problem families in housing stigmatized by the rest of society.” Other studies have looked at the populations of places like dormitories, which are themselves hardly representative. The high-rise form is endlessly skewed by social extremes. As Wekerle argues, “Pruitt-Igoe is no more representative than is the John Hancock Center of high-rise living.” And then there’s context. In places like Singapore or Hong Kong, tall-building living is not only the norm, it is considered socially prestigious. A friend who grew up on the 19th floor of an Upper East Side New York City apartment building (and who, interestingly, grew up to be an architecture critic) finds nothing odd, in retrospect, about his upbringing; most of his friends, after all, lived in similar circumstances, if not in the very same building. Why would you need a suburban lawn, he suggested, when Central Park was five minutes away? In terms of building height, he notes: “I don’t think it really had much effect one way or another, perhaps because so many of the neighboring buildings were of relatively equal height, so there wasn’t a sense of vertigiousness.” For the record, he seems to read very well…

One wonders what psychological effects there might be to this earthbound living in the sky. As the architecture critic Joseph Giovannini observed, “Living on the 60th floor is different. There are no earthly sounds, no close-up details outside, not even trees—just the long view and then the drop.” Astronauts on NASA’s space shuttle Discovery, asked to draw three-dimensional cubes, drew them with shorter vertical dimensions when in the zero-gravity of space. Might living in the sky also subtly influence one’s perspective of space, distance, and height? Studies have shown that children, at 25 months of age, can transmit information gleaned from aerial views to make ground-level wayfinding decisions; at 21 months, however, they cannot. Would children whose homes come equipped with aerial views have an edge? It is known, for example, that people with a fear of heights—or even those without when shown images of people falling—will overestimate actual heights.

Some interesting speculation yet the final paragraph ends with this summary: “For now, we must still rely largely on anecdote.”

A few other thoughts:

1. While these buildings may seem normal now, it is important to remember that they are relatively new in human history. For thousands of years, people barely got off the ground, let alone flew in airplanes or lodged or worked 600 feet up.

2. If an academic thought something was here, it doesn’t seem that difficult to design some experiments to see if there are differences.

3. If there were differences, how would architects, residents, and others adapt tall buildings?

4. There are a number of ways these buildings could have a psychological effect. You don’t have to live in them to be affected if your sunlight is blocked or you are consistently walking in concrete canyons in places like Manhattan. Even in the world’s biggest cities, there are still spaces relatively close that allow one to get away from skyscrapers and get back to a more normal sense of scale.

5. As a sociologist, I tend to agree that the differences in living in such buildings is probably due more to social interactions promoted by such buildings rather than the architecture or design itself.

Myers-Briggs not scientifically valid but offers space for self-reflection, ideal types

Critics argue the Myers-Briggs Personality Test doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny:

The obvious criticism of this test is that it’s based on dichotomies. Are you perceiving or judging? Introverted or extroverted? You must choose. This reeks of pseudo-science. Of course, most of us don’t fall clearly on one side or the other. When the specific introvert vs. extrovert duality was a hot topic a few years ago, many writers persuasively argued against reducing socialization patterns to a simplistic either/or. Indeed, reams of psychological literature debunks MBTI as wildly inconsistent—many people will test differently within weeks—and over reliant on polarities. For instance, someone can certainly be both deeply thinking and feeling, and we all know folks who appear to be neither. “In social science, we use four standards: are the categories reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive? For the MBTI, the evidence says not very, no, no, and not really,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote in Psychology Today after reviewing all the science on MBTI. It’s pretty damning.

But the same journalist admits she still finds the test useful:

Any means for busy adults to take time to comprehend ourselves and see how our styles converge and diverge from others has a use—and more honestly, it’s fascinating. So while I remain skeptical of MBTI’s accuracy and I don’t think the test should be given to children and then treated like a blueprint for their future life, I’m optimistic about its potential to make us feel less alone and less hamstrung by our imperfections. A smart aleck might observe drily that this idealistic conclusion was foreordained: “how typically ENFP of you.” Guilty as charged.

So perhaps the Myers-Briggs is only helpful in that it gives people an excuse to engage in self-reflection. Is self-reflection only possible today (and not viewed as indulgent or unnecessary) when given a pseudo-scientific veneer?

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant gives two reasons Myers-Briggs has been so popular:

Murphy Paul argues that people cling to the test for two major reasons. One is that thousands of people have invested time and money in becoming MBTI-certified trainers and coaches. As I wrote over the summer, it’s awfully hard to let go of our big commitments. The other is the “aha” moment that people experience when the test gives them insight about others—and especially themselves. “Those who love type,” Murphy Paul writes, “have been seduced by an image of their own ideal self.” Once that occurs, personality psychologist Brian Little says, raising doubts about “reliability and validity is like commenting on the tastiness of communion wine. Or how good a yarmulke is at protecting your head.”

Perhaps this “ideal self” concept could be analogous to Max Weber’s ideal types. Social scientists do a lot of categorizing as they empirically observe the social world but it can be difficult (Weber suggests pretty much impossible) to exhaustively describe and explain social phenomena. Ideal types can provide analytical anchors that may not be often found in reality but provide a starting point. Plus, using ideal types of personality might help give individuals something to aspire to.

7 PM liked by many college students in 20 countries

A recent multinational study finds that 7 PM may just be the most agreeable part of the day:

At 7 p.m., around the world, we all feel more or less the same about what we’re doing. That’s the finding from a massive study team, with 33 worldwide collaborators, led by psychologist Esther Guillaume of the University of California at Riverside. Sampling more than 5,400 individuals from 20 countries, the researchers found that people across countries (and within the same) made highly similar assessments of life at 7 p.m…

Across all 20 countries, participants gave very consistent RSQ ratings to life at 7 p.m. In general, people found whatever they were doing at that time to be “simple and clear-cut,” “social,” and “potentially enjoyable”; they also felt they were free to speak and feel a range of emotions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the lowest-rated descriptions made reference to abuse, physical or emotional threats, loss of freedom, or deception…

Obviously a study this vast will carry some caveats. The most glaring are that despite the high sample size, most study participants were college students, with a median age of 22 years old. The RSQ itself was developed by U.S. researchers, rather than a global research consortium, and this was its maiden cross-cultural voyage. Neuroskeptic has a smart take on the study’s limitations:

Overall this is a fascinating study and a rich dataset. But while the sample was drawn from five continents, the participants were not selected at random: all of them were students or ‘members of college communities’. What’s more, all of the participating nations were politically stable and at least middle-income. Is life so generally happy in Iraq, South Sudan, or Haiti?

It sounds like the study suffers from an sampling issue that many psychology face: they have WEIRD participants. That acronym stands for participants from “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.” Even if this finding may not be applicable worldwide, it is still interesting within this set of countries. What happens at this time of day?

1. It is around the end of the work day. Many of these societies separate home and work life so people are returning home and looking to relax after a full work day.

2. It is around dinner time (in some places more than others).

3. Depending on the time of year, it is not too long after getting dark or there is still some time for sunlight. Regardless, night is coming and this can be associated with entertainment or relaxation or sleep.

4. Television schedules and evening events start around this time.

In other words, people in these countries generally have more free time and can make choices for this themselves at this time of day.

Quick Review: When God Talks Back

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann examines how evangelicals relate to God in this new book titled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Here are a few thoughts about this fascinating read:

1. Luhrmann’s main argument is that evangelicals are trained to perceive the world in particular ways and this reinforces and upholds their belief in a personal God who cares about them. For example: evangelicals learn to pray in such a way that they believe they are interacting with God and can “hear” God. Another example is that evangelicals tend to read the Bible in such a way that every passage has an immediate application or relevance for their current circumstances. This kind of prayer and Bible reading does not necessarily come naturally: people have to be trained and it can take years to learn the process. Luhrmann spent more than four years in Vineyard churches listening to sermons, participating in small groups, and talking with and interviewing evangelicals.

2. The historical argument is interesting but underdeveloped. Luhrmann argues that the more individualized approach to Christian faith common in evangelicalism developed in Vineyard type (more charismatic) churches in the late 1960s and 1970s and then trickled down to all of evangelicalism. I have little doubt that most of this is true; I recently heard a sermon in an Episcopal church that shared many of the same themes of God’s immediacy and power. At the same time, the main mechanism by which Luhrmann suggests this approach spread is Fuller Seminary. While Fuller has had an impact, I wondered about several things: how did all evangelicals respond to this? Was/is there a backlash against this approach? What about evangelicals who wouldn’t claim this Vineyard/Jesus People background?

3. Luhrmann is an anthropologist but intriguingly is a psychological anthropologist. This means that there is a lot in this book about perceptions, thoughts, and how the brain adjusts to different ways of seeing the world. There even is a chapter that involves an experiment Luhrmann conducted on prayer to see if people can be trained to perceive God more vividly (and they could). Throughout the book there is a mix of anthropological observations, psychological experiments and explanations, and historical context.

4. The book is pretty evenhanded about the question of whether evangelicals believe in something real. There is a chapter that suggests that evangelicals (and other religious people) are not crazy for perceiving supernatural forces. I suspect this will help the book gain some traction in the religious world though it will be interesting to see the reactions. At the same time, I wonder if some will see this book as an attempt to explain away religious belief as a psychological trick that people can learn. Additionally, wow would theologians respond?

5. I suspect this book could be one that helps evangelicals understand themselves better.

6. This was not mentioned much in the book: how are children trained in this approach? The book contains a number of stories of teenager or young adult converts to faith who then have to learn this particular approach to God. However, it has little to say about people who grow up with this approach to God and how this affects adult spirituality.

Overall, this book discusses how evangelicals come to see the world in a certain way as they learn to talk to and hear from God and how to interpret events as God’s intervention. This is the value of this text: it goes beyond describing the evangelical viewpoint and argues for how this viewpoint is developed and maintained. This is an example of what good social science can do: explain why things are the way they are.


“Being a sports fan can be good for your emotional, psychological and social health”

Perhaps I simply like the idea that watching more sports could be a good thing but research suggests there are positive health benefits to being a sports fan:

Indeed, the stereotype that sports fans are overweight, beer-drinking couch potatoes is inaccurate, said Daniel L. Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky and the author of “Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators.”

“Sports fans are quite active physically, politically and socially,” he said…

Fans who identify with a local team have higher self-esteem, are less lonely and are no more aggressive as a group than nonsports fans, according to Wann.

“Pretty much any way you look at it, the more you identify with a local team, the more psychologically healthy you tend to be,” said Wann, who has studied sports fans for 25 years. “You have a built-in connection to others in your environment. If you live in San Francisco and you are a Giants fan, it’s pretty easy to be connected to others.”…

Wann said fandom unites people at a sociological level.

“We as a species have a strong need to belong and a need to identify with something greater than ourselves. Sports is the way some people do that,” he said.

Read on for more details (as well as some possible negative effects).

If there are some benefits to being a fan, we could then ask why negative stereotypes about sports fans exist or are so persistent. Are these ideas perpetuated primarily by non-sports fans – how many Americans would say they are really sports fans? Are they related to ideas about boorish masculinity? Are there too many incidents of sports fans doing stupid things like rioting or acting childish after a star leaves town for another team?

Additionally, this article hints at this but doesn’t fully address the social benefits or consequences of sports fandom (the sociological dimension). For example, what about this question: does having a major sports team improve the collective experience in a major city? Can most or even a majority of a community truly bond and with long-lasting effects over a sports team or a sporting event?

I also wonder if some would argue there is an opportunity cost issue here. If you pay enough attention to sports, you could experience some of these benefits. However, there are other activities you could be doing, say interacting with your family (which is not mutually exclusive from watching sports) or helping others, and that you could miss out on. While I enjoy sports, I am afraid to know how many hours I have spent paying attention to them and then thinking what else I could have done with that time.