Tag Archives: Psychology

The Psychology of Online Comments

By Maria Konnikova

Several weeks ago, on September 24th, Popular Science announced that it would banish comments from its Web site. The editors argued that Internet comments, particularly anonymous ones, undermine the integrity of science and lead to a culture of aggression and mockery that hinders substantive discourse. “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story,” wrote the online-content director Suzanne LaBarre, citing a recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as evidence. While it’s tempting to blame the Internet, incendiary rhetoric has long been a mainstay of public discourse. Cicero, for one, openly called Mark Antony a “public prostitute,” concluding, “but let us say no more of your profligacy and debauchery.” What, then, has changed with the advent of online comments?

Anonymity, for one thing. According to a September Pew poll, a quarter of Internet users have posted comments anonymously. As the age of a user decreases, his reluctance to link a real name with an online remark increases; forty per cent of people in the eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-old demographic have posted anonymously. One of the most common critiques of online comments cites a disconnect between the commenter’s identity and what he is saying, a phenomenon that the psychologist John Suler memorably termed the “online disinhibition effect.” The theory is that the moment you shed your identity the usual constraints on your behavior go, too—or, to rearticulate the 1993 Peter Steiner cartoon, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re not a dog. When Arthur Santana, a communications professor at the University of Houston, analyzed nine hundred randomly chosen user comments on articles about immigration, half from newspapers that allowed anonymous postings, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle, and half from ones that didn’t, including USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, he discovered that anonymity made a perceptible difference: a full fifty-three per cent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as opposed to twenty-nine per cent of registered, non-anonymous commenters. Anonymity, Santana concluded, encouraged incivility.

On the other hand, anonymity has also been shown to encourage participation; by promoting a greater sense of community identity, users don’t have to worry about standing out individually. Anonymity can also boost a certain kind of creative thinking and lead to improvements in problem-solving. In a study that examined student learning, the psychologists Ina Blau and Avner Caspi found that, while face-to-face interactions tended to provide greater satisfaction, in anonymous settings participation and risk-taking flourished.

Anonymous forums can also be remarkably self-regulating: we tend to discount anonymous or pseudonymous comments to a much larger degree than commentary from other, more easily identifiable sources. In a 2012 study of anonymity in computer interactions, researchers found that, while anonymous comments were more likely to be contrarian and extreme than non-anonymous ones, they were also far less likely to change a subject’s opinion on an ethical issue, echoing earlier results from the University of Arizona. In fact, as the Stanford computer scientist Michael Bernstein found when he analyzed the /b/ board of 4chan, an online discussion forum that has been referred to as the Internet’s “rude, raunchy underbelly” and where over ninety per cent of posts are wholly anonymous, mechanisms spontaneously emerged to monitor user interactions and establish a commenter’s status as more or less influential—and credible.

Owing to the conflicting effects of anonymity, and in response to the changing nature of online publishing itself, Internet researchers have begun shifting their focus away from anonymity toward other aspects of the online environment, such as tone and content. The University of Wisconsin-Madison study that Popular Science cited, for instance, was focussed on whether comments themselves, anonymous or otherwise, made people less civil. The authors found that the nastier the comments, the more polarized readers became about the contents of the article, a phenomenon they dubbed the “nasty effect.” But the nasty effect isn’t new, or unique to the Internet. Psychologists have long worried about the difference between face-to-face communication and more removed ways of talking—the letter, the telegraph, the phone. Without the traditional trappings of personal communication, like non-verbal cues, context, and tone, comments can become overly impersonal and cold.

But a ban on article comments may simply move them to a different venue, such as Twitter or Facebook—from a community centered around a single publication or idea to one without any discernible common identity. Such large group environments, in turn, often produce less than desirable effects, including a diffusion of responsibility: you feel less accountable for your own actions, and become more likely to engage in amoral behavior. In his classic work on the role of groups and media exposure in violence, the social cognitive psychologist Alfred Bandura found that, as personal responsibility becomes more diffused in a group, people tend to dehumanize others and become more aggressive toward them. At the same time, people become more likely to justify their actions in self-absolving ways. Multiple studies have also illustrated that when people don’t think they are going to be held immediately accountable for their words they are more likely to fall back on mental shortcuts in their thinking and writing, processing information less thoroughly. They become, as a result, more likely to resort to simplistic evaluations of complicated issues, as the psychologist Philip Tetlock has repeatedly found over several decades of research on accountability.

Removing comments also affects the reading experience itself: it may take away the motivation to engage with a topic more deeply, and to share it with a wider group of readers. In a phenomenon known as shared reality, our experience of something is affected by whether or not we will share it socially. Take away comments entirely, and you take away some of that shared reality, which is why we often want to share or comment in the first place. We want to believe that others will read and react to our ideas.

What the University of Wisconsin-Madison study may ultimately show isn’t the negative power of a comment in itself but, rather, the cumulative effect of a lot of positivity or negativity in one place, a conclusion that is far less revolutionary. One of the most important controls of our behavior is the established norms within any given community. For the most part, we act consistently with the space and the situation; a football game is different from a wedding, usually. The same phenomenon may come into play in different online forums, in which the tone of existing comments and the publication itself may set the pace for a majority of subsequent interactions. Anderson, Brossard, and their colleagues’ experiment lacks the crucial element of setting, since the researchers created fake comments on a fake post, where the tone was simply either civil or uncivil (“If you don’t see the benefits … you’re an idiot”).

Would the results have been the same if the uncivil remarks were part of a string of comments on a New York Times article or a Gawker post, where comments can be promoted or demoted by other users? On Gawker, in the process of voting a comment up or down, users can set the tone of the comments, creating a surprisingly civil result. The readership, in other words, spots the dog at the other of the end of the keyboard, and puts him down.

As the psychologists Marco Yzer and Brian Southwell put it, “new communication technologies do not fundamentally alter the theoretical bounds of human interaction; such interaction continues to be governed by basic human tendencies.” Whether online, on the phone, by telegraph, or in person, we are governed by the same basic principles. The medium may change, but people do not. The question instead is whether the outliers, the trolls and the flamers, will hold outsized influence—and the answer seems to be that, even protected by the shade of anonymity, a dog will often make himself known with a stray, accidental bark. Then, hopefully, he will be treated accordingly.

Maria Konnikova is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.” She has a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University.

Source: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-psychology-of-online-comments

Chapter Excerpt from Organizational Psychology: Collected Works (Volume 5)

org-psych-vol-5Alcohol Related Disorders

By V. K. Clark

Abstract

This post offers a thorough discussion of the diagnosis and treatment of alcohol related disorders.

Alcohol abuse and dependence can have devastating effects on individuals, families, and society.  Thus, it is important for psychologists to accurately assess clients with alcohol dependence problems and to determine an accurate diagnosis for these clients.  This analysis explores some of the strategies psychologists can use to establish a therapeutic relationship with a client who is court ordered for assessment and treatment, as well as treatment approaches for clients who are diagnosed with alcoholism.

Overview

            The definition and treatment of alcoholism has evolved over the years, but today psychologists generally agree that there are two types of alcohol-related disorders: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence disorder, the latter being the more serious of the two (Hersen, Turner, & Beidel, 2007).  Our understanding of alcoholism and the factors that cause dependence has improved markedly since the days of prohibition.  For instance, we now know that some people, and even certain ethnic groups, have genetic vulnerabilities when it comes to alcohol consumption (i.e., “…genes explain 40% to 60% of the variance in alcohol abuse and dependence”; Hersen et al., 2007, p. 182).  Individuals with low or no alcohol metabolizing enzymes (e.g., many Asians), low response levels to alcohol, low alpha and voltage activity on EEGs, and “low amplitude of the P300 wave component of event-related potentials” are at elevated risk for alcohol abuse or dependence (Hersen et al., 2007, p. 182).  However; culture, lifestyle, environment, media, and family life all play an important role in the development of alcohol dependence or abuse as well (Hersen et al., 2007)—genes and environment interact.  Further, the presence of a mental disorder—such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder—is also a risk factor for alcohol dependence or abuse, because many individuals with mental illnesses take up drinking as a form of self-medication (Hersen et al., 2007), or even to escape from “overwhelming” responsibilities or stress.  With all this in mind we may now turn to the issues of diagnosis and treatment.

Court Ordered Assessment and Treatment

            One challenging subgroup of alcohol-dependent clients that psychologists encounter consists of those who do not want to recover—i.e., they are not motivated to change.  While many of these individuals do not recover and/or relapse shortly after treatment, many others do recover.  So, what do psychologists do with clients like this?  First and foremost, the court-ordered client must go through some kind of inpatient detoxification process, so that further diagnosis and accurate psychological and physiological assessment can take place.  Once this is complete the psychologist moves on to a two-part preliminary assessment.

            Assessment procedure.  Hersen et al. (2007) recommended that psychologists first determine “the extent and nature of the [alcohol] problem,” and second, determine whether the client has a co-occurring mental disorder (p. 174), such as BD, MDD, or schizophrenia.  This can be done via a number of different assessment tests and inventories, such as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), the Situational Confidence Questionnaire (SCQ-39; BSCQ), the Timeline Followback (TLFB), the Lifetime Drinking History (LDH), the Alcohol Dependence Scale (ADS), the Short Alcohol Dependence Data Questionnaire (SADD), the Trail Making Test, the Digit Symbol subscale of the WAIS, urine tests, breath tests, hair tests, and liver function tests (Hersen et al., 2007).  Together, the results of these tests tell psychologists the extent of the client’s problem and the nature of the client’s problem (these tests can also be used throughout treatment; Hersen et al., 2007): How bad is his or her alcohol problem; to what extent does it affect his or her daily life functioning; to what extent does it affect his or her work; to what extent does it affect his or her family; and how much has it affected his or her health?  Once this two-part assessment is complete, the psychologist can determine whether the alcohol disorder or the mental disorder is the primary disorder (Hersen et al., 2007).  This is a very important step in the assessment process because most individuals who present with an alcohol disorder have a co-occurring mental disorder or even a SUD (Hersen et al., 2007)—all crucial factors that determine the course of treatment.  Indeed, this step determines whether the client undergoes alcohol treatment, psychiatric/ psychotherapeutic treatment, or both.

       Severe alcohol dependence treatment.  Once the nature and extent of the court-ordered client’s alcohol problem is determined (i.e., are they an abuser of alcohol or dependent on alcohol?), the psychologist can move on to motivational interviewing; which is nonconfrontational, avoids labeling, and is nonthreatening (Hersen et al., 2007).  Indeed, this approach assumes that the client is ambivalent about treatment and approaches the client in such a way that he or she does not feel attacked or stigmatized, and is therefore less likely to be defensive and/or resistant to treatment (Hersen et al., 2007).  The idea, then, is for the psychologist to help the ambivalent client feel that the decision to change is solely in his or her hands, not in the hands of the psychologist or court.

            Hersen et al. (2007) also recommended tailoring treatment to the specific needs of the individual client.  One size does not fit all when it comes to alcohol dependence and abuse.  Some clients can effectively reduce and manage their drinking while others have to quit drinking entirely, because they are unable to control their impulsive binge-drinking behavior (e.g., a client with comorbid borderline personality disorder).  Second, Hersen and colleagues recommended that assessment remain ongoing throughout the treatment process, because relapse is common among individuals who are severely dependent on alcohol.  Changes to treatment can only be made if assessment is ongoing, a point that Hersen et al. emphasized.  Third, they recommended that progress reports be taken, so that a client can actually see how far he or she has come since his or her initiation of treatment (Hersen et al., 2007).  This is really important, because it gives the client pride and confidence, and allows him or her to actually see progress.  However, the most effective treatment methods plan for relapse, so this is the issue we will address in the following section.

            Relapse prevention and management. One of the key ways to maintain motivation, or alcohol-free morale, is to plan for relapse (Hersen et al., 2007).  If relapse is not expected and planned for, the client may feel as though he or she has failed, and this catastrophic thinking may well lead him or her to throw all of his or her progress “to the wind.”  This is the same sort of maladaptive cognitive process psychologists encounter in clients with bulimia nervosa—e.g., the client felt like a failure for the day because she ate a candy bar, so she went ahead and ate 20 candy bars and then purged.  The psychologist working with a client who relapses can use a variety of tools to find out what triggered the relapse.  For example, if the client is keeping a daily journal the psychologist can request to view it, looking for triggers.  The client and clinician can then talk about how such-and-such situation triggered the relapse and explore how the client can and will avoid or learn to resist such triggers in the future.  The key is to keep the client motivated and actively engaged with his or her treatment.  He or she must feel empowered that he or she is in control and that while slip-ups are bound to happen they are not the end of the world.  Helping the client to (a) overcome catastrophic thinking, and (b) develop positive self-schemas is crucial to alcohol relapse management and prevention.

Treatment Approaches for Clients who are Diagnosed with Alcoholism

            Alcoholism assessment.  Just as with severely dependent alcohol users, psychologists must first determine what specific factor or factors in a client’s life caused him or her to turn to alcohol in the first place.  Examining the past and present are both important to this assessment process, because a comprehensive lifetime portrait allows the psychologist to determine whether past family problems, peer modeling, mental illness, stress, family problems, work problems, or even some major traumatic event triggered this particular client’s alcohol problem (Hersen et al., 2007).  Further, comprehensive assessment allows the psychologist to see how and why the alcoholism has been maintained through to the present—i.e., what are the reinforcers of the dependence/abuse?  Such an assessment will also reveal (or at least hint at) the presence of mental illness, if it is in fact present.

            Alcoholism treatment.  Treatment of less severe alcoholism can range from inpatient care to alcohol consumption reduction.  Hersen et al. (2007) concluded that reducing one’s alcohol intake is an effective treatment protocol for less dependent drinkers.  The key, again, is to tailor the treatment plan to the specific physiological and social needs of the client (Hersen et al., 2007).  If the client has DT (delirium tremens) when he or she presents, clearly detoxification is the first step to take in the treatment process.  However, if a person is referred by an upset family member, perhaps a wife or husband, and appears to have a drinking problem that is only problematic to others, then this client will require an entirely different plan.  Perhaps this client would be coached in empathizing with the needs and concerns of the wife or husband, and can be motivated to reduce his or her alcohol consumption at home based on the wife’s or husband’s perception and feedback.

Conclusion

            Alcohol dependence and abuse remains a pervasive social problem to this day.  Thus, it behooves psychologists to develop effective treatment plans that can meet the needs of this diverse subgroup of clients ranging from severely dependent to problematic only in the eyes of others.  Hopefully the treatment suggestions presented in this post will prove increasingly effective against alcoholism in the years to come.

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Chapter Excerpt from Organizational Psychology: Collected Works (Volume 4)

Evaluation of “A Class Divided”

by Veronica Clark

Abstract

This assessment examines the short film “A Class Divided,” in which teacher Jane Elliott divides her third grade class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed people.  On the first day she treats the blue-eyed children as though they are “better,” but on the second day she treats the brown-eyed children as though they are actually the “better” children.  On the third day the children are debriefed and asked about the harm of racial discrimination.  Ms. Elliott later conducts a similar experiment with a majority white prison staff, and the results are similar.  This analysis examines the purpose of these experiments, which was to reduce the likelihood of racial discrimination amongst these groups, as well as the most significant factor involved in producing this outcome.  Implications for therapists are also discussed.

            In the video “A Class Divided,” teacher Jane Elliott divided her class into brown-eyed and blue-eyed people.  She wanted to teach her third graders about discrimination first-hand.  Later on she conducted a similar experiment with adults working at a correctional facility.  Both experiments appeared to be successful.  This analysis offers a critique of the purpose, results, and ultimate outcome of Ms. Elliott’s experiments.

Overview

            Jane Elliott decided to teach her third graders about discrimination shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Instead of just talking about it, which she had already done with her students, she decided to teach her children what it was actually like to be a victim of discrimination.  On the first day of the experiment she divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed children.  Ms. Elliott told her class various “facts” about brown and blue-eyed people after the division was announced, some of which were that (a) brown-eyed people were stupid, (b) blue-eyed people were smarter than brown-eyed people, and (c) brown-eyed people were not allowed to play with blue-eyed people.  The brown-eyed children had to wear collars so that they could be identified from a distance.  On the second day of the experiment roles were reversed.

            On the third day of the experiment, Ms. Elliott debriefed her third graders about what they had just done over the past two days.  She asked them questions about their experiences, discrimination, and how they might react to people of different color in the future.  The children agreed that discrimination was inappropriate, and that judging by skin color was wrong.  Ms. Elliott achieved her goal: to teach these children why they should not discriminate against other people based on color or other differences.

            Ms. Elliott was later invited to conduct a one day workshop for mostly white employees of a state correctional facility that had a high racial minority inmate population.  The purpose was to create sensitivity towards the non-white inmates who had to face racial discrimination on a daily basis, due to their skin color.  Ms. Elliott again divided the group into blue-eyed and brown-eyed people.  She allowed the brown-eyed people to go into the workshop first, asked them to cooperate with her experiment, finally let the blue-eyed people in, and then proceeded to discriminate against the blue-eyed employees with the assistance of the brown-eyed employees.  Several employees noted the powerful negative impact this experience had on them.  The purpose was to teach them about the harm of racial discrimination, so that they would be either less likely or unlikely to engage in it against racial minorities at the facility.

Observations

            On the first day of the third grade experiment, Ms. Elliott noticed that the brown-eyed children did poorer on their schoolwork that day.  Most of them did not play on the playground at all, and those who did played alone or got into altercations.  One little boy punched a blue-eyed boy in the “gut” for calling him “brown eyes.”  The blue-eyed children, on the other hand, did very well on their schoolwork and many poked fun at the fact that their fellow classmates were brown-eyed.  One blue-eyed boy said he felt like a “king” over the brown-eyed children.  On the second day with the third graders, roles and trends reversed.  On the second day the brown-eyed children did incredibly well on their schoolwork and some of them discriminated against their blue-eyed classmates.  The blue-eyed children played alone or not all at recess and did quite poorly as a group on their schoolwork.

            In the employee experiment, one observed a few of the blue-eyed adults becoming visibly upset about their poor treatment.  When they were put on the spot they couldn’t answer.  Two of the men expressed how unengaged and hopeless they felt in midst of Ms. Elliott’s constant cut-downs as well as those of the brown-eyed people, which one blue-eyed employee described as having been “well taught” by Ms. Elliott.  One of the blue-eyed men compared this workshop situation to Nazi Germany.

            One interesting observation was that performance and attention suffered in the groups of children and adults who were discriminated against.  While there were individual exceptions, this trend suggests that discrimination affects expression of intelligence and performance ability.  If a child or adult is repeatedly told that he or she has “poor work ethic” or is “dumb,” then he or she will likely conform to this description.  The role of thoughts and how they tie in with discrimination can result in self-defeating cognitive cycles.  Thoughts become centered on self-hate and inadequacy instead of learning and hope.  This particular negative affect is not much different from the negative affect of individuals with depression (Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2007): Both involve self-defeating “cycles” that reinforce the maladaptive thoughts and feelings.  In fact, discrimination is likely a cause of depression in many racial minorities in the U.S. (Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2007).

            The most significant factor that influenced changes in the individuals’ thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviors was Ms. Elliott’s and the others’ attitudes toward them depending on which group they were in.  Basically, most people do care what others think about them, and they care a lot.  However, only the children appeared to have to undergo discrimination themselves before they really grasped the extent of the harm it produced.  The children became friendlier, closer, and felt “like family” after the experiment, which suggests that experiencing both superiority and discrimination helps children better understand these social dynamics and the harm therein.  They were able to put themselves in “someone else’s moccasins,” as Ms. Elliott said, which resulted in empathy and increased understanding of the harm of discrimination.

            In light of these observations, a good question to ask is whether or not discrimination occurs “naturally.”  The answer is maybe, because we have not yet determined the causal factors of discrimination.  At least one professor at Indiana State University believes that racism may be natural.  He said, “…racial conflict is not simply a characteristic of the United States in the late 20th century.  It is as old as time, it happens all over the world, and it occurs among many combinations of races” (Schansberg, 1999).  He said, “degrees of integration and segregation occur naturally.  For example, in dating and religion, people of different ethnic groups pair off and gather together voluntarily in a way that resembles racial discrimination” (Schansberg, 1999).

Conclusion

            Regardless of what one believes about the causes of discrimination, the reality is that therapists in a multicultural and multiethnic society like America must be able to empathize with all of their clients, regardless of their clients’ race, ethnicity, or culture.  This is necessary from a moral, political, and professional standpoint in the U.S. today.  The video “A Class Divided” should be required viewing for each and every therapist who works in America, because it is such a diverse society.  If therapists cannot put themselves into the shoes of each and every one of their clients, then they will be less likely to offer successful, practical, and empathic therapy to all clients in need.

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