Posts filed under ‘Sociology’

Americans Getting Lonelier

In 1985, the General Social Survey reported that Americans had an average of 2.94 close friends (confidants is the term researchers like to use). A recent survey from 2004 found that the number of confidants has dropped to 2.08. In other words, Americans have lost on average one friend with whom they discuss important matters. The relationships with the greatest drop in confidants were neighbors and group/club members. We are less than half as likely to have them as close friends now than in 1985. It’s really unfortunate because everyone could use more friends. The paper suggests that the nature of our social network has changed. Instead of a few strong ties, we have more weak ties.

Americans are less likely to have friends with a different education level, but more likely to have friends of a different race. Furthermore, educated Americans have larger and more diverse networks. That says something about the friends you make during your college years — I find my closest friends are from internships and college.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353-375. [PDF]

April 13, 2007 at 12:45 am 21 comments

People Take on the Traits They Describe in Others

Spontaneous trait transference is a phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others. Telling others that your math professor is lazy will cause them to infer that you are lazy. This works the other way too — describing positive attributes about your friend may ascribe you those attributes as well.

Several experiments showed that people will associate personality traits to communicators mindlessly without logical rational. They also have a poor recollection of whether the communicator was describing themselves or someone else in a conversation.

So be careful when gossiping about a co-worker, lest you be seen as what you describe. And if you want to appear more charming, perhaps you could add that word to your vocabulary when talking about others.

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T. (1998). Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 837-848. [PDF]

October 12, 2006 at 1:48 pm 27 comments

The Familiar Stranger: The Lady on the Subway

Urban living brings about an interesting phenomenon, one which Milgram calls the Familiar Stranger.

The Familiar Stranger is a person you see during your daily activities, but don’t interact with: the gentleman at the bus stop, the babysitter at the park, or the lady on the subway.

But consider for a moment you saw the lady on the subway while traveling to Paris. Can you imagine, it’s likely you would practically become best friends in a day!

To be a familiar stranger, a person has to be

  1. observed
  2. repeatedly for a certain time period
  3. without any interaction

Milgram notes,

But it’s a real relationship, in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each other, without any implication of hostility.

Students from a university in New York went to the commuter stations and interviewed commuters. They found that on average, commuters knew 4 familiar strangers but had only talked to 1.5 individuals.

Commuters said they have a fantasy relationship with familiar strangers, trying to figure out what kind of lives they lead, what their jobs are, etc.

This phenomenon is explained as a response to the overload of inputs from the environment — perceptual processing takes considerably less time than social processing.

However, I think when you see someone you barely recognize from school a few years later at a department store, it feels like you’re friends because you know each other relatively better than everyone else there.

Berkeley is doing a study called the Familiar Stranger Project, which is worth taking a look at.

Milgram, S. (1972). The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. Division 8 Newsletter.

October 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm 42 comments

Drinking patterns, social interaction, and barroom behavior

Two social scientists walk into a bar…

Typically, we read research papers for their educational value. However, I found this one to be more entertaining than educational.

Observations are done in two bars to explore victimization and guardian influence in bars. The two bars are referred to as “North Bar” and “South Bar”.

One bar which we have given the name, North Bar, attracted a more funky, laid-back weekend crowd that typically dressed in blue jeans, flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and sneakers.

The other bar which we have named, South Bar, attracted a larger and more diverse crowd reflecting a mixture of urban lifestyles, young professionals, college students, and more racial and ethnic minorities.

Here are some interesting excerpts from the paper:

Our observations of the interactions between female patrons and the bouncers revealed that the more flirtatious a female patron would be with the bouncers, the more likely she would be allowed entry into South Bar.

Bar patrons began streaming into the bars at approximately 10:00 p.m. On Tuesday nights the barroom capacity for South Bar was typically reached or exceeded by midnight, slowly continued to increase until approximately 1:30 a.m., and then gradually declined until approximately 2:30 a.m. After 3:00 a.m. only a small number of patrons, typically male heavy drinkers, remained in the bar.

Our observers overheard one exchange, short and to the point, “do you want some of this meat?” which was made while one of the men was rubbing his penis. In one instance a female patron left immediately with these men.

Two young men had begun the event during the late afternoon, were still drinking and were quite intoxicated when we arrived at 10:00 p.m. to begin our observations. They abandoned their efforts around midnight after consuming only about 30 of the required 40 glasses of beer.

Once a small group of males had initiated the formation of a gauntlet, others would join in until up to 20 to 30 men were in control of each side of the pathway for a considerable distance. When young women, typically those who were exceptionally attractive, would attempt to pass through this pathway, the males would first initiate a restriction of the pathway then freely grope, grab, or fondle selected females—typically on the buttocks or breasts.

Males seeking an “easy lay” frequently approached female patrons. On several occasions we observed female targets being quickly drawn into a conversation by a male patron, maneuvered into a seat at the bar, and presented with drinks. Within a short period of time the male would then begin moving his hand up the skirt of the target to her crotch area.

We observed that a higher percentage of female patrons during ladies’ night at South Bar were under the age of 21 years than those at North Bar. One of the South Bar observers was a police officer with substantial experience in estimating age. He agreed with the estimates provided by other observers that approximately 25–30 percent of all women in South Bar at peak drinking hours were under 21 years of age.

Small groups of male patrons would frequently attempt to attract the attention of females outside the bars by shouting across the street, and occasionally entering the street in traffic to get closer to those from whom they sought greater attention.

Males typically outnumbered females on Tuesday nights at North Bar by approximately 4 to 1, and approximately 3 to 1 at South Bar.

Fox, J. G. & Sobol, J. J. (2000). Drinking patterns, social interaction, and barroom behavior: a routine activities approach. Deviant Behavior, 21(5), 429-450.

October 1, 2006 at 1:13 am 4 comments

When do you like someone like yourself? An analysis of online dating

Online dating is gaining momentum and is an easy, socially acceptable way to find partners for dates or relationships. To a social scientist, the wealth of data stored on online dating services has enormous potential in the study of interpersonal relationships. Instead of having to take surveys and interview people, scientists can now discover findings by looking at the statistics of what actually happened. Actions speak louder than words. Never before has something so human and primitive been reducible to such quantitative discrete values.

Do opposites attract? Apparently not. This study of an online dating service measures the importance of a matching characteristic when choosing a partner. The data is extracted from the contacts initiated by the users.

Characteristic Increased Contact
Marital status 1.64x
Wants children 1.54x
Number of children 1.39x
Physical build 1.28x
Smoking 1.25x
Physical appearance 1.23x
Educational level 1.19x
Religion 1.17x
Race 1.14x
Drinking habits 1.12x
Pet preferences 1.11x
Pets owned 1.08x


Demographic findings in this study:

  • 62.8% of members were male and 37.2% were female, but 55% of active members were female
  • The median age for men was 36 and women was 33
  • 78.2% of messages were never responded to
  • Members sent an average of 1.5 messages
  • Men initiated 73.3% of messages, but their initiations were 17.9% less likely to be reciprocated

A more detailed analysis of online dating is given in the author’s thesis.

I found this paper by browsing the list of Judith Donath’s students, who was also one of my professor’s advisor. Fiore’s Masters Thesis was about online dating — I bet that made for interesting party conversation.

Fiore, A. T. & Donath, J. S. (2005). Homophily in Online Dating: When Do You Like Someone Like Yourself?. Proceedings from CHI ’05: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1371-1374. [PDF]

September 27, 2006 at 8:47 pm 52 comments

“Just Kidding” Falls on Deaf Ears

Teasing taken literally is negative; teasers point out flaws, habits, questionable attire, or other traits of the target. But there are a variety of intentions for teasing. Positive intentions include to socialize, flirt, play, entertain, teach, or show affection. However, teasing can also be used for negative intentions: to humiliate, harass, or hurt the target.

Previous studies have shown that targets of the teasing often have a more negative impression of the tease than the teaser. (tongue twister alert)

To mitigate the negative intentions of the tease, people generally use gestures, facial expressions, or tone of voice to say “aha, just kidding”. However, this fails because the targets still evaluate the intentions of the teaser more negatively.

Kruger, J., Gordon, C. L., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in Teasing: When “Just Kidding” Just Isn’t Good Enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(3), 412-425.

September 25, 2006 at 3:56 pm 8 comments

Cutting in Line

Imagine yourself waiting in line (queue, if you’re British) and someone cuts in front. This obviously upsets and frustrates you. Why should they be in front when you’ve been waiting longer? Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this line jumper?

It’s not just the loss of time and position that are upsetting, but also the violation of a social structure.

A study was done to determine how often, and which people would object to this. When a person intruded into a line, this resulted in an objection 54% of the time. However, when 2 people intruded at once, there were objections 91.3%. The figure shows that 73.3% of objections came from people behind the intruder, and the person directly behind the point of intrusion objected most frequently.

Additional experimenters were brought in to join the line legitimately with instructions to do nothing but stand in line. When the intruder entered the line directly in front of the passive experimenter, there were only objections 25% of the time. When the intruder entered the line in front of two passive experimenters, objections dropped to 5%. These passive line standers significantly influenced how often someone objected to the line jumping.

Then the question is why did a person’s relative position to the intruder affect whether or not they objected? Since everyone behind the intruder incurs the same cost, the objections should be uniformly distributed among the people in line.

There are 3 reasons that may explain this.

  1. They have to notice it. Those closer to the intrusion will be more likely to see it.
  2. They have to be aware that this is line jumping and not the more legitimate practice of “placekeeping”. Those further from the intrusion point may not be sure so they will be more hesitant to object.
  3. Those directly behind the intruder are socially regarded as more responsible for that spot. If everyone defended the space in front of them, line jumping would not be a problem. Hence, it’s their duty to object to those to who jump directly ahead of them.

I also hypothesize another factor is the relative cost to person in line. Those in the back are delayed only a small percentage of their time in line, while the person in front may have to wait twice as long.

So the next time you’re thinking of cutting in line, be aware that it’s about a coin toss whether or not you’ll be ousted, and most likely it’ll be by the person you’re directly stepping in front of. Never line jump at the same time another person is, even though it might seem like you have safety in numbers, it works in the exact opposite way. And lastly, ideally cut in front of someone who is unlikely to object, because your chances of being challenged greatly diminish the more passive people there are directly behind you.

Stanley Milgram is one of my favorite scientists. Psychology students may have learned of the Milgram experiment where subjects were asked to administer electric shocks to others. He also founded “six degrees of separation”, the concept of “familiar strangers”, and wrote about the woman murdered on the streets of New York with 38 onlookers.

I enjoy both classic publications as well as new research, so I’ll try to alternate between the classic and the new in my posts.

Milgram, S., Libety, H. J., Toledo, R, & Wackenhut, J. (1986). Response to Intrusion Into Waiting Lines. Journal of Personality of Social Psychology, 51(4), 683-689.

September 21, 2006 at 9:25 pm 68 comments

Massive Multiplayer Online Games as “Third Places”

A major concern of home media such as television and the Internet is that they are replacing essential social institutions and community. While a previous post has indicated that this might not be true, this research paper looks at massive multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft to determine if they are indeed “third places”.

What is a third place? The first place is your home, where you can relax and be comfortable. The second place is where you usually are when not at home — work; work provides social interaction and sense of community. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks introduced third places as somewhere besides home or work where people can socialize and feel comfortable. Think Cheers.

Online games are thus third places as defined by the eight characteristics of third places.

Neutral Ground: Individuals are free to come and go as they please. In online games, players are not obligated to play; joins and quits are not significant events.

Leveler: An individual’s rank and status in society are not significant. As in the culture of early video game arcades, “It didn’t matter what you drove to the arcade. If you sucked at Asteroids, you just sucked.” Players on online games use a separate avatar unrelated to their real life person, and social status is rarely invoked.

Conversation is Main Activity: In third places, conversation is the main activity that the individuals participate in. While debatable as the main activity in online games, players would not disagree that conversation plays a crucial role. Often, conversation drifts to real world discussion such as personal life, politics, culture, etc.

Accessibility & Accommodation: Third places are easy to access and accommodating to individuals. Online games allow players to log on and off at will and there are always players online. Activity occurs throughout all hours of the day.

The Regulars: Regulars are those who give the place its character, and attract new individuals. Guild members, who form a clan to play the online game together, and squatters, who stay within an area of the game, are the regulars of the online world.

A Low Profile: Third places are characteristically homely and without pretension. The population of online games follow a parabolic curve; after the onset of players following the release, the regulars remain while many move on to higher profile games.

The Mood is Playful: The general mood of a third place is playful and witty. Players in online games crack jokes during heated battles, perform goofy actions with their avatars, and mock each others’ appearances. Rarely are players overly serious about game matters.

A Home Away from Home: Rootedness, feelings of possession, spiritual regeneration, feelings of being at ease, and warmth. Online games possess a homely atmosphere where players notice others’ absenses and makes the overall feel of the game “warm”.

Social capital is analogous to financial capital in that it can be acquired and spent, but for social gains instead of financial gains — for example, to be comforted or receive advice. Bridging is when individuals connect with those from different backgrounds. The advantage if bridging social capital include gaining access to new information and resources. Bonding is when individuals that are already close provide support for each other, making the relationship stronger. In a sense, bridging provides breadth while bonding provides depth.

In online games, players come from a diverse background so they are usually bridging social capital. However, it’s not uncommon for a bond to grow during an online game if individuals player together for a long period of time.

Online games fit the definition of a third place, but as players become more hardcore and focus more on gaming, their function as a third place wanes.

I read this paper after attending a related talk by one of the authors, and you might find his other publications just as interesting.

Steinkuehler, C. & Williams, D. (2006). Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1. [HTML]

September 19, 2006 at 10:32 pm 46 comments

Unintentional Mirroring: The Chameleon Effect

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Have you ever noticed that you sometimes you lean forward when someone you’re talking with leans forward? Or you fold your arms when your friend folds their arm?

The Chameleon Effect is the unintentional physical and verbal mirroring between people who are getting along well. People may mimic each others’ body posture, hand gestures, speaking accents, and other behaviors when they are in rapport. The body is actually autonomously making the interaction smoother and increasing the level of liking while communicating.

Experimenters saw an increase in a subject’s behavior, such as shaking their foot, when they shook their foot during an interaction. When experimenters intentionally copied the mannerisms of a subject, the subject reported to like the experimenter more and claimed the interaction was more harmonious. Empathic individuals, those who took the perspective of others, were also found to mirror another person’s action more often.

Chartrand, T. L. & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The Chameleon Effect: The Perception-Behavior Link and Social Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(6), 893-910.

September 13, 2006 at 11:21 pm 9 comments

Which type of drinker are you?

Empirical research from the past 15 years have distinguished four different motives for drinking among youths. Personality is the main influence for a person’s motive for drinking.

Enhancement motives: You drink to feel good, to get drunk, or just for its own sake. You desire intense and novel experiences, and others might say that you’re impulsive, extraverted, or aggressive. You drink with same-sex friends, at friends’ homes, and in bars.

Coping motives: You drink to cope with bad feelings, to relieve stress, or to avoid social rejection. You may be neurotic, disagreeable, or have negative views of yourself. You generally drink at home, but not at parties or with your family.

Social motives: You drink to be more sociable, or to help you enjoy a party. You’re a moderate drinker, and generally only drink in social contexts. You drink more frequently at mixed-sex parties, but not at home, in bars, or together with family members.

The “but not at home, in bars” part is a bit strange. One would think that social drinkers would be okay with drinking at bars.

Conformity motives: You drink because of pressure from peers, or to be liked. Specific personality or contextual traits were not found.

There are also differences in motives between genders as well as changes as a person ages.

…enhancement and coping motives, increase generally with age but are steeper among males than among females.

In adolescence and the college freshman years, indicating coping motives was found to be more strongly associated with excessive alcohol use among females than among males whereas after the freshman years and when entering the workplace in their mid-twenties men’s heavy drinking tallied more with coping motives than women’s heavy drinking.

The main targets for alcoholism prevention are people who drink for enhancement or coping motives because they often result in heavy drinking. Due to the changes in motives for age and gender, the authors recommend focusing on boys who drink for enhancement motives and girls who drink for coping motives.

Kuntsche, E., Knibbe, R., Gmel, G., & Engels, R. (2006). Who drinks and why? A review of socio-demographic, personality, and contextual issues behind the drinking motives in young people. Addictive Behaviors, 31(10), 1844-57.

September 8, 2006 at 1:31 am 13 comments

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