Self, society, and the science of skinny jeans

bullet-LeafThis past weekend, for the umpteenth time, I cracked open Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: why our brains are wired to connect (2013). I skimmed through it like I normally do with non-fiction books. I picked out bits and pieces – like an uncle foraging through a Sunday smorgasbord – finding things that I find intellectually appetizing (AKA things that confirm my bias).

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Credit: author

Among the many gems outlined in this marvelous book, one passage in particular stood out to me. The author refers to Neitzsche, who argued that:

“…our sense of self is typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives, and that the self is actually a secret agent working for them more than for us.”

We humans are herd animals. We respond to signals from those around us; the world around us. We see this behavior play out, for example, in how we respond to cultural trends. Here’s an example.

SKINNY JEANS

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Source: Pixabay

Remember when skinny jeans first emerged on the fashion scene? 

I said, “Yuck. No damn way.” A few months later, I was… “Well, maybe…” 

Now I have three pair. For some reason, skinny jeans became a palatable fashion choice for me.

So, what’s that all about? 

We are influenced by those in our close personal networks. Our nature is to elevate and preserve the status we have (or aspire to have) within our social ‘herd’. This means that we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, we will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are highly influenced by the people around us, our environment (work, etc). This influence frames our behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. And even what we choose to wear.

When it comes to fashion, I have always been “fashionably late”; slow to respond to changing trends. I eventually get there (well, somewhere in the vicinity anyway). As for skinny jeans, I’m not going to die on that fashion sword. But knowing me, it will take a while to move onto the next trend. And the ‘nudge’ will inevitably come from the people around me.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

*This blog post is an updated excerpt from a post Ready, Set, Shame! (April 2016). 

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Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

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What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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My Science Love Story

SAIFood Blog recently allowed me to take up a bit of their ‘online real estate’ to share my thoughts on storytelling and science communication. An excerpt:

“…the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection.”

“Sure, Cami. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? What’s your story?”

I’m glad you asked. This short, animated video documents my evolving ‘love story’ with science. And you might be in for a surprise. How that love affair started had very little to do with the science that was being done.

(story by me; illustrations by me; narration by me)

What’s your story? How are you going to tell it?

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Ideological Bias & Social Survival: don’t get voted off the island!

My colleague, Bill, popped his head into my office one day with two words: “Ideological bias”. Then a few more: “What do you know?”

I shared some info with him. And I thought that I would share it with you, my reader.

ideological bias

Ideological bias is less of a ‘thing’ than it is a family of things. It is defined as a collection of ideas, or beliefs, held by an individual, or a group of people. Ideology and bias – together – are built upon commitments to and consistency of ideas usually in the form of promise, effort, money, beliefs, relationships.

Ideological bias is a part of a broader family of interconnected behaviors and biases.

  • There’s confirmation bias where humans like to seek out information that affirms their world views. If faced with (accurate) information that shakes the ground beneath ‘sacred cows’ (beliefs), one is more likely to retreat and follow information that supports a personal world view. And if that accurate information is delivered in a such a way that is received as a ‘personal affront’ (so, poorly communicated), we are left with a backfire effect that can push people even deeper into ideological spaces.
  • There is also identity protective motivated reasoning which reinforces personal standing in social groups. What dominates people’s fears today is social alienation. This kind of motivated reasoning protects people from this.
  • We also become solution averse (which is linked closely to both identity protective motivated reasoning and confirmation bias) where we just avoid workable solutions (like GE crops) because they do not resonate with our ideological bias or world view.
  • Biased assimilation might sometimes be involved (or appear to be involved) when identity protective motivated reasoning is at work. But because sticking to what one believes doesn’t always promote one’s status in one’s group, people will often be motivated to construe information in ways that have no relation to what they already believe. (Kahan looks at this / see his quote below).
  • Further complicating (polluting?) the environment is media bias wherein decisions by editorial staff and journalists shape news stories to suit political opinions. We see this in play out currently in ‘fake news’ or through ‘alternative facts’ (not to mention, our interconnected, social media-driven world just adds to all of this).

There are others: intellectual and emotional bias, political bias, sensory bias, social bias, and content bias. The list is endless. But a key underlying element to all of this is how personal networks become a very important ‘enforcement’ factors for and key outputs of ideological bias. Yale’s Dan Kahan says it best:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

struggle is real

Social networks are important to the human animal; for status, personal identity, and for survival. In our outreach efforts, we must seek ways to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their close personal networks – and compromise their identities.

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Ready, set, shame!

Under the Influence (CBC) has been a favorite program of mine for some time. Terry O’Reilly, the host, explores the evolution of marketing from the 20th century into the 21st century…it’s really fascinating stuff. I always enjoy O’Reilly’s honey-smooth vocal intonations as he creatively grounds his observations in real-world scenarios. In this podcast from 2013 called Shame: the secret tool of modern marketing, Terry “…peels back the layers of shame in our modern world.”

To understand how marketing works today, O-Reilly says “we first need to go back in time”. Unlike today, in the early to mid 1800s we didn’t really care a great deal about how we smelled or what color our teeth were. Through an effective advertising strategy of “social shaming”, companies have been able to position their products and gain market share for the past 150 years. This approach is characterized through messages like: “Control that body odor, people are talking about you!” or “Halitosis is making you a social pariah” or “if you have whiter teeth you will attract the right partner”.

What do bad breath, yellow teeth, and body odor have to do with this blog post? Nothing really. But this whole notion of “social shaming” certainly does. By explicitly promoting the benefits (i.e. whiter teeth) of a given product, companies are implicitly communicating negative social impacts by not using the product.

Setting the “shaming” scene

CR-ShockLast fall, I attended a local community event in rural Alberta where there were a number of young moms in the room, balancing cherubic babies on their hips.  I eavesdropped in on an exchange that went something like this:

Mom #1 says proudly: “Jacob just moved up from rice cereal to baby food.”

Mom #2: “Oh, what are you feeding him?”

Mom #1: “Oh, I picked up [Name Brand] baby food at [Store Name]. We are trying that for now. We bought a selection of different vegetables and fruits to see how he likes them.”

Mom #3: “Well, I certainly hope that it’s organic!”

Mom #1: “Um… I don’t know. Well, I don’t think so…I…”

Mom #2: “I only feed Kaelynn organic baby food. In fact, I special order it in from [Specialty Baby Food Company].”

Mom #3: “I’ve heard about that! I feed my baby natural baby food with no preservatives that I get from [Local High-Priced “Natural” Grocery Store].

Mom #1: “But isn’t that expensive?”

Mom #2: “Yes, it is more money than the supermarket-bought brands but my Kaelyn is worth it.”

Mom #3: “…After all, Mom #1, the safety and health of our babies is important.”

*awkward silence*

Mom #1 looks awkwardly at her feet and shifts healthy, cherubic Jacob to the other hip.

Mom #2 and Mom #3 mentally un-invite Mom #1 from the next play date.

[END SCENE]

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We humans are social animals

As Matthew Lieberman says, we are “wired to connect” (2013). Our nature is to elevate and preserve status we have within the social ‘herd’. To do so, we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, humans will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Our social environment has changed a great deal over the years where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have grown into central components of our daily human-to-human interactions:

“…social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant…A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure.”

– Jason Manning, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University –

Tapping into our base fears

Because we are pack animals, we rely on our personal networks for affirmation and survival. If socially ostracized, our visceral response is that our ‘survival’ is in jeopardy.  Advertisers are well-aware of these fears. It is not only companies that employ these kinds of tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products. The ‘social shaming’ strategy is effectively used by different actors in various parts of our social world to influence behavior and public opinion. Via social media, we can easily lob shame-bombs at anyone we disagree with while ducking real accountability for those actions (often shielded behind anonymous profiles).

And sadly, as the above story illustrates, we often use these same shaming tactics on our own friends, family, and community members.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

 

2016 – The Year of Gratitude and Grit

Last year was my “Year of Living Creatively”.  My goal was to familiarize myself with some of my old hobbies (painting, poetry-writing, handi-crafts, etc) and experience new ones. Although I didn’t ‘create’ (in the crafty sense) as much as I would have liked to in 2015, I did accomplish a few things:

  •  I finger-crocheted a scarf and have started crocheting an afghan (with the help of my daughter, the crocheting fiend <3).
  • I acted in a local theatre production with Dewdney Players in Okotoks, Alberta. I love theater and theatre peeps. Check out my post about that experience here.
  • I baked a pie. This might sound simple for some, but not for me. ‘Science made me do it’ and I overcame a lot self-doubt in the process. I posted a blog entry on the whole ordeal. Check it out.
  • My husband and I built a brand new house in the Foothills of Alberta. We also sold it six months later. Sigh. Quite a bit of creativity goes into designing, building, and decorating a house. But there is a whole new level of creative thought that goes into letting that home go after such a short time. (I tried to not get emotionally attached but…)
  • Finally, over the past several months, I settled into my new position with Monsanto Canada. This was quite a process as I had to do it remotely (from my home office in Alberta), away from my team of colleagues. That’s tough. I missed the day-to-day and face-to-face interactions. Added to that, transitioning from academia into working in the private sector is not easy.

It is also not easy to leave family, friends and move to another country…

That’s why I’ve dubbed 2016 “The Year of Gratitude and Grit”.  This year marks something new and exciting for us. Earlier this month, The Cowboy and I settled on a property in Missouri. From our new home, we will navigate the next leg of our life journey (and I will continue my work with Monsanto at the company’s head office in St. Louis). While we were so sad to leave friends, family (especially our grown son and daughter) in Canada, this new adventure represents exciting new opportunities for us. We get to explore a new part of the world, experience different cultures, see new sights and build relationships with people in a new community.

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It takes courage and ‘pluck’ (as my grandma would say) to take life-changing steps like these and permanently plant oneself in another part of the world. That’s where the ‘Grit’ comes in. As for ‘Gratitude’, we are thankful for every experience that has led us to this moment. And we are grateful for every opportunity that will move us forward from here.

A few items to take note of…

Our new community in Missouri was hit by a massive flood over the holidays.  This situation reminded me of the High River flood of 2013. (#HellOrHighWater). And although it will take some time for the community of Eureka (and surrounding areas) to recover and rebuild, there has been a great deal of progress to date. As always, I am amazed by the resilience of people! #EurekaStrong #Grit #Gratitude

The Cowboy and I love our new property (pictured below). The house that we purchased is nestled on a handful of picturesque acres where our horses will have plenty of room to run.  The house itself is 50 years old and very charming but in is dire in need of a renovation. Most of you probably know that The Cowboy is a finishing carpenter / craftsman. When he arrives with horses and tools next week, we will be getting started on what will likely turn out to be 12-week home improvement project. Stay tuned as I will be tweeting the entire process from beginning to end. And maybe, just maybe, the social-media-shy Cowboy will let me take pictures of him in action! #Grit #Gratitude #RenoJunkies

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“Grit is pushing beyond the platitudes, and finding authentic connections that will encourage you to embrace discomfort and embark on a journey that always seeks to push you outside the box.”

Chrissanne Long

The power of storytelling…

human mind

  • Humans love stories
  • We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
  • The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators

Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?

The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization.  They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).

The human brain LOVES stories!

Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life.  We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.

Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the  ‘neuroscience of the narrative’.  According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust.  Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy.  Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.

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Storytelling in the “Post-Literate” Era

While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:            

 

“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)postliterate

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information reports that the average attention span for a human in 2000 was 12 seconds. By 2015, it was only 8.25 seconds.  The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.

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The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding  text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.

The storytelling device and science communication

How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet.  We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media.  Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange.  This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself.  Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.

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For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.

Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably.  Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…”  “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)

As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course.  How the story is told matters a great deal as well.  Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.

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Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character.  The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.

Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?

[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]

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