Magnifying the message: A change for SocialPsyQ

We did it again. Stopped posting on SocialPsyQ and left our dear readers in the lurch. We’d like to say it was because we have been passing major educational and career milestones (which we have been; Mallory is officially ABD and Jen got a fancy new job), but in reality, we’ve been a bit stumped since November. It was never our intention to make SocialPsyQ a political blog. Our goal has always been to highlight how social psychology affects our real lives, and to apply the discipline we love outside of the classroom. We recognize that people of all political stripes are interested in such exercises, and we aim to present psychological findings with as little personal bias as possible. But since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president by calling most Mexican immigrants racists, drug smugglers and criminals, SocialPsyQ’s content has taken on a decidedly more political bent.


Picture from CBS News

To be honest, it’s been difficult to write blog entries about resisting ad messages in the face of the constant stream of negative news from the White House. It feels hollow and disingenuous to write about cute aggression or how ovulating strippers make more money than menstruating ones when one tweet from our president could bring us closer to nuclear war. And it feels irresponsible and cowardly to not use this platform to shed light on the incredibly serious issues plaguing our time, as opposed to persuasion tactics or the science of pregnancy cravings.


As white women, we recognize the privilege we have to remove ourselves from the struggles of Americans of color. Though we have strived to write about racial injustice quite a bit, we both know that we could and should be doing more to speak out against racism and white supremacy, both in our personal lives and at SocialPsyQ. After seeing a torch wielding mob of angry white nationalists and neo-Nazis holding a town hostage to their racist ideals this past weekend—just the latest and most brazen assault on people of color and Jewish people—we are determined to use SocialPsyQ to help educate our fellow citizens about the underlying motivations, implicit biases, stereotypes and prejudices, societal factors and learning that influence such behavior.


Charlottesville vigil picture from NPR

So, we’re still the SocialPsyQ you know and love. We’re still going to be here using social psychology as a lens to look at current events, social trends and personal attitudes. We’re just going to focus on the most salient events, trends and attitudes. Unfortunately, in the past year, that has lent itself to an increasing focus on the Trump administration and the Alt-Right. As progressives, we are motivated to examine multiple sides of an issue, to recognize the gray in between the black and white, and to refrain from making stereotypes about entire groups. As social psychologists, we know that human behavior is complex, that groups often elicit extremism and that personal motivation is often ambiguous. We intend to incorporate all of these perspectives as we lovingly, but rigorously, explore the social psychology behind the turbulent times we live in.


Thanks for reading,

Mallory and Jen

“Psychologist Wages War against Media with this Simple Trick!” Different Ways to Approach Fake News

4-up on 10-19-16 at 10.10 AM #2.jpg

Guest author Michael Barger

While fake news stories are not necessarily a new phenomenon, we have seen a rise in dubious articles in the past few months due to recent political events. With the rise of social media, it is easier than ever for readers to skim headlines and click the “share” button without much thought. Our newsfeeds are overflowing with rumors and even straight-up lies (or “alternative facts”, if you prefer). With an excess of click-bait and the tidal wave of emotions that accompany our partisan media consumption, it is difficult to recognize how we process the information presented to us. Let’s take some time to consider the different ways people think about and interpret the news as it’s presented.

Psychologists and philosophers have studied how people determine the truth for quite a while. It’s a broad field with an off-putting name: epistemology. It examines ideas about what knowledge is, where (or who) it comes from, and how it comes to be1,2,3. People have many ways of figuring out what is true, and some strategies come with serious flaws. Let’s start with a familiar scenario to explore how people determine facts: Santa Claus.

As children, a lot of us were told by the adults around us that a big, bearded man in a red suit would come down our chimneys with toys every Christmas. At age 4, this sounded like a legitimate story because children take pretty much everything at face value. This is called a realist approach: the information you receive is reality. However, as children grow older, the holes in this reality become more obvious. He visits how many houses in one night? He has a team of flying reindeer? Why doesn’t he visit my Muslim friend even though she’s way better behaved than I am? Children start to realize the world is not such a simple place. They learn to deal with these complexities in one of two different ways. They can become dogmatists or they can become skeptics.

A dogmatist knows that the facts don’t add up, but decides to leave it up to the authority figures to decide what is or is not fact. I know this “Santa Claus” business seems sketchy, but if Mom said to leave out the milk and cookies, it must be real, right? Unfortunately, experts don’t have the correct answer 100% of the time, or may have other motivations for clouding the truth (see Mallory’s recent post on obedience). Journalists are certainly one type of expert.

When approaching news articles, the dogmatic approach produces an abundance of “truths” that simply can’t all be true. As we have seen, there are many news sources available to consumers in the internet age. Here, confirmation bias rears its ugly head again (see Mallory’s post on confirmation bias). People are less likely to think sources are biased if they agree with what the source is saying4. This can affect anyone (whether Pelosi quotes a parody Twitter accounts of Michael Flynn or Trump cites tabloid conspiracies about Ted Cruz’s father).

A skeptic, on the other hand, rejects the idea that authorities know anything at all. Santa Claus is clearly a lie! I can’t let my friends or younger siblings fall for this story! Come to think of it, Mom and Dad are pretty dumb for believing in Santa Claus. There is no nuance – Santa is a lie and everyone who propagated that lie cannot be trusted.

At first glance, this may seem like a better defense against fake news. We’re often told to be “skeptical” when we read something outrageous. Santa is too good to be true! However, a skeptic may not be able to identify when a source has actual, valid information. For example, a skeptic could see dozens of reports pointing to the importance of vaccines or the trends of climate change and outright reject them. With a preponderance of evidence, it is inappropriate to maintain a skeptical approach. Experts are experts for a reason; they spend a lot of time learning about and reporting on their topics. In fact, research has found that people who have too little of a belief in experts as sources of knowledge have a harder time learning from multiple sources of information5. Overreliance on the skepticism strategy can lead us to saying that all news is “fake news.” This leaves us no closer to understanding what is going on in the world.

In a complex world, dogmatism and skepticism are merely opposing half-measures. While neither approach is inherently wrong, they each have systematic flaws. Fortunately, there is another strategy balanced between the two called rationalism. Instead of taking everything at face value, blindly believing particular sources, or rejecting everything we see or hear in the news, rationalism means that we weigh and evaluate the sources to put together a reasonable (and reasoned) approximation of what is true. This means evaluating the claims being made, the motivations and proclivities of those who report the news, and taking in information from more than one source. No, Santa Claus isn’t an actual person and telling kids about his fictional exploits is technically lying. But he is a real idea that people use to symbolize the charitable and selfless morals of Christmas. In the same way, the majority of news is probably somewhere between poignantly perfect and disgustingly deceptive.

In a reality with pervasive fake news, the rationalist approach can be a useful tool. Yes, it may take us longer to reach the truth than if we relied only on experts or automatically rejected everything in the media as false. Each approach has costs and benefits. I encourage you to actively think about how you are thinking when reading the news. Don’t assume a particular report is true. Be open to the possibility that reports you disagree with could provide some insight into our shared reality. But don’t take my word for it; check my sources, find a few more of your own, and decide for yourself.

Michael is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studies how students’ beliefs about knowledge and intelligence develop. He is particularly interested in what adults can do to change children’s beliefs. As a developmental psychologist, he often thinks about his own childhood. His dream as a child was to become a published author. Now in academia, he wishes he could tell his younger self that it would have been easier to pursue a career as a professional a cappella singer. 

1Chinn, C. A., Buckland, L. A., & Samarapungavan, A. L. A. (2011). Expanding the dimensions of epistemic cognition: Arguments from philosophy and psychology. Educational Psychologist46, 141-167.

2Greene, J. A., Azevedo, R., & Torney-Purta, J. (2008). Modeling epistemic and ontological cognition: Philosophical perspectives and methodological directions. Educational Psychologist43, 142-160.

3Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning. Review of Educational Research67, 88-140.

4Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.

5Bråten, I., Strømsø, H. I., & Samuelstuen, M. S. (2008). Are sophisticated students always better? The role of topic-specific personal epistemology in the understanding of multiple expository texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology33, 814-840.

Social Psych Snapshot: Week of 10/19

Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

Social Psych Snapshot: Week of 9/21/15

HannahThis week, Hannah brings you the best of early September!

-The weapon bias can explain how a middle-schooler who brought a home-made clock to school ended up in jail — his teacher claimed it looked like a bomb.

-A fun recap of research on inattentional blindness, including the infamous invisible gorilla study and some clever follow-up studies.

-Longer read: The New Yorker reviewed a new book on “gamifying” our daily lives to overcome obstacles (think Cognitive Behavioral Therapy meets Mario Brothers). The piece reviews and challenges the research claims presented in the book and reflects on what might be lost when we view our lives as games.

-Scientific American highlights social psychological concepts demonstrated in the sketch comedy show Key and Peele.

Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

Social Psych Snapshot: Week of 8/24/15


Image from Duke University

In this week’s Social Psych Snapshot, Hannah has curated the following:

Some brief tips on projecting power.

“It’s the sort of little joy that can’t be forced…” – the psychology of things fitting into other things.

Study finds that teenage metalheads of the 1980s turned out just fine.

Licensing at the grocery store: The unintended consequences of bringing your own bag.



Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

Social Psych Snapshot: Recent Research


Image from Duke University

We’re excited to announce our first guest post by our colleague, Hannah! In her posts, Hannah will compile a short list of recent links to interesting articles and news in the world of psychology for your perusing pleasure. Enjoy the fruits of her labor below!

Frustrated at work? Venting on gchat may not be the best coping strategy.

The science of vacations.

Your phone can distract you even when you (try to) ignore it.

Through “echoborgs,” an old concept developed by Stanley Milgram (who is known for his studies on obedience) finds new life.

Three psychologists weigh in on empathy.

Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

SocialPsyQ just became more legit: Congratulations Dr. Isher-Witt!

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.15.11 PM

Mallory, Jen and Katrina Jongman-Sereno (a social psychology grad student) celebrating Jen’s successful dissertation defense!

As you can tell, Jen and Mallory have been pretty busy and SocialPsyQ has taken a backseat. But we will be back in the next couple weeks as the semester winds down; bigger, better and with more degrees! Stay tuned!