Bite-sized interviews with top social scientists
Bite-sized interviews with top social scientists
Susan Michie on Behavioral Change
With each new year comes a wave of good intentions as people aim to be better. They want to lose weight, exercise more, be nicer, drink less and smoke not at all. They want to change behavior, and as Susan Michie knows well, “behavior is related to absolutely everything in life.”
Michie is a clinical and health psychologist who leads the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. She specializes in behavior related to health – for behavior or health practitioners, patients and population as a whole – and in looking at how behavior impacts the natural environment. And while you might think that the essentials of human behavior are pretty similar, one of the things Michie quickly tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast is that it can be unwise to jump to conclusions when studying behavior (or trying to change it).
She notes, for example, that lots of behavioral research is done in North America, where there’s relatively abundant funding for studies, “but the biggest need [for research] is often where there’s the least investment. There’s no point in developing an intervention based on research evidence conducted in parts of the world that are very far away from the type of context we want to implement the findings in – only to find out it’s not going to work.”
So yes, she says, do look at both the rigour of the research, but also base any potential application of the findings on deep understanding of local conditions and using local knowledge.
Michie and her team describe this using a model, COM B, to account for the ‘capability, ‘opportunity’ and ‘motivation’ necessary to change behavior.
Changing behaviors is important – “In order to solve any of these big social challenges we need people at different positions in society to change their behavior” -- so these considerations matter. But that begs the questions of what behaviors need changing – and who decides what those selected behaviors are..
“There’s a big issue about who decides what the key issues are,” Michie says. “But I think there are certain problems which are very self-evident – there are people dying unnecessarily as a result of smoking, obesity but also environmental conditions – poor housing, etc. There are areas where the social consensus is that things needs to change, and I’d say those are the ones we start with.”
In the interview, Michie also addresses the ethics of behavior change and how algorithms and machine learning will be “absolutely vital” to parse through all the relevant data . Her own Human Behaviour Change Project is a collaboration between behavioral scientists and computer scientists combing the global literature to see what works, with an initial focus on smoking cessation. A comprehensive tobacco control strategy, she details, involves those infamous “nudges” beloved of policy makers, but also the legislation, services and taxation, that need to work synergistically to effect real change.
Michie had a long career as a research fellow and clinician before joining the Psychology Department of University College London in 2002. She’s a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Academy of Social Sciences, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the European Health Psychology Society, the British Psychological Society and a Distinguished International Affiliate of the American Psychological Association.
Rupert Brown on Henri Tajfel
Henri Tajfel’s early life – often awful in the living, exciting in the retelling – gave the pioneering social psychologist the fodder for his life’s defining work: understanding the roots of prejudice.
Born one hundred years ago into a Jewish family in the dawn of an independent Poland created from the detritus of three disintegrated empires, he left Poland to study chemistry in France in the late 1930s. When the Germans dismembered Poland, Tajfel joins a Polish unit in the French army, and is ultimately captured by the Germans. He survived the war as a POW, even as the Nazis exterminated most of his family.
“From that moment on,” his biographer Rupert Brown explains to Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “one of his driving pre-occupations was to understand how could something like the Holocaust ever have happened.”
After the war, Tajfel worked in orphanages in France and Belgium and then in a displaced persons camp in Germany. At this time he met, and eventually married, a German Jewish woman who had emigrated to England before the war. This led him to move to Britain, where he studied and then taught psychology. His research at Oxford, and later and most notably at Bristol, focused on researching the cognitive roots of prejudice, discrimination and nationalism.
“[H]e made,” said Brown, “this really significant discovery that one doesn’t need very much to invoke inter-group discrimination and prejudice. Simply being told that you’re in one group or another seems to be enough to trigger that discrimination.”
Using a technique known as ‘minimal group experiments’ – creating kinship based on as little as what sort of abstract painting you like or what colour you prefer – Tajfel determined that “if you imposed categories on anything you are viewing or are living, people start exaggerating the differences between the two groups. He wondered, ‘Could we observe the same thing in a real behavioural situation?’”
Such questions conflicted with many of the then-prevailing notions of how prejudice arises, which Tajfel saw as too generic and too idiosyncratic. Based on the individual, they didn’t account for the clear historical precedent, Germany in the 1930s, that Tajfel saw firsthand (nor current examples like Islamophobia). Can that come down a particular personality or a particular level of frustration, Brown recounts Tajfel thinking. “He just thought that didn’t wash.”
As others have built on his insights, Tajfel’s own work now sounds much like conventional wisdom, even if Tajfel himself didn’t push into applications and left out issues like emotion and gender in his theorising. “In itself, social identity theory is rather an impoverished explanation for things like genocide, things like inter-group slaughter,” Brown says. “Because what does it say – ‘We want our group to be a little better than the other group,’ ‘we‘re looking for positive distinctiveness’? In trying to understand hatred, intergroup violence, we have to go beyond positive distinctiveness. There must be something else that drives people’s anger and hostility.”
Of late, Tajfel’s behaviour has overshadowed his contributions. He died in 1982, and in the 1960s and 1970s he was a serial sexual harasser of young women in his lab and elsewhere (and a difficult and demanding professor overall, as Brown, one of his former PhD students, confirmed). That legacy was known but ignored for years, and the European Association of Social Psychology instituted an important award for lifetime achievement in Tajfel’s name the year he died. This autumn, however, the Association rethought that decision; “naming an award after a person suggests that this individual is a role model as a scientist and beyond,” the organization stated as it announced renaming the award.
Michele Gelfand on Social Norms
Living in a loosely regulated society, the very term “social norms” can be vaguely threatening, as if these norms are a threat to freedom always lurking on the periphery. But cultural psychologist Michele J. Gelfand says norms are not the enemy – they are one of our most important inventions.
“Culture,” she says, “is this set of values, norms, and assumptions about the world that we’re socialized into from the time we’re babies. We follow social norms and we need social norms to navigate. It’s really an incredible human invention that helps us predict each other’s behavior and coordinate on large-scales on a regular basis.”
That said, Gelfand definitely understands that social norms can seem threatening – or reassuring – based on your perch. That’s the basis of her substantial body of scholarship, and it’s a concept neatly encapsulated in her 2016 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.
In her work and her book, Gelfand explores the continuum between “tight cultures,” which strictly enforce and adhere to social norms (think Singapore), and “loose cultures,” which are much more permissive (such as the United States). But in all cultures norms, are, well, normal. We’re constantly following norms – Gelfand points out how people always face the door of an elevator as they ride up and down – and it’s only when we break them that we realize how important they are.
“Social norms are the glue,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that keep people together.” How much glue do we need? Gelfand describes the “simple tradeoff” between tight and loose cultures: tight opts for more order and so reaps some of the hallmarks of that, like less crime and more uniformity and more self-control, while loose aims for openness, which can result in more creativity, tolerance for differences, and openness to change.
Gelfand also discusses factors that cause the evolution of these differences. One major contributor is the degree to which groups face ecological and human threats (think constant fury from Mother Nature or the threat of invasions). Groups that have a lot of threat need more rules to coordinate to survive—so they tighten, while groups that have less threat can afford to be more permissive. Other factors that promote the need for coordination also lead to tightness (like working in agriculture versus hunting and gathering).
Asked if her depiction is a little too neat, Gelfand tells Edmonds she “love[s] the exceptions ... no theory can be a one-to-one prediction.” Plus, her descriptions are “dynamic constructs – they are not static – they can change over time.” As an example, during times of external threat, looser cultures may tighten up (although it takes much longer, she notes, for tight cultures to get demonstrably looser when pressure wanes).
While Gelfand avoids saying one direction is better or worse than the other (and it is a spectrum, not a binary), the extremes of both – tight to repression, loose to chaos – are a concern. She notes that people experiencing either extreme, whether in a company or a country or a household, become dysfunctional. She calls this “the Goldilock’s principle of Tight-Loose”—and argues that groups that are getting too tight need to insert some discretion (what she calls “flexible tightness”) while groups that are getting too loose need to inserts some structure (what she calls “structured looseness”).
Gelfand is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology and affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, where she runs the interdisciplinary Culture Lab in the school’s the Social Decision and Organizational Sciences group. As she says on the lab’s ‘About’ page,
Shona Minson on Children of Imprisoned Mothers
When a mother with minor children is imprisoned, she is far from the only one facing consequences. Their children can end up cared for in multiple placements, they’re often unable to attend school and they’re stigmatised.
These effects on the children of the incarcerated, although predictable, have been poorly understood precisely because almost no one has done that. But Minson, who practiced both criminal and family law before entering academe, did. Following up on issues she’d seen in her work as a lawyer and after taking a master’s at the University of Surrey, she interviewed children, their caregivers and members of the Crown Court judiciary to see both how having a mom locked up affected children and how sentencing decisions that created those situations came about.
Furthermore, she shared her findings with the authorities. “I didn’t realize,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that academics didn’t normally try to change things.”
And while that action might have been somewhat out of the ordinary , what happened next is even more unusual: the authorities listened. After telling the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights about her findings in March 2018, the committee held an enquiry centered on the rights of the children of the imprisoned, and on Tuesday, 1 October, new guidelines were released with the aim of strengthening female offenders' family and other relationships. Existing systemic problems, she believes, can be “more of a blind spot than a deliberate dismissal of these children.”
While the policy affect was likely the most gratifying reward, she also received this year’s Outstanding Early Career Impact Prize awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council in association with SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space).
In this podcast, Minson explains that the lack of research into the children of imprisoned women echoes scant data on the mothers themselves. No one knows exactly how many mothers are locked up in England and Wales because that information isn’t collected, but a “best” guess follows by multiplying the results of a 1997 study that found 61 percent of women in prison were mothers by the rough daily headcount of 3,800 women in prison. Of that estimated maternal population of 2,300, most are single mothers incarcerated up to 60 miles from home, leaving their children in the hands of a variety of carers, ranging from grandparents to friends to, as a last resort, a local authority.
“Most people don’t want their children to go into the care system,” Minson relates, “because it can be very, very difficult to get them back again. And often short sentences are given women ... so if they lose their children into care at that point, it can be years before they have them back even though they’ve only been in prison a few months.”
But those informal arrangements are also fraught, with children often living in multiple places during their mom’s confinement. And because these particular children are not recognized as ‘children in need,’ they get no priority in school places – so carry-on issues with not being in school, stigma because their mother is in prison, and resulting damage to education all plant seeds for future problems. And some not so-future ones ...
“Most of the children that I met just describe themselves as sad,” Minson says. “They have this huge grief, and therapists have written about this, whether it’s a disenfranchised grief where you’re almost unentitled to it, or an ambiguous loss because of the uncertainty – a person hasn’t died, but you don’t know when they’re coming back and you can’t talk about in the way you might if your parents separated or divorced.”
In this podcast, Minson discusses why she chose not to interview the imprisoned mothers for
Harvey Whitehouse on Rituals
One of the most salient aspects of what generally makes a ritual a ritual is that you can’t tell from the actions themselves why they have to be done that way – and that fascinates anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. By his own admission, what intrigues the statutory chair in social anthropology and professorial fellow of Magdalen College, University of Oxford is that ritual is “behavior that is ‘causally opaque’ – by which I mean it has no transparent rational causal structure.
“[Rituals] are that way,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Space podcast, “simply because by cultural convention and general stipulation that is the done and proper way to carry out the behavior.”
Rituals can range from collective events like funerals, initiations, political installations and liturgies to private acts like bedtime prayers or self-crossing before a crucial meeting. One thing that unites all of these is that they are faithfully copied and passed down through the generations.
While the psychological causes of the ritual impulse are inherently interesting, Whitehouse’s work also examines the consequences of ritual, and how rites can produce different intensities of social glue depending on their frequency and emotionality.
For example, painful or frightening initiations tend to produce very strong “social glue,” “fusing” individuals into a larger whole. This insight, partially derived from a visit to Libya in 2011 to study the groups engaged in the effort to overthrow Moammar Ghadafi, has implications, for example, in addressing extremism.
By contrast some groups use “high frequency but relatively dull and boring rituals in order to establish a set of identity markers that can be maintained without radical mutation”. Here the focus is more on ensuring conformity across a large population.
Whitehouse’s own journey into studying religiosity (“I’m not religious myself but deeply fascinated by what makes people religious”) and ritual also are covered in the podcast. As a young academic, Whitehouse started by doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea focused on economic anthropology. “The people I ended up living with for two years, deep in the rain forest, were very interested in telling me about their religious ideas and ritual practices. They were the ones who got me into the topic.”
It was less, he added, that they wanted to proselytize and more that “they got bored with my questions about production and consumption and exchange and all these boring economic things. I think people were starting to want to avoid me when they saw me coming with my notebooks.”
Whitehouse has created a number of academic research groups and is co-founder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts at Harris Manchester College in 2014 and is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion established last year.
Kayleigh Garthwaite on Foodbanks
In the most recent 12-month period for which is has data, the Trussell Trust – the largest foodbank trust in the United Kingdom – the trust passed out 1.6 million food parcels, with 500,000 of those going to children. More than 90 percent of the food donated came from the public, often though prompts seen supermarkets, and the remaining 10 percent came from corporations.
Social scientist Kayleigh Garthwaite wanted to know more about the people behind those figures. Spurred on by numbers cited by politicians in a debate over foodbanks, she wondered, “What was it like for people to go to the foodbank? Why did they go there? Was there any stigma or shame?
“I think the debate about why people use the foodbanks has become really politicized to the point where apparently individual faults and failings are the reason why people are using them,” tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. To find out, Garthwaite engaged in some immersive sociology and volunteered to work at a Trussell foodbank. She went to the foodbank in northern England’s city of Stockton, deploying ethnographic methods to learn from the workers and the food recipients.
While Stockton was close to where Garthwaite earned her bachelors, masters and doctorate – in sociology, social research methods and human geography respectively -- at Durham University, Stockton also has the highest health inequalities in England. Statistically, those living in the city core will on average live 17 fewer years than someone in an affluent area just a few miles away.
After 18 months at the foodbank, with 40,000 words in filed notes already, Garthwaite decided to write a book, and in 2016, Hunger Pains: Life inside foodbank Britain, came out. The book is unique, both an social scientific investigation of foodbank and a diary of Garthwaite’s journey, sprinkled at various times with her trenchant observations about those who judge the hungry and those who hunger.
And getting food isn’t automatic. Someone wanting a parcel of three days’ worth of emergency food – mainly processed, long-life foods, with fresh fruits and vegetables part of the package when available – must be referred by a so-called “referring care professional” like a teacher or social worker.
“When you get into the foodbank you realize there is that bureaucracy of access in the red voucher in the first place, so people can’t just turn up and say, ‘Please give me food.’” Some have criticized the moral outsourcing involved in this vetting: “This voucher system already has that deserving or undeservedness built into it.” There was a benefit to Garthwaite as an academic; “Me, as a researcher, I didn’t want to be in that position of deciding whether somebody should or should not be receiving food.”
Rather than finding that most people spent their disposable cash on cigarettes and alcohol and then decided to hit up the local foodbank, Garthwaite says there are structural reasons that lead people to sue foodbanks. Even if people are buying cigarettes, she added, “that doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to food.” She cites ‘Paul,’ who visited her foodbank at least nine times – and who spent his ready money on alcohol, drugs and food for his dog, But his “complex problems,” including being an ex-felon and having mental health issues, defied simple strictures on being deserving or not.
“People really did use the foodbank as a last resort; it wasn’t something they enjoyed doing.”
Garthwaite is currently a Birmingham University Fellow in the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology. Off campus, she is a trustee of Independent Food Aid Network, a member of the Oxfam UK Poverty Policy Advisory Group and of the Trussell Trust ‘State of Hunger’ Advisory Board.