Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

How to become a "millionaire"

Lessons about numbers from the blogosphere

Just the other morning I became a millionaire!  Well, at least if we’re counting blogosphere hits.  When I checked my Psych Today “Post views” page, I was pleased to see the number 1,000,531.

Have I learned anything about what makes for a good blog posting?  There are of course, several ways to define “good” here: quantitatively – by counting the number of hits, or qualitatively – by feeling around for those vaguer qualities that make for an engaging presentation of novel information.  

Let’s begin with the numbers, which are by definition, easier to measure.  Like a good scientific researcher, I wanted an answer that was more than just my subjective opinion about which postings were more popular, so I began with a simple excel spreadsheet to help me see the big picture in quantitative terms. As we'll see, these numbers actually revealed an important general lesson.

I have done a total of 98 posts since November 2009.  That boils down to 2.33 posts per month.  The average number of hits per post has been 10,263.  But that number can be deceiving.  Why?  Because lesson number 1 of introductory statistics is: There can be a big difference between different kinds of “averages.” 

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The importance of introductory statistics. From your intro psych class, you may recall that in a “normal distribution,” like the one that describes IQ scores, or the number of children per family, you get roughly the same value if you calculate the mean (average), median (central number), and mode (most popular value).  But if you happened to follow those heated discussions about income disparities in the United States, the “mean” can give a very misleading picture if the distribution is not normal (a smattering of billionaires and millionaires pulls the mean up beyond what the “typical” person brings home). 

The median is the number you get when you line up all the numbers and divide the line in two – it is the guy smack dab in the middle.  My median number of hits is 3,601, substantially below 10,263 (which is the mean, or what I get when I divide the sum total hits by the number of posts).  Figure 1 makes this point graphically.

The mode is the most popular value, which is fairly meaningless when you only have 98 values ranging from 946 to 212,793.  In fact, there is no exact value that occurs more than once, so to even approximate a reasonable mode, I had to round to the nearest 100, in which case, it seems that 2,200 is the most popular neighborhood for my blogs to end up. 

So one important lesson is that my blog postings are not all created equal.  The most popular post got about 212,000 more hits than the least popular post, and almost 210,000 more than the median post.  But this leads to another useful lesson:

The importance of persistence.  Dean Keith Simonton has done extensive research on what leads to scientific or artistic impact.  One of the biggest predictors is producing a lot: Albert Einstein published over 230 scientific books and papers, and Pablo Picasso turned out 1,885 paintings and 1,228 scuptures.  According to Simonton, there is a lot of randomness in which creative product is likely to become popular; hence, the more you produce, the more likely you are to randomly hit on something popular. 

In the world of blogging, random factors include whether or not you posted on Saturday or  Monday, whether or not there was a terrorist attack or hurricane on the day you posted, whether or not lots of other bloggers posted interesting factoids or stories, whether or not the editors pick your post as an “essential read,” and so on.  But don’t make too much the word “random” here; it’s not that anything created by a monkey at a keyboard is as likely to gain prominence.  As the great golfer Ben Hogan observed: “Golf is a game of luck.  The more I practice, the luckier I get.”  As in the case of golf clubs swung at golf balls, there are many, many very creative outputs being generated all the time, and there is a bit of randomness in which of those catches the right air current (gets noticed, and in the case of a bit of information, passed on to others).  But those that do not contain interesting, novel, or useful information are like my golf shots as compared to Ben Hogan’s – never going to result in a hole-in-one even if all the forces of randomness are lined up behind them. 

Of course, once you have a hit, you increase your odds of transforming from the Quarrymen (Lennon and McCartney’s first band) to the Beatles.  The rich get richer.  I have seen a few of my posts directly carry others along (as in the case of one on the The 7 BEST Things About Being a Male, which was hyperlinked to another on the The 7 Worst Things About Being a Male). 

Qualitative factors:  My advisor Bob Cialdini taught me that, even when it comes to a stodgy scientific article, you need to come up with: 1) an engaging title (70% of potential readers probably get no further), 2) an engaging abstract (bad ones lose 70% of those who made it past the title), and 3) a good opening paragraph (which may lose 70% of those who made it through the first two hoops, leaving about 3% of potential readers continuing on).  The need for inviting titles and openings is exaggerated in the informationally overloaded world of the blogoshere. 

What makes for an engaging title or opening paragraph?  There’s something to picking the right problem topic, and then being eloquently poetic in describing it, but Cialdini suggested another important lesson -- about the power of mystery – raising a question to which the reader will want to know the answer.  My most popular blog, which has attracted 213,452 hits, was titled: “Atheistic liberals ARE smarter, but for a funny reason….”  Another very popular posting had the title: What’s the One Best question to predict casual sex? 

I am still learning about how to make information engaging, and I owe a lot not only to my mentor in this regard, but also to the students at Arizona State University, who have sat through my lectures and rewarded me with their attention when I got it right (as well as punishing me with glazed over expressions when I got it wrong). 

I’ll let you judge for yourself how well I am learning my lessons.  Here are five of my blogs that have attracted over 50,000 visitors.  Unlike a scientific article, blogs also allow you to put an attention-grabbing picture next to your title, so I’ll include that as well. 

The Psychological Immune System.  We typically think of the immune system as a set of biochemical and physical defenses that fight off infectious agents as they attack the body. But new research suggests we also have a psychological immune system – which starts protecting us even before we come into contact with bacteria or viruses.  An amazing new finding by UBC psychologists suggests that mere psychological perception of someone sneezing or coughing triggers our body’s immune system to start working well in advance of any infection.  (April 4, 2010: 53,346 hits)

 

Atheistic liberals are smarter, but for a funny reason.  Why are intelligent people more likely to be atheistic liberals?  Are liberal beliefs more logical, or are they linked to a particular mating strategy? (April 14, 2010: 213,431 hits)

 

Never Tell a Woman You Love Her! (Unless...).  A new series of studies explores the circumstances under which the words “I love you” bring happiness or unhappiness. (June 9, 2011: 85,633 hits).

 

The 7 Worst Things About Being a Male.  According to cultural stereotypes, being a man is a lot like being James Bond. But I here list 7 of the real (and immense) psychological and behavioral costs of being a man. And there’s research to back up these complaints, here registered on behalf of all those handicapped with a Y chromosome. (Jan. 29, 2012: 92,737 hits).

 

What’s the One Best question to predict casual sex? If you had to ask one question to predict whether you’ll have sex on a first date, what would it be? What if you wanted to predict long-term compatibility?  (June 20, 2012: 76,374 hits) 

On the scale of Gangnam Style, a million hits spread over 98 posts hardly constitutes going viral (my best post is more like a mild cold that spread around the office as opposed to the influenza epidemic of 1918).  But I’m still trying, see my recent post: How to go viral: 6 rules.  

Sensationalism and Science.  As the popularity of several of the above titles attests, the old rule about not discussing religion, politics, or sex in polite company does not hold for the blogosphere.  This raises the problem that bloggers are given a strong incentive to pick sensationalistic topics, sometimes to the point where they get themselves into trouble.  On the one hand, it’s an interesting question what makes something sensational, and psychologists have historically been eager to probe into the depths of human nature.  Since psychology is the science of human behavior, however, I think it’s important to always connect with the scientific literature.  In fact, I usually cite a reference or two in my blog postings, and often include a graph with some empirical data (in my most recent, for example, I report the results of a series of studies just released in Psychological Science: Is Your Life Strategy Like Walmart or the Apple Store?.  Here’s another recent one that covered some thought-provoking new findings (and got a reasonable number of hits without talking about religion, politics, or sex):  If you pursue happiness, you may find loneliness.  Journalists are inconsistent about their citation policies, but I believe it increases their credibility, and the usefulness of their articles, when they include a reference to original scientific data, and avoid publishing the most outrageous quote that happened to slip out of some “expert's” mouth.

Learning from my mistakes.  My son Dave occasionally does a blog for Psychology Today on evolutionary psychology and film (The Caveman Goes to Hollywood).  He and I have discovered that you can often learn as much from a bad film as from a good one.  So for your jeering pleasure, here’s the blog I did that received the all time lowest number of hits (only 982 hits after sitting out there for 2 years).

Crazing Arizona: Should AZ Claim the Insanity Defense? Are all you danged Blue State Volvo-driving Obama-loving liberals stereotyping Arizona as the new Alabama? Do recent shockingly violent events further demonstrate that my home state is brim full of gun-toting right-wing racist nutcases? And is this a case of: If the stereotype fits, wear it?

At the time, I thought that one might do alright, since it linked the nationally controversial shooting of a congressional representative with the gun-control debate, but either my choice of title and summary were too local, or it was just one of those random golf swings.  Oh well, back to the driving range.

P.S. On things that oughta go viral: Check out our cool 3 minute animated video for The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think (produced and colorfully animated by Dave's Subconscious Prime Productions, featuring guest appearances by Elvis and M.C. Hammer, and bringing Vlad Griskevicius and I as close as will likely get to Gangnam Style!) 

References

Cialdini, R. B. (2005).  What’s the best secret device for engaging student interest?  Hint: The answer’s in the title.  Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 22-29.

Simonton, D.K. (1994).  Greatness: Who makes history and why.  New York: Guilford Press. 

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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