New Media Reshapes Scientific Discourse: Promise, Pitfalls
Potential of new media depends on applying important psychological principles
Posted May 30, 2014
As a social psychologist and editor in chief of a scientific journal (disclaimer below), I am currently living through a bit of a revolution. It would be fair to say that my field is in some degree of turmoil and that new forms of social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) are augmenting traditional channels of discourse (e.g., scientific journals, conference symposia). This development could be a tremendous force for good, but the benefits will only be realized if we consider important lessons from our own programs of research.
Every field encounters its share of crises. Insider trading, performance enhancing drugs in sports, and unethical medical studies take place in other professions, and bad behavior leads to corrective steps to curb future abuses. Currently in social psychology, there are concerns about the reliability of reported research findings, ranging from the relatively mundane (e.g., honest debates about scientific practices) to the dramatic (i.e., the retraction of over 50 published scientific papers by Diederik Stapel). This is not the first crisis in my field (e.g., decades ago, people asked "can people's verbal reports tell us anything of real value?"), and it won't be the last. These episodes are all part of the pendulum of progress, but they can be unpleasant to experience in the moment.
One thing, however, seems new in the current crisis -- social media. Much of the recent debate has taken place on social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and blog postings, and this adds a new element to discourse on issues such as replication efforts in science and how we conduct critical self-examinations of our field. As a social psychologist, I'm fascinated by how social psychologists themselves are not always acquitting themselves well in new media, and ironically, it sometimes is because these scholars are as beholden to the laws of human behavior as the people they study in their own research.
The pitfalls of "in the moment" catharsis
As a starting point, I believe that social media brings many positive new elements to scientific discourse. The ability for many voices (vs. the few that are selected through "official means") to be expressed and heard (often serving very different functions, by the way) is a real advance. These conversations are now available to large audiences, modeling professional engagement for anyone with an internet connection (e.g., colleagues, students, the public). In the past, mechanisms of control (e.g., journal editors, publishers, the establishment) have been able to determine (moderate in the best of circumstances, control in the worst) the voices in a debate. Now, anyone with a blog, Facebook account, or a smart phone can participate. Yet, not having an intermediary (e.g., editor, coauthors, reviewers) in new media means that such communications are less filtered and less measured. As a result, "in the heat of the moment" comments are more likely to get expressed, which can beget more "in the heat of the moment" comments. Such expressions can be cathartic, but the research literature has demonstrated that although catharsis feels good, it often promotes further hostility rather than defuse it (e.g., Bushman et al., 1999). Other parties in the process of expression can serve an important function to say "do you really want to say this?" but an easy "POST" button on one's smartphone will not. In short, knee-jerk reactions tend to be emotionally driven, which often can be counterproductive in a world of thoughts, ideas, logic, and others' feelings.
Empathic concern is critical
This latter point is another element of concern in the rise of scientific discourse through social media -- reduced empathetic concern. When we talk to others face-to-face or have to actively take into consideration them as an audience member (e.g., I will write this paper about them, but they will probably serve as a reviewer on it), we engage in perspective taking and often imagine their reaction in the communication process. However, in the world of social media (where one might post to one's own Twitter, Facebook, or blog account), the author may be less inclined to consider others' perspectives and thus be more egocentric. Indeed, there is a considerable amount of research showing that empathy and perspective taking leads to more prosocial outcomes ranging from less aggression to reduced group stereotyping (e.g., Eisenberg & Miller, 1987; Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000). Although social media can be a powerful force for good, it often (either through its implementation or through social convention) removes "the other" from one's expression, which reduces the likelihood that empathy and perspective taking will occur.
Ego-involvment is unavoidable
Like all other human endeavors, science has elements of ego and self-interest. We often attempt to paint a picture that science is a selfless crucible where objective facts and cold reason rule the day, but this simply is not the case. Research and scientific programs are conducted by people, and people are motivated by nature. Although we often view such motivations as bad (e.g., driven by money or fame), it's also the case such motivations can be good (e.g., pursuit of knowledge, self-understanding). In a world where financial and social rewards are relatively meager (trust me, none of my colleagues conduct research because their time investments will be rewarded with commensurate financial windfalls), the binding of our work efforts with our ego will grow considerably because of cognitive dissonance and effort justification (e.g., Aronson & Mills, 1959). Some people in recent debates have told others to be "less ego involved." Although I understand this sentiment, I think it ignores the unavoidable reality that egos are what makes the world go around, and what helps keep egos in check is concern for, and involvement of, others. The notion that "egos exist" is not intended to provide a blank check to excuse bad ego-driven conduct, but instead, I think any useful system needs to anticipate and leverage the power of ego rather than decry, "it's science, check your ego at the door." Instead, I think a better mantra would be "we're humans, let's leverage our egos for the greater good."
That being said, we need to focus less on our egos and more on our ideas. Recently, our discourse on matters of scientific advancement have focused on name calling and labeling (e.g., are people bullies, are people a--holes) and not on broader ideas. For example, a colleague recently expressed a number of important concerns about the process by which her scholarship was being critiqued, but the majority of the responses to it involved whether "bully" is an appropriate term. That's not to say that discussions of "bullying" isn't legitimate, but far too little energy was spent on the crux of her arguments about the processes and mechanisms by which we critically examine our colleagues' scholarship. Yet, we expend so much time on labels and name callings because science is ego involved -- labels are powerful terms to define others, and thus, people respond to the labels disproportionately in an understandable (albeit ego-driven) act to define themselves. We must not get lost in devoting so much energy to semantics when there are important processes and procedures that deserve our attention.
In the end, I view the potential of social media in informing our scientific debates to be considerable, and I think we are still learning how to shape its role through the process of its use -- that's okay and the road will have a number of bumps and potholes. However, as psychologists, we are especially well equipped to understand the pitfalls of catharsis, to value the importance of empathetic concern, and to appreciate how egos are essential for scientific progress yet are hair triggers for defensive reactions. I believe social media, unlike traditional forms of expression, introduces new blind spots in our communication that we need to be aware of in order to not only make progress as a field, but to do so in a fashion that is civil, respectful, productive, and one that we can be proud of.
I am Editor in Chief of Social Psychological and Personality Science. The comments in this blog are personal opinions and reflections -- they are not associated with the journal or my editorial role with it.
Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.
Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Strack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 367-376.
Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A., (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 91-119.
Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 708-724.