Psychology in the Blogosphere: Misuse of Power?

Last week, I examined the application of psychology research studies and how they could, in one specific case, be misused and twisted in order to provide a basis for new legislation. While the outcome of the legislation concerning aggression and video games is still undecided, this week I entered the blogosphere to read about other ways in which psychology is meeting realms of modern technology. In light of my previous post, I was drawn to blog posts concerning the psychological effects of social networking sites. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are fast becoming some of the most important and popular destinations on the internet. Facebook, alone, has “more than 175 million active users,” and “more than 3 billion minutes are spent on Facebook each day (worldwide)." Due to the growing popularity of these websites, new psychology research studies are emerging to explain the link between the internet and the brain. In light of this, this week I examine a post by John M. Grohol, PSY.D., entitled “Can Blogging Make You Happier?” on the World of Psychology blog, which looks at a research study linking blogging and happiness. Additionally, I consider a post called “Facebook Causes Marble Loss” on the Mindhacks.com blog by Vaughan Bell, Ph.D., which critiques the improper use of psychological research studies and the negative effect that can occur from it. My responses to both of these blog posts can be found below and at their respective sites.

"Can Blogging Make You Happier?"

Given the increasing popularity of blogging and social networking sites, like Twitter or Facebook, the study you cite in this post is both timely and meaningful. I found it intensely interesting that the authors of the research study used self-disclosure theory and social capital theory to illuminate some of the links between blogging and a subjective sense of well-being or happiness. However, I have a few questions pertaining to the internal and external validity of the study itself, and I was hoping to hear your opinion on them.

When you mentioned that there “isn’t a whole lot of research into blogging, so this study is a valuable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of behavior,” are you concerned with the fact that this study was conducted in Taiwan, a more collectivistic culture, as opposed to the United States, whose citizens might have a more independent view of the self and culture? Will the results that were found in one location, in your opinion, translate to the people of another culture? Furthermore, a well known problem with many research studies is that the subjects are predominantly female college students. What kind of impact does this have on the generalizability of the study itself? Given that Facebook, a social networking site, posted on their statistics page that “the fastest growing demographic is those 30 years old and older” do you foresee other studies being produced to account for different demographics?

You mentioned in your post that “self-disclosure on those blogs will help them improve these existing relationships,” but can you imagine a situation in which blogging, with “lurking strangers (32.55%)" or anonymous commenters might have a negative impact on self-reported happiness. A quick glance at most Youtube comments to posted videos will show a fair amount of negativity from anonymous posters over the internet. Have you perhaps seen any current research with measures happiness, blogging, and anonymity? Finally, given the penchant for mainstream mass media to take psychological studies out of context as seen here, are you at all concerned with studies like these or other future studies misleading and changing public opinion and policy concerning the internet, blogging and social networking sites?

I really appreciated your post about blogging and happiness, but I feel like there might be a few loose ends, and I look forward to hearing your opinion concerning the questions I have.

"Facebook Causes Marble Loss"

That very awkward feeling you mention in the beginning of your post is an all-too-familiar feeling I get when I watch or read mainstream media report “facts” based loosely upon research studies. I recently touched on this issue in a recent blog post of mine in which a Congressman from California slightly misused research findings to propose legislation concerning aggression and video games (putting a warning label on video games, similar to a pack of cigarettes). As such, when I found this blog post, I was intrigued to read your opinion on the subject.

Personally, I am glad that you called Aric Sigman’s article “drivel,” as it clearly is nothing more than that. The very idea that the use of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter could lead to health risks from societal withdrawal is laughable at best. Furthermore, Sigman “cherry-picking” his data is extremely socially irresponsible and potentially morally reprehensible, especially to claim it as truth to news media outlets. From what I have found, the Biologist is a peer-reviewed journal, but what can stop mainstream news outlets from claiming these papers as “the truth?” Does the fault lie with the magazine reviewers, themselves? Furthermore, do you see this as a problematic trend which is getting worse as new mediums technology are studied? What do you suppose is the basis for news outlets being so eager to latch on to and report inconclusive or incorrect findings? How might Sigman explain the antisocial and negative effects of reading a book, for example?

I would draw your attention to a recent blog post by John M. Grohol, PSY.D., called “Can Blogging Make You Happier?” from Psychcentral’s World of Psychology blog where he talks about a Taiwanese study which found that blogging can increase levels of social integration and interconnectivity, and therefore happiness. This study is similar to some of the other studies already posted on your blog, but how do you feel about a study like this, which has no control group, is based solely on self report, and is conducted in a different culture (individualistic vs. collectivistic)? Are studies like this any different—information-wise—from Aric Sigman’s study?

Finally, I would like to thank you for producing such a funny, illuminating response to a major social problem in today’s society. All too often, poor scientific research studies are taken out of context and “swallowed by most mainstream press outlets without question.” It would seem that the only way to combat this is to raise awareness about the problem itself. I appreciate the work you have done thus far, and I look forward to your response.


Aggression from Video Games: A Question of Definition

Video games have progressed in complexity and scope faster than any other medium of multimedia entertainment, and with these advances, they have also faced an increasing amount of scrutiny from lawmakers, news media, parents and scientists alike. Indeed, many of today’s most popular titles bear very little resemblance, if any at all, to their predecessors. Games like Atari’s Pong (1972) and Namco’s Pac-Man (1980) are not only different in look and feel, but also in interactivity and levels of immersion. In recent years, new genres of video games like the first person shooter (FPS), and combat-fighting oriented games have emerged and gained popularity with youth and adolescents. Grand Theft Auto III (see above left, 2001) is one such FPS, in which the player can control an avatar who has the ability to violently fulfill his every whim in a virtual world, be it shoot guns, kill pedestrians and cops, steal cars, or break any law. The popularity of Grand Theft Auto is astounding, with “worldwide sales [of Grand Theft Auto] approaching $2 billion.” This in turn has increased the levels of concern surrounding what effect and what impact these games are having on the youth of today. But is there an actual cause for concern? U.S. Congressman Joe Baca thinks so. In his January 7th, 2009 press release, he introduced the Video Game Labeling Act of 2009, legislation which would mandate that all video games “with an Electronics Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating of Teen (T) or higher be sold with a health warning label,” a label similar to those found on cigarettes. The basis for this legislation comes from certain scientific studies that “continue to show a proven link between playing violent games and increased aggression in young people.” Congressman Baca is not the first, either, to propose legislation, which seeks to limit the distribution or packaging of violent video games. The major problem, however, with Congressman Baca’s legislation, and other legislation like it, is that it represents one side of a hotly contested debate, without taking the time to adequately define the terms being used. He cites “scientific sources” as his evidence, but what exactly they are saying?

At the very first, there exists an unaddressed issue of the difference between the types of aggression and aggressive behavior. Depending on which frame or lens through which one views these terms, they can numerous applications. Physiologically, aggression may be related to heart rate and skin conductance. Neurologically, aggression could be viewed in terms of increased brain activity in the amygdale. Behaviorally, aggression is defined as the behaviors that cause psychological or physical harm in another individual. The problem that arises from these definitions is that certain studies will choose to measure one or the other in relation to video games and provide it to the public as definitive proof. An example this is well-illustrated in a study conducted at Michigan State University, which, incidentally, was also cited by Congressman Baca as scientific proof. The experimenters used an fMRI machine to track the neural patterns of thirteen individuals while they played a violent first person shooter video game. They overlaid the measurements of neural functions onto the video game itself to track specific instances of activity. One of the main findings of the study “suggests parallel neural patterns between highly immersive virtual environments and real experiences”. However, as the researchers themselves point out, there is very little to link the increase in brain activity to an increase in actual physical aggression. The disconnect between neural measurement and actual effects only shows how the term aggression is sometimes taken out of context to fit the specific needs of individuals and organizations. A second, related issue is with the conclusions being drawn from some of the scientific studies, much like the previous study. This problem has to do with the ideas of correlation and causation. In the field psychology, it is well known that correlation does not imply causation. If a variable, like physical aggression, increases with, and correlates with a second variable, like playing time of a violent video game, it is not possible to definitively state that the video game was the cause of the physical aggression. There may be other factors at work that produced this result.

Another study Congressman Baca cited as scientific evidence, which was also very widely sited in popular news media outlets, was a longitudinal correlation study conducted in both Japan and the United States and published in November, 2008. Per CNN, it looked at how “children and teen’s video game habits at one time point related to their behavior three to six months later.” The study used self-reports of the children, as well as behavioral reports from outside sources, to determine the correlation between violent video games and actual behavioral aggression. While CNN states that in every group, “children who were exposed to more video game violence did become more aggressive over time than their peers who had less exposure,” a closer inspection of the results leads to less conclusive evidence, with a high potential for confounding variables, or variables which could skew the overall data. John Timmer from Ars Technica addresses some of these problems when he noted that there might be procedural issues, such as the fact that “the three surveys targeted different age groups with essentially no overlap, used different measures of violent game content, different measures of physical aggression and performed the follow-up surveys at different time periods.” He adds, “the authors attempt to treat the data as a single unified body when they perform a pathway analysis in an attempt to demonstrate a degree of causality…their decision to do so doesn’t appear to be well justified.” Furthermore, the experimenters noted that the overall weighted correlation rate was only r = 0.28, which by their own words, gives “pretty good evidence,” but not conclusive or statistically significant evidence linking the two together.

Both of the aforementioned studies fail to fully address the problem of correlation and causation, as well as the relationship between neural activity and actual physical behavior. One of the more difficult questions which need to be answered is are we overlooking individual differences in relation to video games and aggression? Do aggressive children actively seek out violent video games, or do violent video games produce aggression in children or adolescents? There is a lot of evidence currently circulating academia which seems to lend itself to providing a link between video games and aggression, either neural or physiological. However, there needs to be more work done in terms of clearly defining terms and not drawing conclusions from facts which do not clearly exist, as Congressman Baca may have done. Furthermore, Cognitive Daily writer Greta Munger proposed that most adolescents can handle one or two risk factors for aggressive behavior, like developmental issues surrounding adolescence and hormones, and environmental issues, but that these risk factors need to be examined in the context of video games to determine the true extent of the influence of violent video games on aggression. Finally, as USC Professor Karen Sternheimer noted in an article from USA Today concerning the blame of video games on aggressive and homicidal youth, “It was a tragic and, very fortunately, rare event and it was discouraging to see that the conversation often started and stopped at video games.” If violent video games are being intensely scrutinized, perhaps other modes of mass entertainment, like television or movies, need to be examined as well.


Bridging the Gap: Applying Psychological Theory to Personal Experience

The field of psychology currently faces major problems. Though findings in psychology are applicable to a wide range of individuals, there is a gap between the current psychological theories and its application to the general public in meaningful ways. This theory-application disconnect could be caused by a number of factors, including difficult-to-understand terminology or an advanced statistical analysis in a research paper. An opposing problem is caused by the increasing prevalence of folk psychology, or common sense psychology, which has been propagated through mass media and the internet due to its easy-to-swallow packaging. However, folk psychology is often oversimplified for public consumption and may exist in opposition to established theories. Uncommon Knowledge was born as a response to these problems. As my first foray into the blogosphere, I hope use this blog to bridge the theory-application gap in psychology for the general public by examining and explaining current events or cultural phenomenon in relation to psychological theory. Furthermore, I will address and debunk popular folk psychology beliefs. I began this blog by compiling the most credible websites to serve as a wide base of knowledge in my writing. A sampling of these websites can be found in the linkroll on the right hand side of this blog. These websites were selected after clearing either the Webby Awards or the IMSA criteria for websites or blogs, respectively. The Webby Awards examines websites based upon six different criteria: Content, structure and navigation, visual design, functionality, interactivity, and overall experience. The first website I included was a comprehensive glossary of psychology terms to demystify and define difficult concepts. Next, I used search engines and online directories, such as the Librarian’s Internet Index, to help find credible psychology news websites and influential associations, like the American Psychological Association. These websites tended to be well designed, easy to use, and extremely informative. The research-intensive nature of psychology led me to search for directories of refereed online journals, such as PSYCLINE: Journal Locator, which could be used for reference or further learning. Finally, I used blog search engines like Technorati and Blogscholar to find the very best psychology blogs and blog indexes. The IMSA judges blogs based on credibility of authorship, depth of content of the blog, and the influence of the blog, along with other criteria. Each of the selected blogs, like Cognitive Daily, maintains a high credibility of authorship and is updated regularly. By including each of these websites, I hope to provide a diverse base from which to learn and incorporate multiple, new points of view for the journey of bridging the gap.
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