Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Suggested reading: Revealing likes, illusory control, and sadistic parents

curly fries
Do you feel smarter?

F You: In college I thought that what people liked—especially their favorite music, movies, and books—told you everything you needed to know about them. It was one of the surprising discoveries of adulthood that the complexities of personality can't be defined quite so easily or simply.

Or can they? Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that Facebook "likes" can be used to guess with a high degree of accuracy your gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, religious affiliation, whether you're a smoker, and even whether your parents split up before you were 21. As Geoffrey Mohan writes, perhaps it's not unexpected that someone who likes "Proud to be a mom" is most likely female and a parent. But more surprising is that David Stillwell and his Cambridge colleagues found that likes also correlate with traits such as intelligence, openness to new experiences, and conscientiousness—at least, as far as these traits can be accurately measured by personality tests. ("Liking" curly fries correlates with high IQ, while liking Hello Kitty indicates that you are open to new experiences but not highly conscientious.)

One or two of these correlations could be dismissed as statistical happenstance; taken together, they can create a highly detailed picture of who you are. And it doesn't matter whether, in any individual case, the correlations are accurate, as long as employers, insurance companies and marketers think that they are. What you like can say a great deal more about you than you may realize. (Geoffrey Mohan, "On Facebook, you are what you 'like,' study finds" Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2013)

Somini Sengupta
Illusions of control: Of course, we're all concerned about Internet privacy. Aren't we? But when you create an account on a site, you often must enter personal information such as an e-mail address and even your date of birth. We often do this without thinking—and as Somini Sengupta reports, with such key pieces of personal information sites can find out a huge amount of additional data about us.

Behavioral economist Alessandro Acquisiti has explored what motivates us to act against our own interests and surrender important personal information. And he's made some disturbing findings:
  • We are inconsistent: If shoppers are offered a $10 coupon and told that it will be increased to $12 if they share information about their purchases, only about 50% agree to share. But if they are offered a $12 coupon and told that it will be decreased to $10 if they keep their data private, 90% agree to share. 
  • We are irrational: Participants in a study of lying, stealing and drug use were far more willing to share data that could personally identify them if they were given a greater degree of choice about what information to share. 
  • And we're distractable: Students surveyed about cheating were far more likely to admit to it if an unrelated offer popped up while they were answering the survey. 
It seems that we find the illusion of control and choice far too reassuring. (Somini Sengupta, "Letting down our guard with web privacy," New York Times, March 30, 2013)

Adam Phillips
Parents as sadists: Psychologist Adam Phillips writes about parent-child dynamics, and concludes that parents can't avoid acting in ways that are perceived by the child as sadistic. And sometimes, even with the best-intentioned parents, it isn't just perception: "The parent who punishes the child for his tantrum—punishment being itself a kind of tantrum, a despair about the rules rather than their enforcement—says to the child: my tantrum is more powerful than yours, but tantrums are all we have got...The punitive parent is giving the child what we have learned to call a double message: he is being told by someone who is enraged by their frustration that he should not be enraged by his frustration." (Adam Phillips, "The magical act of a desperate person," London Review of Books, 7 March 2013)

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