According to this research, eight percent of Americans always refuse vaccines. Why?
- New research found that 22 percent of Americans identify as somewhat or fully resistant to vaccination.
- Researchers used two social psychology theories to explore the causes of vaccine resistance.
- The more one identifies with an anti-vaccine group, the harder it is to dissuade them from their ideas.
Vaccine hesitancy is top of mind for global public health officials, and the reasons for this resistance are manifold. A group of American researchers recently focused on social identity as a motivating factor. Their study, published in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, found that group identification was an important factor for just over one-fifth of citizens.
Anti-vaxx social identification (AVSID) includes 22 percent of Americans — 14 percent of whom identify as "sometimes" resistant, while eight percent claim to "always" refuse vaccines. While on its face this appears to be a medical decision, the research team, led by Oklahoma State University political scientist Matt Motta, sought to discover the relevance of group acceptance.
Social psychology really matters
Previous research has found that anti-vaxxers conform to in-group norms by expressing skepticism against anyone that questions their autonomy and rejecting broader public health recommendations by out-group experts. Such resistance, they write, may result from identity protective cognition, that is, the avoidance of anything that challenges deeply held beliefs.
For this study, the team relied on the following two psychological theories:
- Social identity theory (SIT). Coined by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner, this theory predicts in-group behavior is due to perceived status differences as well as the legitimacy and stability of such differences. SIT predominantly focuses on the psychological motivations for group membership and attachment.
- Self-categorization theory (SCT). This social psychology theory is focused on the cognitive motivations for defining group membership. Also developed by John Turner, SCT investigates the consequences of perceiving people in group terms.
SIT argues that categorization can lead to identification depending on how personally each individual takes the content matter. In this case, when vaccine resistance provides self-esteem and personal meaning, then heightened group identification will merge with their identity. SCT steps in to cement the individual relationship to the content (vaccine resistance) and provides context for the group to flourish.
"Upon socially identifying with a group, people come to understand group membership in comparison to those not in the group, or to those in opposing groups. People then tend to favor members of the in-group and imbue positive characteristics onto them, whereas members of the out-group are viewed with suspicion and oftentimes are seen negatively."Rally goers protest vaccines and the current administration during the "World Wide Rally for Freedom", an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally, at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, May 15, 2021.
Rally goers protest vaccines and the current administration during the "World Wide Rally for Freedom", an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally, at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, May 15, 2021. Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images
Following the herd, but not the immune kind
This mindset has profound social implications. While the U.S. has a goal to vaccinate 70 percent of American adults by July 4, public health officials are still concerned that another wave of COVID-19 will hit this summer due to millions of Americans refusing the jab.
While social psychology theories cannot explain all 22 percent of vaccine-hesitant individuals, the researchers are confident that they provide meaning for at least part of that population. People in this group often refuse to have their children vaccinated and also are more likely to express interest in "intuitive" thinking around health and medicine rather than accept empirical data offered by professionals.
Surveying over 5,000 Americans, the team discovered that full-blown anti-vaxxers (8 percent) were more likely to identify as a group than vaccine-hesitant respondents (14 percent). They also found that such respondents were more likely to engage in conspiratorial thinking. They write:
"People who embrace folk theories about medicine — i.e., inter-generationally transmitted beliefs about medicine that are widely held, but factually inaccurate — have been shown to be more likely to think about the world in conspiratorial ways, and less knowledgeable about basic scientific facts."
The power of tribalism
The team notes that this is more than a barrier to herd immunity. Individuals that score high on the AVSID scale are more likely to share misinformation about vaccines and disrupt important public health communications. The challenge of combating such trends, they note, is especially difficult when anti-vaxx identity is bound to the group.
Reaching the 14 percent of vaccine-hesitant individuals will prove easier than trying to convince the 8 percent of anti-vaxxers. As long as their identity is tied with the group, changing their minds will be nearly impossible.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Science journals may be lowering their standards to publish studies with eye-grabbing — but probably incorrect — results.
- Science is facing a replication crisis, namely, that many studies published in top journals fail to replicate.
- A new study examined the citation count of "failed" studies, finding that these nonreplicable studies accumulated 153 more citations than more reliable research, even after they are shown to be nonreplicable.
- The study suggests the replication crisis might be driven, in part, by incentives that encourage researchers to generate "interesting" results.
What's one way to get a quick boost of confidence? If you watched the widely shared 2012 TED Talk "Your body language may shape who you are," you might think the answer is to strike a power pose.
The idea, detailed in a 2010 paper published in Psychological Science, is that striking a triumphant posture for a couple minutes causes neuroendocrine and behavioral changes in people, helping them to feel more powerful and perform better at various tasks.
U.K. political candidatesCredit: Kieron Bryan (@kieronjbryan) / Twitter
In addition to looking ridiculous, the benefits of the "power pose" probably aren't real. Since 2015, more than a dozen studies have tried and failed to replicate the effects reported in that 2010 paper. It's far from the first failed replication.
The replication crisis
Over the past two decades, the repeated failure to reproduce findings in the research literature, especially in the social and biomedical sciences, has been dubbed the replication crisis. Why is it a "crisis"?
Replication is a key principle of the scientific method. Successful replication increases the probability, and therefore confidence, that a given claim or effect is true: After all, if one study finds X, other studies should also find X, assuming they follow or build upon the original study design.
Despite widespread controversies and concern about the replication crisis over the past two decades, there's little evidence that things are getting better. The problem isn't just that many studies are nonreplicable but also that findings from nonreplicable studies continue to be cited by subsequent studies. "Failed papers," as a 2020 analysis dubbed them, "circulate through the literature as quickly as replicating papers."
Bad science travels fast
A new study published in Science Advances suggests the problem may be even worse than we thought, finding that nonreplicable papers receive 16 more citations per year than replicable ones, on average. Over time, that translates to 153 more citations.
This imbalance generally held true even after replication attempts revealed "failed" papers to be nonreplicable. It also persisted after controlling for factors like number of authors, percentage of male authors, language, and location.
Why do journals publish nonreplicable studies? It may come down to hype. "When the results are more 'interesting,' they apply lower standards regarding their reproducibility," the new study suggests.
Stuart Richie made a similar argument in his 2020 book titled Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth. He suggested that because researchers face institutional pressures to publish papers and earn grants, they're less likely to conduct dry yet valuable "workhouse studies" and more likely to pursue "showy and ostentatious findings" that generate media attention.
In short, incentives may be pushing some researchers away from the pursuit of truth.
The new research included data from studies featured in three major replication projects conducted between 2015 and 2018. According to the paper, each of the three projects:
"tried to systematically replicate the findings in top psychology, economics, and general science journals. In psychology, only 39% of the experiments yielded significant findings in the replication study, compared to 97% of the original experiments. In economics, 61% of 18 studies replicated, and among Nature/Science publications, 62% of 21 studies did."
The researchers then compared this replicability data with the number of citations those studies received, collected from Google Scholar from the date of publication until the end of 2019. The results showed that when replication projects published data revealing studies to be nonreplicable, there was no significant effect on how often those studies were cited in the future. In other words, the studies continued to be cited, even though they were shown to be incorrect.
The average yearly citation count per year for studies that were not replicated (according to P value of the replication) in each replication study [(A) for Nature/Science, (B) for Economics, and (C) for Psychology papers in replication markets] and for those that were replicated. Serra-Garcia et al.
But couldn't some citations of nonreplicable studies have come from studies that were critical of the past findings? The researchers acknowledged this possibility but noted that only twelve percent of subsequent papers acknowledged that the findings they cited had failed to replicate.
Predicting replicability isn't difficult
Ignorance or a lack of intuition likely doesn't explain why the reviewers of top academic journals accept nonreplicable papers or publish subsequent papers that cite those findings. After all, academics and laypeople alike are quite good at predicting which studies will replicate. A 2020 study found, for example, that laypeople were able to guess the replicability of social science studies with above-chance accuracy (59 percent).
Similarly, a 2018 analysis found that psychologists correctly predicted the replicability of psychology studies with an accuracy of 70 percent, while a 2021 paper found that experts could predict the replicability of behavioral and social science papers 73 percent of the time.
These findings seem to bolster the argument that hype-related incentives are contributing to the replication crisis. Still, in the spirit of replication, it's probably worth waiting until these findings themselves are replicated by future research.
A new study explores how investors' behavior is affected by participating in online communities, like Reddit's WallStreetBets.
- The study found evidence that "hype" over assets is psychologically contagious among investors in online communities.
- This hype is self-perpetuating: A small group of investors hypes an asset, bringing in new investors, until growth becomes unsteady and a price crash ensues.
- The researchers suggested that these new kinds of self-organized, social media-driven investment behaviors are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Social media has reshaped human behavior in ways we're only starting to understand. The proliferation of online communities has helped spawn novel strategies for promoting political causes, conducting business, finding sex and love, and transforming culture.
Could online communities also transform behavior in the financial world?
That's one of the key questions explored in a new study published on the preprint server arXiv. Titled "Reddit's self-organised bull runs: Social contagion and asset prices," the study used discussion data from the subreddit WallStreetBets to analyze relationships between the price of stocks and "hype" among online retail investors.
Hype is nothing new in the investing world. But the researchers noted that there seems to be something novel about the short squeeze of GameStop's stock in January, when the price of the stock rose tenfold, thanks largely to self-organized retail investors from WallStreetBets.
"As academics and regulators alike grapple with the implications, many wonder whether large-scale coordination among retail investors is the new 'modus operandi,' or a one-off fluke," the researchers wrote. "We argue that this is a new manifestation of a well-established global phenomenon."
To better understand how online hype is associated with stock prices, the researchers focused on two social components of hype: contagion and consensus. Contagion refers to investors spreading interest in an asset among each other, while consensus refers to their ability to agree on whether to buy or sell an asset.
The analysis found empirical evidence that both contagion and consensus emerge in online communities like WallStreetBets. In other words, investors spread sentiments about future stock performance to other investors, and then they cohere around investment strategies.
Popularity over fundamentals
The findings suggest that an asset's popularity, not its fundamentals, is paramount to many investors.
"Our results consistently show that investors become interested in discussing an asset, not because of fundamentals, but because other users discuss it," the researchers wrote. "Subsequently, this paper tests whether an individual's sentiment about future asset performance [is] affected by those of others. We find that this is the case: people look to their peers to form an opinion about an asset's potential."
To find evidence for social contagion among online investors, the researchers compiled a large dataset of posts and comments submitted to WallStreetBets. The goal was to analyze whether investors' past comments or posts about a given stock, such as Tesla, had a predictable effect on future discussions of that asset within WallStreetBets.
After conducting a regression analysis, the results suggest that hype is socially contagious and cyclical. The cycle usually plays out like this: A small group of investors hypes an asset. This attracts a larger group of investors who join the discussions.
But eventually, too many investors have joined the discussion, and fewer new investors are buying into the hype. As investors lose interest, they spend less time discussing (or "spreading") the asset on the forum, and they turn to new opportunities. The process is similar to a virus: As enough people become infected, they reach herd immunity, and the virus (hype) dies out.
So, does this process affect the stock price, and if so, how? The researchers said it was difficult to establish causality between hype and actual market activity. After all, they didn't have access to the trading records of subscribers to WallStreetBets.
But their model did show that activity on WallStreetBets was able to explain "significant variance" in trading volumes for the most-discussed assets on the forum. This suggests that when social contagion is strong for a given asset, consensus is strong too.
On the stock chart, consensus may start off bullish (or positively): As hype spreads, there's a slow, steady run-up in price. But the growth eventually becomes unstable and is followed by a crash and a period of volatility.
"The price crash stems from panic selling, as investors turn nervous in the face of volatility," the researchers wrote.
Bad news spreads faster than good news
Interestingly, the analysis found that bearish (or negative) sentiments were significantly more contagious on WallStreetBets.
"The data demonstrates that authors who previously commented on a bearish post are 47.7% more likely to express bearish over neutral sentiments, and 18.1% less likely to express bullish sentiments over neutral sentiments. Similarly, but less markedly, authors who previously commented on at least one bullish submission are 9.4% more likely to write a bullish submission, yet 11.3% less likely to write a bearish one."
The researchers said that the changing investing climate and widely available online data offers "promising opportunities for future research."
"As social media galvanizes a larger pool of retail investors with the potential for exciting stock market gambles, it is crucial to understand how social dynamics can impact asset prices," the researchers wrote. "With the first publicly acclaimed victory of Main Street over Wall Street, in the form of the GameStop short squeeze, it is unlikely that socially-driven asset volatility will simply disappear."
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
How different people react to threats of violence.
"This question has been bothering me for quite some time," says Aidan Milliff, a fifth-year doctoral student who entered political science to explore the strategic choices people make in perilous times.
"We've learned a great deal how economic status, identity, and pressure from community shape decisions people make while under threat," says Milliff. Early in his studies, he took particular interest in scholarship linking economic deprivation to engagement in conflict.
"But I became frustrated by this idea, because even among the poorest of the poor, way more people sit out conflict instead of engaging," he says. "I thought there must be something else going on to explain why people decide to take enormous risks."
A window on this problem suddenly opened for Milliff with class 17.S950 (Emotions and Politics), taught by Roger Petersen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science. "The course revealed the cognitive processes and emotional experiences that influence how individuals make decisions in the midst of violent conflict," he says. "It was extremely formative in the kinds of research I started to do."
With this lens, Milliff began investigating questions anew, leveraging unusual data sources and novel qualitative and quantitative methods. His doctoral research is yielding fresh perspectives on how civilians experience threats of violence, and, Milliff believes, "providing policy-relevant insights, explaining how individual action contributes to phenomena like conflict escalation and refugee flows."
At the heart of Milliff's dissertation project, "Seeking Safety: The Cognitive and Social Foundations of Behavior During Violence," are connected episodes of violence in India: an urban pogrom in Delhi in which nearly 3,000 Sikhs died at the hands of Hindus, sparked by the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards; and the bloody, decade-long separatist civil war by Sikh extremists in Punjab that began in the 1980s.
In search of first-person testimony to illuminate people's fight-or-flight choices, Milliff lucked out: He located taped oral histories for a large population of Sikhs who had experienced violence in the 1980s. "In these 500 taped histories, people described at a granular level whether they organized to defend their neighborhoods, hid in houses, left the city temporarily or permanently, or tried to pass as Hindu." He also pursued field interviews in California and India, but didn't get as far as he'd hoped: "I arrived in India last March, and was there for two weeks of an intended three-month stay when I had to return due to the pandemic."
This setback did not deter Milliff, who managed to convert the oral histories into text and video data that he's already begun to plumb, with the help of natural language processing to code people's decision-making processes. Among his preliminary findings: "People typically appraise their situations in terms of their sense of control and of predictability," he says.
"When people feel they have a high degree of control but feel that violence is unpredictable, they are more likely to fight back, and when they sense they have neither control nor predictability, and more easily imagine being victims, they flee."
A Chicago launchpad
Milliff drew inspiration for his doctoral research directly from an earlier graduate project in Chicago with the families of homicide victims.
"I wanted to learn whether people who become angry in response to violence are more likely to seek retribution," he says. After taping 90 hours of interviews with 31 people, primarily mothers, Milliff shifted his focus. "My initial assumption that everyone would get angry was wrong," he says. "I found that when people suffer these losses, they might get sad instead, or become fearful." In unsolved homicides, family members have no perpetrator to target, but instead turn their anger at government that's let them down, or worry for the safety of surviving family members.
From this project, Milliff took away a crucial insight: "People respond differently to their tragedies, even when their experiences look similar on paper."
Political violence and its consequences seized Milliff's interest early on. For his University of Chicago master's thesis, he sought to understand how many long-running, brutal independence movements fizzle out. "I came away from this program believing that I'd enjoy the day-to-day work of being a professional political scientist," he says.
Two research experiences propelled him toward that goal. While in college, Milliff assisted in the National Science Foundation-sponsored General Social Survey, a national social survey headquartered in Chicago, where he learned "how a big quantitative data collection exercise works," he says. Following graduation, a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace immersed him in South Asian military conflict and Indian domestic politics. "I really enjoyed working on these issues and became greatly interested in focusing on the political situation there," he says.
Attracted by MIT's security studies community, especially its commitment to research with real-world impact, Milliff came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, primed to delve deeper into the subject of political violence. He first had to navigate the graduate program's thorough quantitative sequence. "I came to MIT without having taken math after calculus, and I honestly feel fortunate I ended up somewhere that takes the classroom portion of training seriously," he says. "It has given me new tools I didn't even know existed."
These tools are integral to Milliff's analysis of his singular datasets, and provide the quantitative foundation for informing his policy ideas. If, as his work suggests, people in crisis make decisions based on their sense of control and predictability, perhaps community institutions could bolster citizens' abilities to imagine concrete options. "Lack of predictability and a sense of control encourage people to make choices that are destabilizing, such as fleeing their homes, or joining a fight."
Milliff continues to analyze data, test hypotheses, and write up his research, taking time out for biking and nature photography. "When I was headed to graduate school, I decided to take up a hobby that I could do for 15 minutes at a time, something I could do between problem sets," he says.
While he acknowledges research can be taxing, he takes delight in the moments of discovery and validation: "You spend a lot of time coming up with ideas of how the world works, diving into a pit to see if an idea is right," he says. "Sometimes when you surface, you see that you might have come up with a possible new way to describe the world."