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Robert Cialdini Explains Social Psychology

Question: What work in social psychology has influenced what you do?Robert Cialdini:    My interest has always been in the influence process; how it is that people can be spurred to say yes to a request, even one that they might not be interested in in its merits. 

The way I got into it is actually something more personal.  I’ve always been a sucker, always been a patsy for the pitches of salespeople or fundraisers who’ve come to my door. So I’ve wound up in unwanted possession of tickets to the sanitation workers’ ball and magazine subscriptions that I didn’t really want, and I always wondered, How could that be?  I didn’t want these things, yet I wound up purchasing them.  There must be a psychology to the presentation that’s separate from the merits of the thing. 

So I began to study the influence process systematically, first in my role as a behavioral scientist.  But then, taking a broader look, I actually infiltrated the training programs of as many influence professions that I could get access to.  I tried to learn how to sell automobiles from a lot, vacuum cleaners door-to-door, portrait photography over the phone.  I was the guy from Mills.  I was that guy.

I didn’t stop there; I also looked at what the fundraisers were doing to get us to say yes, what advertising copywriters were doing, what lobbyists were doing.  Even recruiters: armed service recruiters, corporate recruiters, I even studied what cult recruiters do to get us to say yes. 

And through it all, I looked for those commonalities, which were the things that were being used in common, in parallel across all of the people who were interested in getting us to say yes to their requests.

Question: Who were the pioneers of your field?Robert Cialdini:    Certainly you always stand on the shoulders of giants.  And, for example, Stanley Milgram, who did the famous Milgram Obedience Research, who showed how people would respond to the directives of an authority figure to deliver nearly fatal levels of shock to an innocent other person, simply because they were commanded to do it by someone in a white coat carrying a clipboard and professing to be a scientist, professing to be someone who was an authority in the lab situation where they were working.  And people, very many of them, indeed 65%, were willing to deliver all the available shocks that were there in the situation for them to use, simply because they were directed to do so. 

That’s a very powerful psychological phenomenon. 

Other people, for example, Leon Festinger who studied something called Cognitive Dissonance Theory.  The desire of people to be consistent with what they’ve already said and done, even if it doesn’t make sense in the larger sense, but in that particular situation. In order for them to be consistent with what they’ve already said or done in public, they will do what seems to be irrational things.

Philip Zimbardo, who did the famous Stanford prison experiment in which he showed how putting Stanford undergraduates in the role of prisoner or guard caused them, just by virtue of the situation, to start taking on the characteristics and the behaviors of those problematic situations that we find in our prisons: prisoners ganging up on one another, guards abusing the prisoners, and so on.  This sort of thing emerged just because the situation was there, not because of the kind of people who were there.  You can put anybody in those situations and you get what surfaces to be very alarming. 

They reenacted it.

It can’t be done with real subjects any longer because it was so devastating to a lot of the people who participated. 

They saw themselves being pawns and being willing to deliver nearly deadly levels of electric shock to someone, simply because they were commanded to do so by somebody who they didn’t know.  That left some of these people sufficiently in doubt of their own self-confidence and ethics that it can’t be done anymore.  The American Psychological Association won’t allow that kind of research to be done.

Recorded: Sep 15, 2008.

Robert Cialdini talks about Social Psychology and what has influenced his work.

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Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

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  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
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  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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