As part of my day job, I’m involved in psychology research examining the effects of having other people around when you’re trying to cope with mental stress. Here’s the summary of our findings to date: it’s complicated. But not to worry. All that means is that there’s plenty of toothpaste left in the tube. And we all know how annoying it is when we run out of toothpaste. Yes?
Anyway, it will be no surprise to learn that quite a lot of researchers are interested in how our behaviour is influenced by the presence of other people. When you think about it, such a topic pretty much encompasses virtually all of human existence. However, one example of social influence that the media tend to be particularly interested in is crowds. This is probably because crowds feature so prominently in newsworthy events, such as socio-political meltdowns, dramatic sporting clashes, and attempts to break the world record for the number of Waldos in a room.
Last week, twice in the same day, I was in the media talking about ‘social facilitation‘, the technical term for how the presence of observers affects our choices, task-performance, and emotions. Of interest, the contrast between the two formats — one a newspaper article, the other a radio talk show interview — nicely illustrates some of the issues that arise when trying to communicate scientific concepts in the media.
In the first piece, I was quoted at length for a story by John Holden in the Science Today section of the Irish Times. This format allows a lot of scope for explaining technical complexities, such as the various ways in which a scientific principle can be applied to subtly different contexts.
Most written-word journalists will be careful to quote you verbatim if stuff gets complicated, and will fill some blanks in with their own summaries if they feel the reader will need help getting the point. The Times piece is a good example of that, where the journalist combines my points with those of other commentators, weaving them together with some very useful everyman observations.
The second piece arose directly from the prominence of that Times article. I was phoned up and asked to speak to the Sean Moncrieff show on Newstalk. Radio — especially live radio — is quite a different platform for science news. Generally, there is no process of drafting and redrafting, so the words that come out of your mouth at your first attempt are pretty much all the listener has to go on. As in this example, there is less opportunity to cover abstract concepts, and more of a pressure to make things applicable to tangible everyday examples.
Also, unlike a written article where the journalist will have a narrative arc in mind, on live radio the thread of the discussion can be less predictable. The best the journalist can do is merely nudge the interviewee in a particular direction.
You can listen to the Newstalk piece by clicking on this fiddly thing:
As live conversations are more organic, even the interviewee can struggle to predict where the discourse is heading. I had a page of bullet-points in front of me when doing the radio interview. I don’t think I referred to more than two of them on air.
And as for the science of crowd behaviour, well let’s just say things remain complicated. Hopefully this is more in spite of my efforts than because of them…
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.