I’ve written previously about how filtered activity streams [edit: i.e. news feeds] can lead to biased views of behaviors in our social neighborhoods. Recent conversations with two people writing popular-press books on related topics have helped me clarify these ideas. Here I reprise previous comments on filtered activity streams, aiming to highlight how they apply even in the case of simple and transparent personalization rules, such as those used by Twitter.
Birds of a feather flock together. Once flying together, a flock is also subject to the same causes (e.g., storms, pests, prey). Our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are more similar to us for similar reasons (and others). So we should have no illusions that the behaviors, attitudes, outcomes, and beliefs of our social neighborhood are good indicators of those of other populations — like U.S. adults, Internet users, or homo sapiens of the past, present, or future. The apocryphal Pauline Kael quote “How could Nixon win? No one I know voted for him” suggests both the ease and error of this kind of inference. I take it as a given that people’s estimates of larger populations’ behaviors and beliefs are often biased in the direction of the behaviors and beliefs in their social neighborhoods. This is the case with and without “social media” and filtered activity streams — and even mediated communication in general.
That is, even without media, our personal experiences are not “representative” of the American experience, human experience, etc., but we do (and must) rely on it anyway. One simple cognitive tool here is using “ease of retrieval” to estimate how common or likely some event is: we can estimate how common something is based on how easy it is to think of. So if something prompts someone to consider how common a type of event is, they will (on average) estimate the event as more common if it is more easy to think of an example of the event, imagine the event, etc. And our personal experiences provide these examples and determine how easy they are to bring to mind. Both prompts and immediately prior experience can thus affect these frequency judgments via ease of retrieval effects.
Now this is not to say that we should think as ease of retrieval heuristics as biases per se. Large classes and frequent occurrences are often more available to mind than those that are smaller or less frequent. It is just that this is also often not the case, especially when there is great diversity in frequency among physical and social neighborhoods. But certainly we can see some cases where these heuristics fail.
Media are powerful sources of experiences that can make availability and actual frequency diverge, whether by increasing the biases in the direction of projecting our social neighborhoods onto larger population or in other, perhaps unexpected directions. In a classic and controversial line of research in the 1970s and 80s, Gerbner and colleagues argued that increased television-watching produces a “mean world syndrome” such that watching more TV causes people to increasingly overestimate, e.g., the fraction of adult U.S. men employed in law enforcement and the probability of being a victim of violent crime. Their work did not focus on investigating heuristics producing these effects, but others have suggested the availability heuristic (and related ease of retrieval effects) as at work. So even if my social neighborhood has fewer cops or victims of violent crime than the national average, media consumption and the availability heuristic can lead me to overestimate both.
Personalized and filtered activity streams certainly also affect us through some of the same psychological processes, leading to biases in users’ estimates of population-wide frequencies. They can aIso bias inference about our own social neighborhoods. If I try to estimate how likely a Facebook status update by a friend is to receive a comment, this estimate will be affected by the status updates I have seen recently. And if content with comments is more likely to be shown to me in my personalized filtered activity stream (a simple rule for selecting more interesting content, when there is too much for me to consume it all), then it will be easier for me to think of cases in which status updates by my friends do receive comments.
In my previous posts on these ideas, I have mainly focused on effects on beliefs about my social neighborhood and specifically behaviors and outcomes specific to the service providing the activity stream (e.g., receiving comments). But similar effects apply for beliefs about other behaviors, opinions, and outcomes. In particular, filtered activity streams can increase the sense that my social neighborhood (and perhaps the world) agrees with me. Say that content produced by my Facebook friends with comments and interaction from mutual friends is more likely to be shown in my filtered activity streams. Also assume that people are more likely to express their agreement in such a way than substantial disagreement. As long as I am likely to agree with most of my friends, then this simple rule for filtering produces an activity stream with content I agree with more than an unfiltered stream would. Thus, even if I have a substantial minority of friends with whom I disagree on politics, this filtering rule would likely make me see less of their content, since it is less likely to receive (approving) comments from mutual friends.
I’ve been casually calling this larger family of effects this the “friendly world syndrome” induced by filtered activity streams. Like the mean world syndrome of the television cultivation research described above, this picks out a family of unintentional effects of media. Unlike the mean world syndrome, the friendly world syndrome includes such results as overestimating how many friends I have in common with my friends, how much positive and accomplishment-reporting content my friends produce, and (as described) how much I agree with my friends.1
Even though the filtering rules I’ve described so far are quite simple and appealing, they still are more consistent with versions of activity streams that are filtered by fancy relevance models, which are often quite opaque to users. Facebook News Feed — and “Top News” in particular — is the standard example here. On the other hand, one might think that these arguments do not apply to Twitter, which does not apply any kind of machine learning model estimating relevance to filtering users’ streams. But Twitter actually does implement a filtering rule with important similarities to the “comments from mutual friends” rule described above. Twitter only shows “@replies” to a user on their home page when that user is following both the poster of the reply and the person being replied to.2 This rule makes a lot of sense, as a reply is often quite difficult to understand without the original tweet. Thus, I am much more likely to see people I follow replying to people I follow than to others (since the latter replies are encountered only from browsing away from the home page. I think this illustrates how even a straightforward, transparent rule for filtering content can magnify false consensus effects.
One aim in writing this is to clarify that a move from filtering activity streams using opaque machine learning models of relevance to filtering them with simple, transparent, user-configurable rules will likely be insufficient to prevent the friendly world syndrome. This change might have many positive effects and even reduce some of these effects by making people mindful of the filtering.3 But I don’t think these effects are so easily avoided in any media environment that includes sensible personalization for increased relevance and engagement.
- This might suggest that some of the false consensus effects observed in recent work using data collected about Facebook friends could be endogenous to Facebook. See Goel, S., Mason, W., & Watts, D. J. (2010). Real and perceived attitude agreement in social networks. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 611-621. doi:10.1037/a0020697 [↩]
- Twitter offers the option to see all @replies written by people one is following, but 98% of users use the default option. Some users were unhappy with an earlier temporary removal of this feature. My sense is that the biggest complaint was that removing this feature removed a valuable means for discovering new people to follow. [↩]
- We are investigating this in ongoing experimental research. Also see Schwarz, N., Bless, H., Strack, F., Klumpp, G., Rittenauer-Schatka, H., & Simons, A. (1991). Ease of retrieval as information: Another look at the availability heuristic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 195-202. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168 [↩]
I am not going to discuss the ethics and legal issues in this particular case. Instead, I just want to draw attention to how this issue reveals the importance of technical knowledge in thinking about privacy issues.
A common response from people working in the Internet industry is that Soghoian is a non-techie that has suddenly “discovered” referrer headers. For example, Danny Sullivan writes “former FTC employee discovers browsers sends referrer strings, turns it into google conspiracy”. (Of course, Soghoian is actually technically savvy, as reading the complaint to the FTC makes clear.)
What’s going on here? Folks with technical knowledge perceive search query disclosure as the status quo (though I bet most don’t often think about the consequences of clicking on a link after a sensitive search).
But how would most Internet users be aware of this? Certainly not through Google’s statements, or through warnings from Web browsers. One of the few ways I think users might realize this is happening is through query-highlighting — on forums, mailing list archives, and spammy pages. So a super-rational user who cares to think about how that works, might guess something like this is going on. But I doubt most users would actively work out the mechanisms involved. Futhermore, their observations likely radically underdetermine the mechanism anyway, since it is quite reasonable that a Web browser could do this kind of highlighting directly, especially for formulaic sites, like forums. Even casual use of Web analytics software (such as Google Analytics) may not make it clear that this per-user information is being provided, since aggregated data could reasonably be used to present summaries of top search queries leading to a Web site.1
This should be a reminder why empirical studies of privacy attitudes and behaviors are useful: us techie folks often have severe blind spots. I don’t know that this is just a matter of differences in expectations, but rather involves differences in preferences. Over time, these expectations change our sense of the status quo, from which we can calibrate our preferences and intentions.
Google has worked to ensure that referrer headers continue to include search query information — even as it adopts techniques that would make this not happen simply by the standard inclusion of the URL there.2 A difference in beliefs about the status quo puts these actions by Google in a different context. For us techies, that is just maintaining the status quo (which may seem more desirable, since we know it’s the industry-wide standard). For others, it might seem more like Google putting advertisers and Web site owners above its promises to its users about their sensitive data.
People believe many things about themselves. Having an accurate view of oneself is valuable because it can be used to generate both expectations that will be fulfilled and plans that can be successfully executed. But in being cognitively limited agents, there is pressure for us humans to not only have accurate self-views, but to have efficient ones.
In his new book, How We Get Along, philosopher David Velleman puts it this way:
At one extreme, I have a way of interpreting myself, a way that I want you to interpret me, a way that I think you do interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of wanting you to interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of thinking you do interpret me, and so on, each of these interpretations being distinct from all the others, and all of them being somehow crammed into my self-conception. At the other extreme, there is just one interpretation of me, which is common property between us, in that we not only hold it but interpret one another as holding it, and so on. If my goal is understanding, then the latter interpretation is clearly preferable, because it is so much simpler while being equally adequate, fruitful, and so on. (Lecture 3)
That is, one way my self-views can be efficient representations is if they serve double duty as others’ views of me — if my self-views borrow from others’ views of me and if my models of others’ views of me likewise borrow from my self-views.
Sometimes this back and forth between my self-view and my understanding of how others’ view me can seem counter to self-interest. People behave in ways that confirm others’ expectations of them, even when these expectations are negative (Snyder & Swann, 1978, for a review see Snyder & Stukas, 1999). And people interact with other people in ways such that their self-views are not challenged by others’ views of them and their self-views can double as representations of the others’ views of them, even when this means taking other people as having negative views of them (Swann, 1981).
Self-verification and behavioral confirmation strategies
People use multiple different strategies for achieving a match between their self-views and others’ view of them. These strategies come in at different stages of social interaction.
Prior to and in anticipation of interaction, people seek and more thoroughly engage with information and people with self-views expected to be consistent with their self-views. For example, they spend more time reading statements about themselves that they expect to be consistent with their self-views — even if those particular self-views are negative.
During interaction, people behave in ways that elicit views of them from others that are consistent with their self-views. This is especially true when their self-views are being challenged, say because someone expresses a positive view of an aspect of a person who sees that aspect of themselves negatively. People can “go out of their way” to behave in ways that elicit negative self-views. On the other hand, people can change their self-views and their behavior to match the expectations of others; this primarily happens when a person’s view of a particular aspect of themselves is one they do not regard as certain.
After interaction, people better remember expressions of others’ views of them that are consistent with their own. They also can think about others’ views that were inconsistent in ways that construe them as non-conflicting. On the long term, people gravitate to others’ — including friends and spouses — who view them as they view themselves. Likewise, people seem to push away others who have different views of them.
Do people self-verify in interacting with computers?
Given that people engage in this array of self-verification strategies in interactions with other people, we might expect that they would do the same in interacting with computers, including mobile phones, on-screen agents, voices, and services.
One reason to think that people do self-verify in human–computer interaction is that people respond to computers in a myriad of social ways: people reciprocate with computers, take on computers as teammates, treat computer personalities like human personalities, etc. (for a review see Nass & Moon, 2000). So I expect that people use these same strategies when using interactive technologies — including personal computers, mobile phones, robots, cars, online services, etc.
While empirical research should be carried out to test this basic, well-motivated hypothesis, there is further excitement and importance to the broader implications of this idea and its connections to how people understand new technological systems.
When systems models users
Since the 1980s, it has been quite common for system designers to think about the mental models people have of systems — and how these models are shaped by factors both in and out of the designer’s control (Gentner & Stevens, 1983). A familiar goal has been to lead people to a mental model that “matches” a conceptual model developed by the designer and is approximately equivalent to a true system model as far as common inputs and outputs go.
Many interactive systems develop a representation of their users. So in order to have a good mental model of these systems, people must represent how the system views them. This involves many of the same trade-offs considered above.
These considerations point out some potential problems for such systems. Technologists sometimes talk about the ability to provide serendipitous discovery. Quantifying aspects of one’s own life — including social behavior (e.g., Kass, 2007) and health — is a current trend in research, product development, and DIY and self-experimentation. While sometimes this collected data is then analyzed by its subject (e.g., because the subject is a researcher or hacker who just wants to dig into the data), to the extend that this trend will go mainstream, it will require simplification by building and presenting readily understandable models and views of these systems’ users.
The use of self-verification strategies and behavioral confirmation when interacting with computer systems — not only with people — thus presents a challenge to the ability of such systems to find users who are truly open to self-discovery. I think many of these same ideas apply equally to context-aware services on mobile phones and services that models one’s social network (even if they don’t present that model outright).
Social responses or more general confirmation bias
That people may self-verify with computers as well as people raises a further question about both self-verification theory and social responses to communication technologies theory (aka the “Media Equation”). We may wonder just how general these strategies and responses are: are these strategies and responses distinctively social?
Prior work on self-verification has left open the degree to which self-verification strategies are particular to self-views, rather than general to all relatively important and confident beliefs and attitudes. Likewise, it is unclear to what extent all experiences, rather than just social interaction (including reading statements written or selected by another person), that might challenge or confirm a self-view are subject to these self-verification strategies.
Inspired by Velleman’s description above, we can think that it is just that other’s views of us have an dangerous potential to result in an explosion of the complexity of the world we need to model (“I have a way of interpreting myself, a way that I want you to interpret me, a way that I think you do interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of wanting you to interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of thinking you do interpret me, and so on”). Thus, if other systems can prompt this same regress, then the same frugality with our cognitions should lead to self-verification and behavioral confirmation. This is a reminder that treating media like real life, including treating computers like people, is not clearly non-adaptive (contra Reeves & Nass, 1996) or maladaptive (contra Lee, 2004).
Kass, A. (2007). Transforming the Mobile Phone into a Personal Performance Coach. In B. J. Fogg & D. Eckles (Eds.), Mobile Persuasion: 20 Perspectives on the Future of Behavior Change. Stanford Captology Media.
Lee, K. M. (2004). Why Presence Occurs: Evolutionary Psychology, Media Equation, and Presence. Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments, 13(4), 494-505. doi: 10.1162/1054746041944830.
Nass, C., & Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge University Press.
Snyder, M., & Stukas, A. A. (1999). Interpersonal processes: The interplay of cognitive, motivational, and behavioral activities in social interaction. Annual Review of Psychology, 50(1), 273-303.
Snyder, M., & Swann, W. B. (1978). Behavioral confirmation in social interaction: From social perception to social reality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 14(2), 148-62.
Swann, W. B., & Read, S. J. (1981). Self-verification processes: How we sustain our self-conceptions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 17(4), 351-372. doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(81)90043-3
Velleman, J.D. (2009). How We Get Along. Cambridge University Press. The draft I quote is available from http://ssrn.com/abstract=1008501
Jaron Lanier (2006) calls the ability of humans to learn to control virtual bodies that are quite different than our own “homuncular flexibility”. This is, for him, a dangerous idea. The idea is that the familiar mapping of the body represented in the cortical homunculus is only one option – we can flexibly act (and perceive) using quite other mappings, e.g., to virtual bodies. Your body can be tracked, and these movements can be used to control a lobster in virtual reality – just as one experiences (via head-mounted display, haptic feedback, etc.) the virtual space from the perspective of the lobster under your control.
This name and description makes this sound quite like science fiction. In this post, I assimilate homuncular flexibility to the much more general phenomenon of distal attribution (Loomis, 1992; White, 1970). When I have a perceptual experience, I can just as well attribute that experience – and take it as being directed at or about – more proximal or distal phenomena. For example, I can attribute it to my sensory surface, or I can attribute it to a flower in the distance. White (1970) proposed that more distal attribution occurs when the afference (perception) is lawfully related to efference (action) on the proximal side of that distal entity. That is, if my action and perception are lawfully related on “my side” of that entity in the causal tree, then I will make attributions to that entity. Loomis (1992) adds the requirement that this lawful relationship be successfully modeled. This is close, but not quite right, for if I can make distal attributions even in the absence of an actual lawful relationship that I successfully model, my (perhaps inaccurate) modeling of a (perhaps non-existent) lawful relationship will do just fine.
Just as I attribute a sensory experience to a flower and not the air between me and the flower, so the blind man or the skilled hammer-user can attribute a sensory experience to the ground or the nail, rather than the handle of the cane or hammer. On consideration, I think we can see that these phenomena are very much what Lanier is talking about. When I learn to operate (and, not treated by Lanier, 2006, sense) my lobster-body, it is because I have modeled an efference–afference relationship, yielding a kind of transparency. This is a quite familiar sort of experience. It might still be a quite dangerous or exciting idea, but its examples are ubiquitous, not restricted to virtual reality labs.
Lanier paraphrases biologist Jim Boyer as counting this capability as a kind of evolutionary artifact – a spandrel in the jargon of evolutionary theory. But I think a much better just-so evolutionary story can be given: it is this capability – to make distal attributions to the limits of the efference–afference relationships we successfully model – that makes us able to use tools so effectively. At an even more basic and general level, it is this capability that makes it possible for us to communicate meaningfully: our utterances have their meaning in the context of triangulating with other people such that the content of what we are saying is related to the common cause of both of our perceptual experiences (Davidson, 1984).
Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lanier, J. (2006). Homuncular flexibility. Edge.
Loomis, J. M. (1992). Distal attribution and presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1(1), 113-119.
White, B. W. (1970). Perceptual findings with the vision-substitution system. IEEE Transactions on Man-Machine Systems, 11(1), 54-58.
Mobile phones are gateways to our most important and enduring relationships with other people. But, like other communication technologies, the mobile phone is psychologically not only a medium: we also form enduring relationships with devices themselves and their associated software and services (Sundar 2004). While different than relationships with other people, these human–technology relationships are also importantly social relationships. People exhibit a host of automatic, social responses to interactive technologies by applying familiar social rules, categories, and norms that are otherwise used in interacting with people (Reeves and Nass 1996; Nass and Moon 2000).
These human–technology relationships develop and endure over time and through radical changes in the situation. In particular, mobile phones are near-constant companions. They take on roles of both medium for communication with other people and independent interaction partner through dynamic physical, social, and cultural environments and tasks. The global phenomenon of mobile phone use highlights both that relationships with people and technologies are inﬂuenced by variable context and that these devices are, in some ways, a constant in amidst these everyday changes.
Situational variation and attribution
Situational variation is important for how people understand and interact with mobile technology. This variation is an input to the processes by which people disentangle the internal (personal or device) and external (situational) causes of an social entity’s behavior (Fiedler et al. 1999; Forsterling 1992; Kelley 1967), so this situational variation contributes to the traits and states attributed to human and technological entities. Furthermore, situational variation inﬂuences the relationship and interaction in other ways. For example, we have recently carried out an experiment providing evidence that this situational variation itself (rather than the characteristics of the situations) inﬂuences memory, creativity, and self-disclosure to a mobile service; in particular, people disclose more in places they have previously disclosed to the service, than in new places (Sukumaran et al. 2009).
Not only does the situation vary, but mobile technologies are increasingly responsive to the environments they share with their human interactants. A system’s systematic and purposive responsiveness to the environment means means that explaining its behavior is about more than distinguishing internal and external causes: people explain behavior by attributing reasons to the entity, which may trivially either refer to internal or external causes. For example, contrast “Jack bought the house because it was secluded” (external) with “Jack bought the house because he wanted privacy” (internal) (Ross 1977, p. 176). Much research in the social cognition and attribution theory traditions of psychology has failed to address this richness of people’s everyday explanations of other ’s behavior (Malle 2004; McClure 2002), but contemporary, interdisciplinary work is elaborating on theories and methods from philosophy and developmental psychology to this end (e.g., the contributions to Malle et al. 2001).
These two developments — the increasing role of situational variation in human-technology relationships and a new appreciation of the richness of everyday explanations of behavior — are important to consider together in designing new research in human-computer interaction, psychology, and communication. Here are three suggestions about directions to pursue in light of this:
Design systems that provide constancy and support through radical situational changes in both the social and physical environment. For example, we have created a system that uses the voices of participants in an upcoming event as audio primes during transition periods (Sohn et al. 2009). This can help ease the transition from a long corporate meeting to a chat with fellow parents at a child’s soccer game.
Design experimental manipulations and measure based on features of folk psychology — the implicit theory or capabilities by which we attribute, e.g., beliefs, thoughts, and desires (propositional attitudes) to others (Dennett 1987) — identified by philosophers. For example, attributions propositional attitudes (e.g., beliefs) to an entity have the linguistic feature that one cannot substitute different terms that refer to the same object while maintaining the truth or appropriateness of the statement. This opacity in attributions of propositional attitudes is the subject of a large literature (e.g., following Quine 1953), but this has not been used as a lens for much empirical work, except for some developmental psychology (e.g., Apperly and Robinson 2003). Human-computer interaction research should use this opacity (and other underused features of folk psychology) in studies of how people think about systems.
Connect work on mental models of systems (e.g., Kempton 1986; Norman 1988) to theories of social cognition and folk psychology. I think we can expect much larger overlap in the process involved than in the current research literature: people use folk psychology to understand, predict, and explain technological systems — not just other people.
Apperly, I. A., & Robinson, E. J. (2003). When can children handle referential opacity? Evidence for systematic variation in 5- and 6-year-old children’s reasoning about beliefs and belief reports. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85(4), 297-311. doi: 10.1016/S0022-0965(03)00099-7.
Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance (p. 388). MIT Press.
Fiedler, K., Walther, E., & Nickel, S. (1999). Covariation-based attribution: On the ability to assess multiple covariates of an effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(5), 609.
Försterling, F. (1992). The Kelley model as an analysis of variance analogy: How far can it be taken? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(5), 475-490. doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(92)90042-I.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 15).
Malle, B. F. (2004). How the Mind Explains Behavior: Folk Explanations, Meaning, and Social Interaction. Bradford Books.
Malle, B. F., Moses, L. J., & Baldwin, D. A. (2001). Intentions and Intentionality: Foundations of Social Cognition. MIT Press.
McClure, J. (2002). Goal-Based Explanations of Actions and Outcomes. In M. H. Wolfgang Stroebe (Ed.), European Review of Social Psychology (pp. 201-235). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/0470013478.ch7.
Nass, C., & Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Norman, D. A. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.
Quine, W. V. O. (1953). From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays. Harvard University Press.
Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places (p. 305). Cambridge University Press.
Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 174-221). New York: Academic Press.
Sohn, T., Takayama, L., Eckles, D., & Ballagas, R. (2009). Auditory Priming for Upcoming Events. Forthcoming in CHI ’09 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. Boston, Massachusetts, United States: ACM Press.
Sukumaran, A., Ophir, E., Eckles, D., & Nass, C. I. (2009). Variable Environments in Mobile Interaction Aid Creativity but Impair Learning and Self-disclosure. To be presented at the Association for Psychological Science Convention, San Francisco, California.
Sundar, S. S. (2004). Loyalty to computer terminals: is it anthropomorphism or consistency? Behaviour & Information Technology, 23(2), 107-118.