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Weinstein, the Nazis and you

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

In the red corner is Harvey Weinstein. Weighing in at over 250 pounds and a net worth of $250 millon. Nominated for over 100 awards, Academy awards winner, with an influence over some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

In the blue corner, every single person in society including: disgusted members of the public, former actors and actresses who knew directly or indirectly of his actions, assistants, victims of abuse, and almost every person in the media.

Each day, the number one story across the globe appears to be Harvey Weinstein. Yet another person comes out to share their experience. And, each day, commentators in the media and important global figureheads frown with disapproval. ‘Why would so many people stand by and let this happen?’ Indeed, if you weren’t confronting Weinstein, you have been dubbed an ‘enabler’.

The reason why the Weinsteins of the world do what they do without fear of retribution is something that has long been studied and understood by social psychologists. And it has to do with an anecdote about Nazis. Yep, our favourite real life and Hollywood villains.

Early studies in social psychology attempted to explain how seemingly normal people could commit atrocities, like the Nazis in World War 2. Were these people truly evil or placed in circumstances that made them do horrible things?

Many are familiar with the Stanley Milgrim experiments where under pressure students would administer seemingly painful electric shocks to other students. Some would do so even to the point of the other student screaming in pain. However, this was all a façade. Nobody was truly in pain. The study was simply examining whether a normal person would follow orders even in the face of cruelty.

Since these early experiments, social psychologists have demonstrated that people behave in peculiar ways when surrounded by others. For example, we are willing to ignore or downplay evidence so that we can maintain harmony with a group—groupthink. Some believe this can lead to catastrophic outcomes when risk is downplayed and overlooked.

Many of our phobias are related to how we are perceived by others. We may fear public speaking even though there is no true physical threat. Job interviews tend to be the more stressful than they should be. The first day of school or a new job are confronting experiences because of the unknown social aspect.

In public, we all instinctively conform to fit in with our surroundings. How many of you feel uncomfortable to hold a phone conversation on the train in the morning when everyone is quiet? How difficult is it to disagree with the majority in a workshop when it may mean slowing down progress or having to debate an issue?

It’s probably not too surprising to social psychologists that Weinstein was able to do what he did. Through his sheer physical size and powerful personality, he could intimidate. But he also has a ridiculous amount of money and influence from his position. If you’ve ever hesitated about speaking up on a workplace issue, then imagine how impossible it would be to challenge the might of Weinstein, surrounded by others who played along.

But, interestingly, research also shows how individuals can overcome intense social pressures. In one study, a participant was asked to judge whether a line was shorter, longer, or the same as another line. If they were placed in a room of people who purposely misjudged the length, the participant would also align their view with the rest of the group. However, if only one person disagreed, it was enough for the participant to feel comfortable to disagree.

Doesn’t this sound like what’s happening now with Weinstein? All it took was a few people to speak out to give others the confidence to do the same.

What we can learn from Weinstein isn’t just a lesson on morals, decency, and corruption. It is also a lesson on how we as individuals can fight the social current in any context and bring out change. You might even find people jumping in to support you.

Ding ding, ding!

Tony Abbott’s onion legacy

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology by



The onion is one of the most cultivated species of the genus ‘Allium’, has been eaten since as early as 5000 BC, and is a rich source of energy and vitamins. We know it as the vegetable that causes us to tear up and use it in some of the most popular dishes on the planet.

It was also devoured, raw, by our former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, on live television much to the horror of Australians.

Now that Abbott has exited as leader, he has been commemorated on twitter with the hashtag #putoutyouronions with photos of onions, mocking the legacy of the former leader.

It’s strange that a man would eat a raw onion like an apple. It’s stranger that we think it’s strange. After all, an onion is just food.

From an early age, we all learn to categorise food. We start with simple categories like ‘yucky’ and ‘yummy’. My daughters have started to differentiate between ‘food’ and ‘treats’ realising that some food is yucky, some is yummy and some foods are something much nicer.

Many of us can probably remember those confronting moments in childhood when we were informed that a tomato is actually a fruit not a vegetable.

Throughout our adult lives, we continue to encounter unusual food habits. Cooks amaze us by combining unusual combinations of ingredients on the plate, such as bacon and maple syrup, and coca cola and chicken.

Chef Heston Blumenthal has made a name for himself by toying with our expectations, such as creating an icecream dessert that looks exactly like a boiled egg . The conflict with our taste buds and head creates an exciting experience.

Egg and toast

Our food categories  and rules for what’s normal are always being re-written and challenged.

These culinary expectations are also reinforced by our cultural experiences. It’s quite common for individuals to eat unusual dishes such as insects in China, Haggis (sheep’s stomach) in Scotland, and Vegemite (yeast extract) in Australia. When you enter these cultures for the first time, you are more likely to accept that these choices aren’t wrong. You just haven’t gotten used to them yet.

However, within our own culture, we can instinctively ostracise and ridicule somebody who steps outside our own cultural norms.

At the heart of this behaviour is our social identity, which is our shared values, behaviours and practices that unify us. When someone departs from this social identity, we can distance them, placing them into an ‘out-group’.

Deviations from norms seems to be especially personal with food. Most of us have been in that situation where we felt obliged to eat more when we weren’t hungry so not to offend the host. We’ve probably all been shunned when we refuse to partake in a meal or try something new.

Of course, in some situations, these norm violations can be endearing rather than shocking. Imagine if Johnny Depp was filmed chomping on an onion during an interview for a movie. No doubt this kind of behaviour might simply reinforce our views about his idiosyncratic personality.

A politician, however, needs to be more cautious with their branding. They need to be conservative and ‘normal’ yet also relatable and interesting. They need to be hardworking and focussed but also shown to be light-hearted and relaxed.

Tony Abbott has always branded himself with strong conservative morals and values. Perhaps munching on an onion was an impulsive moment he wanted to show his lighter side.

Comedian, Ricky Gervais, recently said in an interview, ‘Clowns aren’t funny because they try to make you laugh. An angry man not meaning to be funny, have something happening to him like falling over and it’s always funny.’ Replace the word ‘angry’ with ‘serious’ and it helps explain why Abbott eating the onion is so amusing. It juxtaposes with his usual stoic demeanour or what he is painfully trying to project.

But our fascination with this onion tells us a lot about the observers too. We are quick to ostracise and judge people who divert from norms because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We are also quick to turn on our politicians and mock them.

A psychologist who specialises in eating disorders once explained to me that there are very few things that are more personal that what choose to consume in our bodies. His view was that society’s fascination with what everyone is eating drives a preoccupation with food. What people consume, he argues, is nobody’s business.

In short, it’s probably our unhealthy preoccupation with the onion that’s really the problem.

Better not start with the time former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ate his own earwax…


Facebook may be making you miserable. Like?

in Media Psychology by


Are you a passive user of Facebook? That is someone who likes to read the posts of others and scroll through their photos without much of a comment or ‘like’?

You may think you’re making a statement by not joining in the superficial cyber nonsense, memes and invitations for flattering comments. But research suggests that you may also be making yourself miserable.

Research shows that passive users of Facebook report a decline in their wellbeing after viewing the Facebook pages of their friends.

In one experiment participants were required to view the Facebook pages of their friends but to refrain from actively posting comments (passive users). Another group of participants were instructed to actively post comments (active users).

Participants also rated their wellbeing on an online survey when they returned home in the evening. Interestingly, the passive participants reported a nine per cent decline in their wellbeing.

Active posters did not report a decline.

A follow-up study had participants rate their Facebook use over several days and, again, their feelings of wellbeing at regular intervals. As before, participants who reported more passive daily use of Facebook also reported a decline in wellbeing.

But, importantly, passive participants also reported greater feelings of envy, which appeared to be the main reason they felt flat.

Every day millions of people regularly use Facebook, which may be actively contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction.

It may be tempting to blame the evils of social media but perhaps it merely reinforces some common sense. Being a passive spectator in life may make you miserable.

Please share this blog on Facebook…for the sake of your wellbeing! 

Not another blog about that blue/black dress

in Media Psychology by


It’s not about the dress. It’s about your fundamental views being challenged about the world.People often view the world as if we are ‘observers’ looking at reality. This viewpoint is referred to as ‘realism’. Scientists have discovered time and time again, however, that the observer cannot be disentangled from reality.

In the case of ‘dressgate’, this is a simple demonstration of how there is no true reality. It all depends on the context, including how our brains decide to decode information.

We all know this, of course. When we disagree about the quality of a film or dinner, we are essentially disagreeing about reality. But at the back of our minds, perhaps we are thinking ‘they just don’t understand’ rather than recognising that we are having different perceptual experiences.

Of course ‘dressgate’ is more than just a reality check about reality. It’s also yet another bizarre case study in viral communication. Soon our perception becomes less about the topic of conversation and more about the conversation about the conversation.

Here are some of the key players in viral communication. Which one are you?

The early adopter

This is the first person in your twitter or facebook feed that you see talking about the issue. They are the ones who started the whole thing. Much of the conversation tends to cluster around the early adopter, sucking traffic from the late adopter.

The late adopter

They may only be a few hours late but the late adopter is notorious for throwing up a comment on facebook or twitter well after the topic is starting to wind down. Maybe a few friends will throw a couple of likes in their direction out of pity.

The cynical observer

This person pretends they are above the discourse about triviality. They might throw up a comment about the sad state of society for such superficiality. The more covert cynics will simply like the posts or blogs of other cynics.The interesting thing about the cynic is that through their commentary they are essentially helping to perpetuate the same conversation they are criticising. They fail to realise they are just one of the many varied active participants in the viral communication.


The social media opportunist

This person is always looking for an opportunity to leverage off the social traffic to boost their own twitter, facebook, and website traffic.

The comedian

The whole social media trend is open for humour. The comedian creates memes and other media to mock the discussion and leverage off other trending topics.


The genuinely disconnected

This person misses the social media virus completely by chance or through being cut off from technology. This person is likely your parent or grandparent who still stare at you blankly when you try to explain facebook. But they could be a friend or colleague who heard ‘something’ about the topic but genuinely wasn’t interested in engaging.

The meta-commentator

The meta-commentator likes to summarise the whole network of issues, traffic, and comments and explains how this whole situation came about in the first place. They like to assume a position of all-knowing.The meta-commentator is actually a covert covert cynic and likes to tie their ramblings up in the end with a tongue and cheek reference that shows they too are just an active participant in the whole thing.

And, just for the record, the dress is blue and black.

What you say on social media reveals your personality

in Media Psychology by


It used to be concerns about posting that embarrassing photo or regret over a comment you made that may have unintentionally insulted your best friend. On work-related platforms, like LinkedIn, your posts could impact your reputation. Now navigating the intricacies of social media is going to get even harder.
Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that we can determine an individual’s personality traits by the language they use on these platforms.

Specifically, the researchers examined the written language of 66,732 Facebook users as well as scores on a personality test they had undertaken. The personality test determines whether they are agreeable, conscientious, extraverted, emotional stable, and open to experience.

Individuals who were less conscientious used words such as ‘hate’, ‘why’, and ‘dead’ whilst their conscientious counterparts used words like ‘weekend’, ‘enjoying’, and ‘great’.

Emotionally stable individuals used words such as ‘workout’, ‘game’, and ‘the’. Moody individuals tended to use words like ‘really’, ‘stupid’, and ‘sick’ in their posts. 

These findings are, perhaps, not surprising to psychologists who work in the area of language psychology. It is long been understood that what we say isn’t always as important as how we say it.

For example, research shows that individuals who are depressed are more likely to use ‘I’ than ‘we’. However, after experiencing a shared trauma, such as the death of Princess Diana, the use of the word ‘we’ dramatically increases in media.

When trying to be more polite, individuals use more abstract and ambiguous language than specific and tangible language. For example, when you say ‘shut the door!’, it is more direct and unambiguous than saying, ‘can you shut the door?’.

I wonder if today’s blog says more about me than I want to reveal?

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