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Social Psychology

Asking questions makes you more likeable. It may even score you a date!

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

When I was studying psychology, our statistics professor had a strategy to get people to pay
attention. She would systematically work through the class attendance sheet and quiz students on
the spot in the lecture theatre.

I still remember the first question she asked me: ‘Mr Duck, what does an alpha of .05 mean?’ Don’t
worry, I won’t bore you with the answer 95% of the time (terrible statistics joke).
This was, at first, a most troubling scenario. Most students were content with sitting back in relative
obscurity whilst the lecturer did all the heavy lifting. If you switched off for most of the session that
was ok. It was the university equivalent of workplace presenteeism.

Yet, for some reason, the fear of being drilled on a statistics question at random was enough to have
every student sitting upright. They even seemed to be well prepared before the lecture.

In many presentations, workshops, training and meetings I regularly observe that the room is split
between people who say very little and those who do a lot of talking.

There are probably a few reasons for this:

Lacking purpose
If you are sitting down with a surgeon, you will have some questions lined up. You listen to their
advice. This is because there is a clear purpose to the meeting that motivates you. Meetings in other
workplaces often fail to set a clear purpose. People can sit around for hours discussing issues
without ever getting a real outcome.

If set as a regular meeting, the attendees will soon switch off completely. They will be physically but
not mentally present (presenteeism). They may even start playing with their phone or completely
ignore everyone while they respond to emails on their laptop.


Fear of offending
If you’ve ever watched the show Shark Tank—where would-be entrepreneurs pitch a business deal
to successful entrepreneurs—you’d recall that the hosts of the show are never afraid to put people
on the spot. Time and time again they question the guest on their business model, even if it
means destroying the person’s morale, their enthusiasm and their ideas.

However, in most areas of our working life, we avoid Shark Tank scenarios. Most of us are also
sympathetic when a colleague needs to present or if an entrepreneur is introducing a business idea.
We are always trying to find a balance between getting along with people and having difficult
conversations to improve productivity and quality. As an entrepreneur, you always want to hear the
positive even though constructive feedback is more valuable. Workplaces that value politeness and
harmony over business results can end up with individuals pursuing bad projects and ideas with no


Fear of public speaking
In many instances individuals don’t speak up because they fear any kind of public speaking. When
you ask a question or put forward your idea to a group, you run the risk of looking foolish or ignorant. More often than not you are probably asking the same question everyone else has been
thinking about!

Research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests you may have little to fear
from asking questions. In fact, across several studies, individuals who asked more questions were
perceived by others to be more likeable.

In one study the researchers were even able to measure the question-asking behaviour of people on
speed dates. Individuals who asked more questions were more likely to get a follow-up date.
The researchers suggest that individuals who ask questions are perceived as responsive, which is
associated with listening, validation, understanding and care. Importantly, the researchers found
that individuals typically do not think they are liked if they ask more questions.

For the person on the receiving end, it is a sign that they are at least interested in the ideas you are
presenting. Someone passively nodding in agreement is likely to be a bad sign that the other person
wants the conversation to end quickly.

In a job interview this means that you may be more likely to get the job if you ask questions. At the
same time, you may also learn something from the answer. A win-win for you.

How was this blog? Was it ok? What could I do better?

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!

Guilt makes you take risks

in Work Psychology by

Because the people, processes, systems, structures and culture of workplaces are not perfect we ultimately need to rely on individual responsibility, judgment and decision-making. And to control the individual, organisations often use blame to make employees fall in line.

Take an employee who works on a construction site. They may have the wrong tools to complete the job, poor supervision and unclear direction. If they decide to cut corners many workplaces are quick to focus on their risk-taking behaviour rather than significantly improve the workplace factors that contributed to this poor performance.When they fail to comply more conscientious employees feel guilty. These feelings of guilt should, in theory, lead to employees reflecting on their failures so that they can be more careful and risk-averse in future.

However, studies have shown that feelings of guilt generate more risk-taking. Across several experiments, researchers made participants complete activities that induced these feelings of guilt. Other participants were simply made to feel other emotions, such as sadness.

The participants were then presented with a series of decisions. The guilty participants consistently made riskier decisions than the other group.

The researchers argue that we experience guilt when we believe we had control over the outcome of a situation. For example, guilty participants in one study believed they had much greater control over uncontrollable factors such as the economy.

So, a focus on blaming employees, rather than fixing workplace conditions, could actually be promoting the illusion of control.

How does this ultimately play out? Blaming employees reinforces this illusion of control. Employees continue to believe that their safety and performance are in their own hands.

Employees, therefore, are indirectly encouraged to rely on their own judgment and make decisions on the fly rather than seek help and recommend or make smarter, long-term changes to their working environment.

When a colleague hurts himself or cuts a corner it’s just his fault for failing to take personal responsibility and accountability. The cycle continues.

Imagine if workplaces were strongly encouraged—and even rewarded—for actively looking for long-term and enduring changes to the workplace. What would really happen if there was a ‘no blame’ policy?

Would people revolt and do silly things or would they now have the right mindset to start fixing the workplace?

People are just like me

in Work Psychology by


Why did he get so angry? What makes that person so creative? How did she feel when I said that? Every day our minds try like naïve psychologists to make sense of the behaviour of others.

According to research, we use our own beliefs about our own personal traits to predict the behaviour of others. 

If you are predicting what makes a person creative, for example, you might think, ‘I’m an introvert and idealistic and also happen to be creative!’ So you basically form a belief that idealistic introverts are creative. 

Your predictions about creativity, therefore, are biased by your own ‘scientific’ explanations about yourself and you generalise these theories to make predictions about everyone else. Psychologists call them ‘causal trait theories’.

But are causal trait theories accurate? Perhaps there are lots of extroverts who are realists and are even more creative?

Think of the implications of this research. You might enter into endless debates with someone because you formed fundamentally different beliefs about people. 

You might, for example, believe that anxious people are more dependent in general because you’re laid-back and like your independence. Your colleague may believe that anxious people are more independent because he or she is an anxious person who prefers to work alone.

Both of you, therefore, approach an anxious colleague in different ways based on these theories. You may want to give the anxious person more support. Your colleague may instinctively back off and give them extra breathing room.

So, when making decisions, it might be humbling to realise that we are biased by our own theories about people. 

I’m sure you’ll listen to my advice. After all, I happen to believe that only creative, intelligent, and forward-thinking people read my blog!

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.

If you want to influence someone, dance with them

in Work Psychology by


Have you ever seen the end goal so clearly that you thought you had no choice but to drag everyone along, kicking, screaming and wailing. How did that work for you?

If you are like most people, you probably discovered that trying to force an issue only resulting in pushing people away. According to reactance theory, when our freedom is compromised, our motivation plummets and we try to reassert our autonomy.

But here’s a clever way to influence. Get ready to slap your head with me in disbelief. Research suggests that people are more prone to conform when they syncronise their movement with others.

Think of the uniform marching of a squad, a group of dancers or the coordinated movement of athletes. Think of the years at school where you and your fellow students walked from class to class like robots and greeted the teacher in unison before each class.

When we coordinate with other individuals we adopt a ‘copying others’ mindset. When in this frame of mind, we are more inclusive and agreeable. This means we are also more susceptible to complying with the ideas or demands of others. Are you listening? Right?

What’s important is that people feel like they are choosing, not being forced to get involved. So, you can’t simply coerce or pressure another person and expect to get results.

You might, however, invite a colleague to discuss an idea on a walk around the block. Perhaps this coordinated journey may lead to them agreeing with your point of view?

can you mimic these findings?

in Work Psychology by

If you mimic the actions of someone, they are more likely to cooperate with you. Research has also shown mimicry improves the efficiency of social interactions and can also lead to groups experiencing the same emotions, called ‘emotional contagion’.   Mimicry is an unconscious behaviour and is actually a sign that groups are cohesive. So, perhaps observing acts of mimicry helps assess whether a workplace gets along?


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