Method Acting and the Science of Mindfulness

 Image: Nicolas Armer

Image: Nicolas Armer

The Oscars broadcast happens later this week, which reminds me of a story I once heard about Marlon Brando.

Like many aspiring actors, Brando took acting classes as a teenager. In one class he was directed to play a man sitting on the couch in his apartment and a stranger walks in the front door. Other actors in the class were very nervous—when it was their turn to role-play they either struggled to find something to say or made light of a stranger entering their home. When Brando’s turn came, he reacted differently: he calmly stood up, took the man by his shirt, and pushed him out the door. When the instructor asked, “What are you doing?” Brando replied, “I don’t know who that guy is.”

Brando’s classmates could have come off as nervous or phony for any number of reasons, but it’s clear they weren’t comfortable in a high-pressure situation. Brando, on the other hand, stayed relaxed and acted naturally (i.e., the way most of us would if someone barged into our home without an explanation).

It may seem intuitive that you’ll perform better if you’re not anxious, but how do you stay composed in a stressful situation?

My friend Emma Seppälä has written extensively about the science of health, happiness, and success. In her recent book, The Happiness Track, Dr. Seppälä argues that the old model of getting ahead, which emphasizes that achievement isn't possible without stress, is outdated. She recommends exercises in compassion, creativity, and mindfulness meditation to improve how you handle pressure situations.

Most sources define mindfulness as the intention to be in the here and now, fully engaged in what is happening, without judgment. There is a vast literature on mindfulness, which aims to cultivate greater control of mental processes and create the optimal conditions for the mind to be calm and clear. Finding “fulfillment in the moment,” in the task at hand, Dr. Seppälä argues, leads to happiness. In turn, being happy allows you to “perform better, be more productive, become charismatic, and build better relationships.”  

Mindfulness practice can be difficult at first, but its overall effect on well-being has been proven. In fact, one trial showed that the effects of mindfulness meditation continue even when someone is not meditating. So how do you learn to calm down and not focus on the next thing or the next person? Here are two quick recommendations, one ancient and one modern:

  1. Breath focus: This practice involves breathing in deeply when you find your mind wandering or you feel stressed. When you breathe out, the idea is to push aside negative thoughts. The practice can be done anywhere and is a simple way to deal with anxiety—and it has the added benefit of being the foundation of more advanced mindfulness techniques.
  2. Headspace. This app provides a guided introduction to mindfulness practice in 10-minute sessions. My work centers on digital behavior, so it’s great to see companies like this finding innovative ways to introduce mindfulness to a wide audience. (Note the basic app is free, but a fee is required if you want to continue with the program.) Other good mindfulness apps include Omvana, The Mindfulness App, or Calm, all of which have their advocates.     

There are other ways to cultivate mindfulness too, such as yoga, tai chi, and walking meditation, so if one technique doesn’t appeal to you, explore other options.

For fun, watch the Oscars and evaluate the speeches. Winners are known to ramble or stammer through their acceptance speeches, so it should be easy to identify actors who would have benefited by being better prepared. You might even see some winners consciously compose themselves and use the breath focus technique described above before they begin speaking.

The Health Habits of College Freshman: A Q&A with Sean Young, PhD

1. You’re conducting a research study to determine whether social media can be used to measure and predict health and academic performance among UCLA students 18 to 20 years old. Has this sort of study been done in the past with freshman students?    

To our knowledge, no study like this has ever been done. We’ve also given students wearable fitness and sleep tracking bands to evaluate their sleep and physical activity. A few researchers have published studies that monitored students with wearable trackers, but they did not include a social media component in the their research. We’re pretty excited about the innovation of this study and love coming up with creative new ideas for research.

2. One of your goals is to assess the relationship between writing about behaviors on social media platforms and activity/sleep patterns. What is the one area you expect the students to focus on the most in their social media posts? I would expect both schoolwork and personal relationships to be popular, but are you looking for the study to inspire other types of discussion?

This is exploratory. We definitely have some hypotheses of what students will be talking about and how it may affect their health and academic performance, but overall we’re looking at this study to give us some insights we can use in the future to build models to predict and improve student health and well-being. I think the topics they discuss is perhaps the less interesting question. As you mentioned, they’ll probably be most likely to talk about their schoolwork, job, friends, and hobbies. The more interesting question is how they’ll communicate about these things, what emotions they’ll express, whether we’ll be able to detect these emotions, and whether we can see and predict how they develop relationships over time purely by looking at their public social media data.

3. Since this study involves posting to social media sites, do you worry about the confidentiality of your participants? Also, you require “active postings” to social media sites. What exactly does that mean?

Because this is a pilot study, we need to gather a lot of data. In order to participate, we make sure students are Twitter users who are actively posting so that we can gather data from them. We’re not worried about confidentiality issues because people can change their Twitter settings. In most cases, people choose to have their Twitter handles public so that others can discover and follow them. That means that following someone on Twitter is like overhearing someone talking on the street. It’s all public information. If people don’t want to share something, they don’t have to, or they can go to a private area to share it. Our studies have found that people are growing increasingly comfortable with this concept.

4. With the release of the Apple Watch and other high-end fitness trackers, wristwatches have seen somewhat of a resurgence. However, some audiences still avoid wearables like the plague. Have any of your participants expressed discomfort or other issues with wearables during your studies?

I think it’s strong to say they’ve avoided wearables like the plague. I think they’ve avoided them like they avoided calculator watches, as I’ve compared them to in a previous post, because it’s still unclear whether they’re cool gadgets or whether they can impact people’s lives. The people who participate in our studies tend to be excited about our research and wearing the devices is a big reason why they want to participate. We’ve gotten a lot of athletes who signed up to participate, and many of them have reported back that the devices are helping them track their workouts. I think the next step or iteration is whether and how devices can help people who aren’t already doing things like exercising every day. In a previous post, I gave some examples of how wearables can become more effective at achieving this goal and leading to version 2.0.

5. How do you see your research helping improve the health habits of the first-year university students? And do you see any beneficial effects continuing later into life for these students?

Freshman students undergo a huge change in their lives when they start school. They move away from home, have to make new friends, are exposed to a lot of new experiences, and have to perform well academically compared to a smart group of peers. It can be a very stressful experience. It can lead to academic issues, mental health problems, or even suicide. Typically, it takes a while for university administrators to learn about students having these issues. Sometimes they don’t find out at all. The studies we’re conducting are aimed at developing tools that analyze data from technologies that students are already using in their daily lives, and use those data to predict and improve student health, well-being, and academic performance. We have the support of the university administration and if this approach shows promise, we hope to implement it more widely to help students better adjust to the transition from high school to college.

The Science Behind Addictive Digital Behavior

 From a Facebook post by my friend ,  Stefan Safko, entitled “Millennial Dating."

From a Facebook post by my friend, Stefan Safko, entitled “Millennial Dating."

Over the weekend, I met a young couple taking their son for a hike. The parents walked wordlessly beside one another, each jabbing at a cell phone, as their son toddled behind them. At a stream crossing, the boy veered off trail and fell in the water up to his waist. I watched in amazement as both the mother and father ignored his yelps and started recording video with their phones. Later, after they had plucked their son out of the stream, I overheard the couple get into an argument about how to caption the video for Facebook.

It’s no surprise these parents wanted to share their experience—Facebook users post more than 4.75 billion pieces of content each day—but social media has become so indispensable for some that it clouds judgment and has resulted in technology addiction. How can we get people to use Facebook safely, and more broadly, how do we ensure that social media is used in healthy ways, with moderation?

My undergraduate professor, Matt Lieberman, has shown that humans need to be social. But the amount of time many people spend using digital tools to be social is unhealthy. According to a report by Common Sense Media, teenagers spend an average of 9 hours per day on various screens and tweens spend about 6 hours per day consuming media. For many young children, technology has become the dominant force in their lives, shaping every moment of their day. Adults are far from immune from this compulsive behavior, though. For example, over the past few years several climbers have tweeted or posted video of themselves after summiting Mt. Everest.

In less adventurous settings, this behavior is even more common. Take a look around an elevator, and there will be at least one person incapable of getting through the short ride without fiddling with a phone or tablet. I call this “Restless Elevator Syndrome.” You’ll also see this happening with drivers waiting at red lights, at the family dinner table, and anywhere else people have a few minutes to kill. Like any other addiction, Restless Elevator Syndrome is progressive and can lead to problems at home, work, or school.

In one study of technology addiction, researchers divided preteens into two groups: one group spent five days at a wilderness camp with no access to media, and another group retained its usual media practices for the same amount of time. Both before and after the experiment, the researchers tested how well participants understood emotional expressions. They found that members of the group that had no access to screen-based media showed significant improvement in their ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues. This change to “becoming a social human again” took only 5 days without using a cell phone!

The implications of this study are powerful: face-to-face social interaction, combined with time away from screens, can improve young people’s ability to read emotions. So, how do we apply this finding in the real world? The answer could be as simple as taking a break from tech each week, whether it’s one day or a couple of hours, to interact in person. We shouldn’t completely isolate kids from technology, of course, but the occasional “digital detox” has become a useful tool to help enhance empathy and prevent unhealthy behavior. 

Concern about social media is a hot topic, but I feel it’s also important to mention the huge upside of Facebook and other platforms. For example, our HOPE social media communities have helped change and improve people’s health behaviors in areas like HIV, drug abuse, and mental health. We continue to use these tools to recruit people into health studies, and I am hopeful that as we move out of the honeymoon phase with social media—after all, Facebook just celebrated its 12th birthday—we’ll see people start using the medium with an eye toward moderation.

That said, the issue of technology addiction is not going away. Just like Louis C.K.’s classic standup routine on what happens if parents don’t limit their kids’ tv watching, the same thing can happen with social media if we don’t regulate its use. It’s easy to find any number of scary quotes from young people: “I would rather not eat for a week than get my phone taken away” or “When I get my phone taken away, I feel kind of naked.” In addition to addiction, tweens and teens have to find a way to navigate issues of privacy, bullying, and identity theft, to name just a few. This can be overwhelming for an adult, let alone a teenager. In a future post, I’ll discuss some of these issues as well as the many benefits of Facebook and social media, including how it can foster diversity and leadership.

Political Polarization and "The Blindfold Effect"

 Image courtesy of National Public Radio

Image courtesy of National Public Radio

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. – Donald Trump

The 2016 presidential campaign has been marked by a series of inflammatory, nasty statements. Donald Trump, for example, has become famous for attacking almost everyone. In addition to the statement above about Mexicans, he said this about his rival, Carly Fiorina, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” and this about his fellow Republican, John McCain, “[He’s] not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Here’s another one: “Now, extreme views about women, we expect that from some of the terrorist groups… but it’s a little hard to take from [someone] who wants to be the president of the United States.” That quote isn’t from Trump or another Republican, though; it’s Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s not-so-subtle way of comparing Trump to a terrorist. And Bernie Sanders has said that Trump’s views are “an embarrassment to our country.” So, it’s clear that politically charged, aggressive comments are coming from both Republicans and Democrats.  

This back-and-forth hostility isn’t restricted to politicians: most voters avoid talking about their political views at a dinner party for fear of turning it into a cage match. Why does politics bring out so much hostility in people? More importantly, living in a country that embraces free speech, how do we get people to feel comfortable sharing and listening to different perspectives while keeping an open mind?

My graduate school mentor, Dr. Lee Ross, divided pro-Arab and pro-Israeli people into groups and showed them television footage of a massacre that occurred in Beirut. His research team then asked each group whether they thought the news report was accurate or not, and whether it was biased in favor of either side. Interestingly, participants in both groups thought the footage and commentators were biased in favor of the opposing side. This idea, which Dr. Ross calls the hostile media phenomenon, has become a valuable tool in understanding why conflicts exist between groups and how to help resolve them.

The participants in Dr. Ross’ study felt they were viewing the footage objectively, something he refers to as “naive realism.” Naive realism explains why people with different political views refuse to listen to each other: both sides feel they’re right and that people who don't share their views must be biased, irrational, or stupid.

Arguably, this concept extends to how we consume political commentary. It’s common for liberal media outlets like The Huffington Post to link to and cite other liberal sources, and the same holds true for conservative outlets like the Drudge Report. The coverage of these media giants strengthens the hostile media phenomenon by inciting bias (i.e., people continue to hear the side of the story they already believe). This helps explain why people with different views can become so polarized, and how their discussions can turn ugly so quickly.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. It extends to many areas where people have differing viewpoints, whether it’s sports, religion, or avoiding gluten-free food. I refer to this tendency to refuse to consider other people’s perspectives as “The Blindfold Effect.” This phrase refers to the classic Indian story of a group of blind men who describe an elephant after touching it. The catch is, each of them touches a different part of the animal. One man touches the trunk and describes an elephant as an animal entirely composed of a long scaly trunk, while another man touches the tusk and describes an elephant as being smooth and sharp. Each man’s description of the elephant is right, of course, but it’s also wrong because they have limited information. They refuse to listen to what the other men have to say about the elephant because they are certain that their perspective is correct.

In the same way, people think their political views are correct, even though they primarily are open to views from only one source (e.g., Fox News or MSNBC). Because of people’s blindfolds, they learn to ignore, and sometimes mock or despise, opinions from the other side.

To combat the bias that comes from reading news, watching television programming, and talking with others who share likeminded ideas, remember one simple trick: before making a judgment, put yourself into the shoes of “the other.” This can be as simple as pretending that you’re having a debate where you represent the opposition. Ultimately, your opinion might not change, but you will get some insight into why others support a candidate who might seem dishonest or, well, crazy.

Of course, preventing The Blindfold Effect isn’t as simple as considering the other side’s perspective, but there is an increasing body of research showing that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can reduce conflict and increase positive political discourse. But I’ll save that research for a future post…

Avoiding “Throat Tickle Avalanche”: The Psychology of Getting People to Visit the Doctor

Last week, Hillary Clinton said the following about the Affordable Care Act (ACA): “We finally have a path to universal healthcare… I don’t want to see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the ACA and improve it.” We need a few more years to evaluate the effectiveness of the ACA, but one thing is for sure: nearly 17 million people gained healthcare coverage over the past few years. However, will people actually use their new healthcare plan?

A classic RAND study showed that people were more willing to go to the doctor if they didn’t have to pay for it. More recently, a survey showed that two out of three Americans choose not to see their primary care provider even when they have a health concern. These studies point to one thing: the ACA can only be effective if people go to see their doctor.

How, then, do we get people to seek medical advice?

In one study by Peter Ditto, a professor with the University of California, Irvine, participants were presented with a description of a fake medical condition called “TAA deficiency.” The researchers used a coated test paper that supposedly changed color in response to the absence of TAA in saliva. Study participants who were identified as being deficient in TAA were told they were at risk for developing pancreatic disorders later in life.

Consistent with past findings, participants who received unhealthy results rated their diagnosis as less accurate. Also, people who received bad news took longer to decide whether the results were complete and were more likely to request a retest. Dr. Ditto argues that people have a motivational bias that causes them to examine information consistent with a preferred outcome less critically than information that is inconsistent with a preferred outcome.  

In the context of health and medicine, I call this denial “Throat Tickle Avalanche.” Most of us have experienced the ominous throat tickle that occurs just before a full-blown sickness. When we feel that initial throat tickle, it’s easy to believe that it's due to something we ate or our allergies acting up (despite it being the middle of January with no pollen or other allergens in sight). We don’t want to get sick and have to miss work or spend the weekend in bed, so we convince ourselves that we’re fine. But that’s when the avalanche of sickness begins.

Take chest pains. Every year, a large number of people experience chest pain but they deny the possibility that anything is wrong and do not see their doctor. The effect of Throat Tickle Avalanche is a prime reason why one out of every four Americans dies of heart disease.   

One way to combat this effect is to make people more aware of their biases. Most people aren’t aware that they deny the truth about medical information and risk. In fact, people who experience pain are motivated to ignore their symptoms and often seek confirmation that they are, in fact, healthy. 

The advent of the Internet has made it incredibly easy to make a favorable “self-diagnosis.” In addition to the fact that a lot of online medical information can be misleading or inaccurate, Dr. Ditto’s work shows that people are biased to think everything is ok even when something may be seriously wrong. By understanding this fundamental feature of human psychology — that people are wired to view their health in an overly favorable manner — we can design tools and systems that ensure the success of the ACA.  

So, the next time you feel a tickle in your throat, pain in your chest, or some other discomfort, keep in mind how Throat Tickle Avalanche may affect your decisions. Healthcare coverage is only effective when you’re willing to have an open, honest exchange with your doctor.

The Science Behind Turning Words Into Action

Countless writers will quote Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech this week. Dr. King’s uplifting words helped pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and inspired a worldwide movement for racial equality. By anyone’s standards, Dr. King was a master at using words to create social change.

We all want our words to inspire people to take action, whether you’re a consultant trying to help people stick to their New Year’s resolutions, a manager trying to get employees to show up on time, or a parent trying to get their kids to do homework.

While there are lot of places where we can find words that will inspire people, like motivational speeches, self-help books, and “lifehacking” websites, most people don’t act on those inspiring words after hearing them. So, how do you know if your message will get people to take action?

Take landing a new client. Imagine upper management is counting on you to develop a knockout presentation that will get a client to join your firm. You pour through websites and videos trying to find the right inspiring content to sway the client, but how do you know whether your presentation will seal the deal?

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) examines how people process communications like the “I Have a Dream” speech or other persuasive messages to get people to change. Advertising, marketing, and other sales fields rely on it heavily, but the model is useful in practically any context.

The ELM teaches us that persuasive messages follow one of two routes. If a message is clear and relevant, it is identified as taking the central route to persuasion. For example, political activists would probably process a speech on voting behavior through the central route because they already care about the topic. People who receive messages through the central route are more likely to embrace an idea or product and their behavior will be relatively easy to predict. The second path to persuasion, the peripheral route, is followed when someone has little or no interest in your message, or doesn’t understand it.  People aren’t thinking much when they process messages through the peripheral route so they use cues like body language, cultural context, and listener’s mood to get a feeling about whether they should change their attitude or behavior.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the ELM is that people are more likely to stick with beliefs formed through the central route and abandon their beliefs if they were processed through the peripheral route. This means that you should try to make your message relevant to people if you want them to change, but there are other tools you can use to motivate them even if they aren’t immediately interested in what you have to say.

Keep a simple rule of thumb in mind: focus on the central route if you feel the listener will respond best to logic, statistics, and case histories. Focus on the peripheral route if you think the listener will respond best to positive images/words or emotional pleas, and be sure to frontload your pitch to account for limited attention spans!

Dr. King’s speeches are a perfect example of how the ELM can be used to motivate and influence people. He crafted his talking points to focus on topics that were important to people and used his tone, body language, and charisma to gain support from people who might not have cared about his ideas. When you hear his words being remembered on this holiday, take a lesson from him on how to turn speech into action.

Non-violent direct action seeks to create…a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored... I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, and there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Sean Young, PhD, Addresses Human Trafficking

Bound Wrists.jpg

1. National Human Trafficking Awareness day is observed on January 11. As a behavioral scientist working with digital and mobile technologies, how do you see social media helping to monitor and predict human trafficking?

Let me start by saying that I’m not an expert in human trafficking. My expertise is in joining psychology and technology to change and predict real-world problems. We typically partner with experts in different areas to make sure that the solutions we come up with will actually be useful to experts in an area like human trafficking.

Take your question on social media. The low-hanging fruit in social media for human trafficking is in using it to change people. We’ve done a lot of work on how our HOPE intervention can be applied to change people’s behaviors. In the context of human trafficking, this model could be applied in a large number of areas like disclosure, prevention of trafficking, and therapeutic treatment and community support. For example, a HOPE-style group could be implemented for victims to talk about how they’ve been affected and how to overcome stigma around disclosure, which could help prevent or mitigate some post-traumatic effects.

Social media could also address human trafficking through its data. People tend to share anything and everything on social media, as we’ve shown in studies at the UC Institute for Prediction Technology. We can find out all kinds of information about people, their psychology, and their motives based on what they share.

Social media is therefore a monitoring tool that can and should be used in public health organizations. How can this tool be used to solve human trafficking issues? We can mine social data to learn people’s real-time views about trafficking, identify people who may have been victims of human trafficking, and even identify or predict hot spots where human trafficking is about to occur.

2. There are multiple agencies working to dismantle trafficking networks and help survivors rebuild their lives. How does your work fit in with that of NGOs and/or the government in addressing the needs of at-risk populations (e.g., drug users)?

Our research has shown that stigma prevents people from seeking help for things, whether those people are people suffering from anxiety and depression, people at risk for HIV who should get tested, or human trafficking survivors who need help to rebuild their lives. We’ve also discovered a way that helps people overcome this stigma, or discomfort, and seek help.

Survivors of traumatic events like human trafficking need to have peer support for a healthy recovery. Peer support can help them overcome fears that they are alone, can give them a road map for treatment, and can give them optimism that things will get better with time.

3. It’s a common misconception that human trafficking is restricted to developing or war-torn countries. How do we empower young people in resource-flush settings like the United States to speak out if they get involved in a trafficking situation?

There are so many ways that people, regardless of their age, can get involved in causes and improving society. Young people are particularly knowledgeable about new technologies and can use these as tools for solving important global issues. For example, I teach a class at UCLA on how to build low-cost technologies to solve important global health problems and reduce poverty. Students come to class with passion in areas like human trafficking, and a dream to address problems in different areas of the world. Together, we show them that very quickly, for example within 24 hours through a hack-a-thon, they can be part of a team that builds technologies that will address those real-world problems. Some of the students have focused on sex trafficking in India or Southeast Asia and building low-cost technologies like mobile apps that can monitor social data to prevent sex trafficking before it occurs. We then show the students how they can continue to work on these technologies and partner with press and local or global organizations to implement their solution.

4. What is the best way to implement a support community for victims? Also, please address whether support communities should be self-governed or provided by an agency.

Support communities don't function well unless they start with people who are already engaged. Just like marketers have learned the importance of gaining “early adopters” of technologies, support communities for victims need to have people who are willing to use the community and play an active role as soon as it emerges. In our Project HOPE study, we spend a lot of time finding the right attributes of these early supporters to make sure they have the mindset needed to stick with things. Getting early supporters to stay involved in the community and not drop out or lose interest is crucial for building the community and motivating others. We make sure that the right people are selected and that they have sufficient training to accomplish this goal.

After identifying and training early supporters, it’s important to keep them motivated and engaged, as they will keep the community going. We establish a lot of contact with supporters in order to keep them motivated and excited about how they are helping others. Over time, in about 12 weeks we’ve found, an organic community will have been built fro scratch. People will happily and willingly volunteer to become leaders to help other victims within the community. We’ve found in our work that these communities continue to grow stronger over time. People continue to find support and improved health from these communities years later.

Focus on CES: The Science Behind How to Brand Products


It’s that time of year again: tech companies have set up shop at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to spotlight their new devices. CES is incredibly popular—more than 175,000 people attended in 2015. 

Hot products such as drones and virtual reality devices are getting major exposure at CES, so there’s no arguing the show is a powerful springboard for breakthrough products. Some companies spend vast amounts on branding initiatives for devices launched at the show, only to see them quickly fail or never make it to market. This raises the question: does branding really matter when it comes to whether a new product succeeds? 

Consider Tesla’s entry-level car, the Model S. If we define branding as a constellation of feelings associated with a product, Tesla gets an A+ for its efforts. All of the core ideas associated with branding—a clear, consistent message; energy and attitude; a visible, passionate ambassador—are present. In turn, the company has been incredibly successful in its relatively brief existence. However, it’s more common to hear words like “mission” and “purpose” when Tesla is mentioned, terms not commonly associated with a brand.  Tesla seems to have the ability to appeal to people who care about its branding as a premium or green tech company as well as those who aren’t concerned about the brand but feel its cars have great utility. 

Consumers have either a fixed or growth mindset. Consumers with a fixed mindset seek to reinforce their own positive self-image (e.g., people who consider themselves environmentalists buy green products) while those with a growth mindset don’t care about the brand as much as finding products that will help them learn new things or improve themselves. This simple framing device is useful to consider at the beginning of the product development phase, as mindset helps to answer the most basic question about a product: who is it for?   

One study found that women with a fixed mindset perceived themselves to be better looking and more glamorous when using a Victoria's Secret shopping bag versus a plain bag. In another study by the same research team, students with a fixed mindset rated themselves as more intelligent and hardworking after using an MIT-branded pen versus an unbranded pen. The underlying idea is that people with a fixed mindset use brands to reflect who they are. On the other hand, people identified as having a growth mindset are more keyed into the idea of “process”—they see themselves as incomplete and capable of change. In short, a person with a growth mindset is more interested in how a product will improve his or her life. 

Mindsets are increasingly being seen as an important way to understand behavior. They influence what products people are drawn to and which messages they find the most persuasive. Returning to the example of the Model S, it may be that Tesla is so successful because its cars appeal to both mindsets. That is, the car is a luxury product, thus reinforcing the validation needs of the fixed mindset, but it also has a very strong appeal for those with a growth mindset—that’s where concepts of sustainability, innovation, and “mission” come into play. 

Whether you’re a well-established business, a startup in search of funding, or an entrepreneur looking to popularize a website, knowing the mindset of your audience can help shape what product you develop and how it finds its way to the world. Moreover, this knowledge gives designers, engineers, and marketers a shared way to strategize, and can help determine how much funding should be devoted to branding.

With a clear vision and an understanding of your target audience (and a little bit of luck), even the most outlandish product has a chance to succeed.

Overcoming "the Politician Effect": How to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick

Here’s an interesting finding: one third of online donations are made in the month of December and 22% of all gifts occur in the last two days of the year. This end-of-the-year donation rush happens because of New Year’s resolutions to do social good, tax breaks, and most importantly, because people want to help others. Yet, when asked whether they’re only giving because it’s the end of the year, most people say they’ll continue donating throughout the year. Why don’t people follow through with their resolutions to keep giving to charity? And this isn’t just a phenomenon that relates to charity - people don’t follow through with their New Year’s resolution’s to exercise and a ton of other things. So, how can you help people to stick with things they say they want to do?

A common response is that you can’t get people to follow through with things: some people follow through, others don’t.  Those who don’t follow through with their promises are just unmotivated or hypocrites. 

Take education. Students often write to me asking to get involved with our research. They schedule to meet with me, express their enthusiasm, and tell me they want to learn how to build technologies that get people to be heathier, predict disease outbreaks, or predict and stop cyberbullying. But when a project director assigns them something to complete, some of these students suddenly disappear. They stop responding to emails, stop showing up to meetings, and seem like they aren’t interested. What flakes or hypocrites, right? Not necessarily.

Social psychological research on attitude-behavior consistency explains that people are more likely to follow through with things they say that are specific, rather than general. For example, in a study on organ donation, people were asked whether they think positively or negatively about organ donation and then given a form allowing them to register to donate their organs. Surprisingly, the people who said they supported it weren’t that much more likely to register to donate than those were not supportive. However, people were also asked more specifically whether they would be willing to donate. Compared to those who said they weren’t likely to donate, those who said they were willing to donate were much more likely to actually donate.

This “Politician Effect,” as I call it, explains how people can appear like they aren’t following through with their plans when it might be because the communication was too vague. It can explain why some students in the scenario above don’t follow through with their plans of being involved in our research projects. Although they said they were generally interested, they might not have said they were interested in completing a specific project.

The lesson is, asking people the right questions, and communicating with the right words, can sometimes make the difference between a person seeming like a hypocrite or a saint. It can also mean the difference between them following through with their resolutions in the New Year and beyond. While it’s true that sometimes people don’t follow through with things even when they’re clearly described, we find that overcoming the Politician Effect helps a lot more people to follow through with their plans. For other strategies we’ve found on how to get people to keep doing things, look here.

Whether you’re an organization looking to get donors beyond the end-of-year donation rush, a teacher or manager helping students or employees to follow through on their education, or a friend trying to help another friend stick with their New Year’s resolution to be healthier, think about the Politician Effect. You’ll be more likely to help people follow through with their goals if you help them plan goals that are specific and use precise words. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

From Houston to Hanukkah: The Psychological Benefits of New Experiences

Last week, after finishing a presentation at the National HIV Prevention Conference, I took a cross-country flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles (via Houston). After boarding the plane, I found my seat next to a middle-aged woman. To be courteous, I introduced myself to her. In a distinct Southern drawl, she told me her name was Laura and that she was flying home to Houston to spend Christmas with her family.

I nodded and began to arrange my carry-on items. I started a mental review of what had transpired at the conference: who I’d met, whether my presentation was successful, and what I had to do when I arrived home.

"Do you live in Houston?” Laura asked.

“No,” I said, welcoming the break in silence to learn about her life. I explained that I was returning from a meeting and was anxious to get home after a busy schedule of traveling the past few weeks.

“I understand,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the holidays to relax with my family. I planned to use this flight to do some Christmas shopping. Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”

 “Well, I’m Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah,” I said. “So luckily, I’m already done with most of my shopping.”

“Oh,” she said. She opened her laptop, paused, and said, “That’s great. I know someone who’s Jewish.”

I laughed. “On behalf of our people, I hope he or she didn’t disappoint you,” I joked.     

Despite our apparent differences, we wound up talking throughout the flight—about her transition from an accountant to an event planner, my work as a behavioral scientist, and about life in Los Angeles vs. Houston. I realized that by the end of the two-hour flight we knew a lot about each other’s lives and beliefs. “You have to see the rodeo in the spring,” she said as we touched down in Houston. Before heading out, she handed me a piece of paper with her email address and phone number. “Come visit during March. My husband and I would love to show you a real Texas rodeo,” she said, with a wink and genuine warmth.

On the second leg of my trip, I thought a lot about Laura. Before meeting her, I would have thought we’d have little to talk about, no common ground. Her views and daily life were way out of alignment with my own, yet getting to know her turned out to be one of the highlights of my short trip.

Research has shown that we prefer to associate with people who think like we do. This tendency, known as confirmation bias, is the behavior of seeking or interpreting ideas in a way that favors personal beliefs. Finding ways to understand confirmation bias is a major feature of the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Dr. Haidt focuses on the world of politics, but his underlying theme is that relationships shouldn’t simply be about trying to sway or inform people. Rather, every relationship offers the opportunity to learn a new perspective—something I always try to keep in mind.

Being open to a conversation with a stranger on a plane (or on your local street corner) won’t cure the world’s ills, but it’s a start at uniting people from different backgrounds and cultures, and it might lead to a new friendship—or even the opportunity to attend a rodeo.

Sean Young, PhD, Reports Back from CDC HIV Conference on New Year's Resolutions

1. As a psychologist and researcher, what are the hardest New Years Resolutions for you to stick to?  Do you find that professional goals are easier to achieve than personal goals?

I wouldn't say the difficulty is broken down by professional goals vs personal ones. The great thing about psychology is that it doesn't care about domain. It doesn't care whether people are making resolutions to change business goals, health goals, relationship goals, or any other goals. What matters is the context of those goals, within the person, their surrounding, and their experience. That's a bit vague so I'll be more concrete.

The hardest New Years Resolutions to stick to are ones that require the biggest change in lifestyle to keep. If something is really tough to change, it will be tough to keep. If it's easy to change, it will be easier to keep. Take dieting as a resolution. My undergrad professor, Traci Mann, has done a lot of research and shown that diets don't work. Aside from biological reasons in people's genetics, most diets fail because they're diets, or big immediate changes in people's behaviors. They have been eating unhealthy food for a long time and decide that because it's the New Year, they'll have the ability to instantly change the way they eat. Most New Years Resolutions fail for the same reason. People want to instantly change something that has been part of their lifestyle for weeks, months, or years.

So the bad news is, New Years Resolutions need to be kept in perspective with how people have been living. If a person walks 50 steps a day, making a resolution to walk 10,000 steps a day won't last. The good news is, that there are ways to keep resolutions. People just need to keep them in perspective and make resolutions that are manageable. There are a lot of other ways to help keep on track based on our research. Some of these I mentioned in last week's Q and A, like the science of social. 

2. After attending the CDC's recent HIV prevention conference in Atlanta, do you find yourself shifting your own priorities to align with the research community as a whole?

I've realized I've been a researcher my whole life. It started long before my research assistant days at UCLA or doctoral work at Stanford. It started as a child as I loved learning about things and how they work. One of the most important things that I keep learning is that I need to always keep an open mind. I need to always listen to other people's ideas and perspective, no matter how crazy people might think they are, because I learn from them and it helps to guide my research. That's a broad answer to your question. The straight answer is, definitely. I'm constantly rethinking studies, research, and my own assumptions based on what I learn from the research community as well as everyone else. I learned a lot about people's perceptions of PREP at the HIV prevention conference in Atlanta and have been thinking about how technologies can be incorporated into Prep education and behavior change.

3. What are the main takeaways that you got from the CDC conference?  Where will HIV prevention be at this point in 2016?

The main takeaways is that although there is still a lot of work to do to reduce the spread of HIV, we've been getting some answers. Really importantly, we've been having support for controversial approaches from top officials, like the NIH director support use of Prep. For me, as a technology researcher wanting to find ways to predict, prevent, and change HIV risk, the main takeaways is that there is so much opportunity for tools to be used in this space. Researchers are very open to these tools but don't have the time to be aware of them. Because innovation and tech tools seem to always be at the forefront of how HIV is spread, we need to use that innovation to prevent and stop the spread of HIV. I'm excited that our team has the ability to do that and we're getting a great response from people all over the world who want to work with us and apply our research.

4. What steps can clinicians, families and societies take to remove the stigma from both HIV prevention pills and HIV testing?

Stigma is the belief that a person or thing is unwanted, disgraced, or or shameful. It can lead to a lot of negative consequences. When people are stigmatized they feel badly about themselves, they can lose their friends and family, their jobs, and can have worse health. When things are stigmatized, like getting an HIV test, it makes people to not want to do them. We've done a lot of studies on how stigma works and how it stops people from taking care of their health. (One of those studies you might like involved telling students they were at risk for a disease, and learning they they more or less convinced themselves they couldn't have contracted a disease if it was stigmatized).

Stigma is caused by lack of knowledge, lack of discussion, and lack of normalcy. The way to reduce or get rid of stigma is to educate people, make them aware of how stigma works, and make them see the stigmatized person or thing is common. For example, HIV testing is stigmatized. Just showing up to an HIV testing site could make people stigmatized. They could be judged by others in the clinic, by their doctors, by people seeing them getting tested. They could be judged as being "the type of people" who have HIV. To reduce this stigma, we can do things like talking about testing more, getting people to test more, and making testing more public so that people can see how many people test for HIV and that people from all ages, races/ethnic groups, and educational statuses test for HIV. That's great that so many people test, and it needs to be made more public. We found that stigma could be reduced by making the stigmatized thing (for example, testing) required. We also found that offering it in traditional settings like in vending machines may reduce stigma and get more people to test for HIV. 

5. What steps can Grindr, Tinder, and other online dating websites take to help prevent HIV?

These are dating/hook-up businesses and so they're less interested in preventing HIV than in their business, so I wouldn't expect them to make any major changes to help prevent HIV. Some of them are concerned about losing users if they try to promote HIV testing as they don't want to be branded as a public health site or place that is trying to get people to do anything other than find dating or hook-up partners. That being said, there are a few things they can do that could help prevent the spread of HIV and shouldn't negatively impact their business. First, they can be open to HIV researchers. Second, they can offer a feature that allows people to say if they have gotten an HIV test. Third, these sites and researchers can begin sharing data with each other to mutually find how to make their users safer and healthier.

Black Friday Discussion with Sean Young, PhD

1.  We are in the middle of the 2015 holiday season.  Are there findings in your research that help people stick to a New Year's Resolution?

Yes, there’s a lot of recent psychology research, from our own group and others, that studies why people don't keep doing things and what can be done to help people keep doing things they want to do, like New Years resolutions.  People plan to go the gym the first week of New Years and they're good at following through with that. Gyms are packed with people the first couple of weeks of January. Gyms are selling new memberships and getting people back who haven't been in a while. But what happens after a few weeks? The gym empties out. People stop exercising. They've already lost their follow-through and it’s not even February. 

How do you get people to keep their resolutions, whether it's going to the gym, keeping a healthy diet, or stopping procrastination? This is a lengthy topic so I'll focus on one piece of advice that we've learned through our research. It's called the science of social.

People are motivated by others. They want to conform to what others are doing, get excited when others are doing the same things they are, and try their best to fit in. This can lead to unwanted consequences like people bullying others, or people have polarized political views, but it can also lead to good things like helping people to keep healthy. We've had great success with the science of social through things like our HOPE online communities, which have gotten people to keep healthier behaviors. The HOPE communities harness the science of social by having peer role models guide and motivate people to change their behavior. How can people apply this research to keep their own New Years resolutions? They can join in-person or online communities with others who have similar resolutions. They can also make a pact with friends or neighbors and keep each other accountable for sticking to their resolutions. There are a lot of other ways that we've discovered that can be tailored to people's individual needs, but harnessing the science of social is an easy and surefire way to help everyone keep their resolutions longer.
2. Many parents probably have the same New Year's resolution - getting their kids to do their homework each day.  Are there steps or a process that you can delineate for this?

Psychology is something that's pretty unique to people. It’s based on things like people’s place of birth, cultural and religious background, current location, and their education and income. For that reason, I try to get to know as much as possible about the person or people I’m working with in order to craft a strategy that is uniquely fit for their psychology. That being said, there are still some really good general pieces of advice based on research that parents can use to get their kids to do their homework everyday.

One thing that can be very effective is to have a schedule. Kids want to have boundaries set for them. Creating a schedule for them is one way to do this. By putting aside a block of time each day that the child knows is “homework time,” parents can create a habit and get children expecting that they have to do their homework each day. That expectation is important as it sets the boundaries for kids. When kids have a different schedule each day, for example, soccer practice from 3-5pm one day but then the next day they have the ability to choose what they want to do from 3-5pm, they learn that they can choose to do what they want and don't learn to build a habit. If you want to build a habit around having kids do their homework, pick a time each day for them to do their homework, block off that time on a calendar or schedule that they'll see each day, and have some way of verifying and checking off that they did their homework that day as planned. Another thing that parents can do is to be role models for the kids and set a block of time for themselves to do work at the same time as their kids. For example, when kids seeing their parents reading books, they’ll be more likely to read, but if they see their parents watching television, then that’s what they’ll think they can get away with doing instead of homework. Finally, it's always important to reward kids for good behavior using positive reinforcement methods.

3. Most people struggle with finding a balance between enjoying holiday meals and controlling their weight.  Can you provide a strategy for how to get oneself to stick to a nutrition plan?

A week or two of holiday meals isn't usually the problem for people who want to eat healthier. That’s because people don’t usually eat healthily for a week or two and then continue eating healthily without trying. Similarly, a week or two of unhealthy eating doesn’t mean that people will automatically keep eating unhealthily. That's good and bad news. It’s good news if you already have a healthy routine, bad news if you don't. It means that finding that balance between healthy eating and holiday meals starts long before the holiday. It means that people need to create the right environment to get them to build a health lifestyle. One of the simplest and most concrete things that people can do to eat healthily is to stop buying unhealthy foods. Research studies have found that employees who sit near unhealthy foods (for example, a lot of workplaces have a vending machine area or a table where cakes and goodies sit) are more likely to be overweight than people who sit farther from this area. It's a pretty simple principle. Although people strive for willpower and motivation to eat healthier, the real secret is to stay away from things that are unhealthy. That will make it easier for people to stick to nutrition plans.
4. With January 1 around the corner, many companies will be adding new employees. Is there any advice you can provide to a small business CEO on how to onboard new employees?

Psychologists have done a lot of research on social norms, or on the ways that people expect they should act from watching others. When you start a new job, you don't know how you're supposed to act. You look to your coworkers and supervisors to learn how to behave. Take dress style. A lot of people start a new job with formal dress clothes like slacks and a tie. But after a few days, they might see that most people are wearing jeans. That reinforces a social norm that employees don't need to wear a tie and that jeans are okay. The interesting thing is, you don't need a large group of people to set that social norm. If only a handful of people are wearing jeans, it already gives new employees the idea that they can test out wearing jeans at the workplace, and if no one says there is a problem with this, then they’ll continue to wear jeans. This is an important principle for onboarding new employees. It means uniformity among employees is very important and that social and cultural norms in the workplace need to be established immediately.

5. Since we're discussing small business CEO's, how can we take your research and extrapolate principles for making products more engaging?  Are there specific steps or tips that you can share?

The social norms piece is also important in making new products more engaging. If product designers can let new users know that their product is one that the rest of the world thinks is engaging then they’ll be off to a great start in creating an engaging product. Take the onboarding example above. Imagine you’re creating a mobile app to onboard new employees. You’ll need to test it extensively beforehand to ensure that new users think that other users understand the platform, are excited to use it, and are actively engaged. You can use timestamps of recent activity to your advantage by letting new users see that people are frequently and actively engaged. But how do you get enough active users to start this process? We’ve given a step-by-step approach for how to build organic online communities as one example of how to do this. Features like these help to reinforce social norms and make products more engaging.
6. As a behavioral psychologist, looking at Black Friday and Cyber-Monday, what ideas can you share on how to incorporate psychological principles into marketing and sales?  What principles do you think are already being used in products that people might be buying now?
Some sites are doing a great job of using psychology and behavioral economics to increase product purchases. Take flash or lightning sales. These sales give the appearance of scarcity and make people think they have to purchase a product immediately to avoid losing the sale. This isn’t new to Cyber Monday sales though. Think about other product promotions that only sell to the first 50 customers. These are designed to get people into the storefront knowing that they’ll sign up for an email list or buy other products, even if these other products aren’t heavily discounted.

Another thing that companies appear to do is to heavily market a small number of big discount items and use that to lure people into thinking all of the items are heavily discounted. They might say that a pair of shoes is 50% off the retail value, but those shoes might normally be the same price, 50% of the retail value. When the company shows customers those shoes after showing them a pair of jeans that really are 25% off their normal value, then it makes customers think that they should scoop in and quickly buy the shoes that are 50% off, even though they are always 50% off. The moral is, Black Friday and Cyber Monday can bring some great deals, but you’ve got to do your homework and avoid the psychological tricks if you want to get those deals.
What I’ve discussed above are marketing tricks that people can use to get customers into their stores. But if you really want a sustainable business of engaged and dedicated customers, then it’s important to reward your customers and make them feel they are getting good deals even after they purchase. Having high quality products is obviously one way to do that. Building an engaged social community like we discussed above it another way to do that. Pairing positive marketing with good customer experiences is the best way to get customers engaged.

Dr. Sean Young Discusses Ingestibles

 Endoscopy pill, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Endoscopy pill, courtesy of Wikipedia.

1. What future do you see for implantable and ingestible devices?  Is healthcare going to be the main driver or do you see other applications as well?

Implantable and ingestible devices have an exciting future ahead. People want easy ways to solve problems. We know that pills are popular because of that reason. Taking a pill is one of the easiest ways for people to address medical problems and it has revolutionized health behavior and the healthcare business. Ingestible devices will have a similar path, especially as sensors for tracking getting better and people get more comfortable using them.   I think one of the most exciting potential advances in this area will be in medication adherence. Only about 50% of people adhere to their prescribed medication regimens, and this leads to huge health care consequences in deaths and billions of dollars spent that could be used if people were more adherent. Researchers currently struggle with knowing whether people are taking their medications. For example, large clinical trials test whether new medications are effective in reducing disease. Those studies assume that people are taking their medications. They assume that if the drug doesn't prevent and reduce disease that it's because the drug didn't work. But often, it's because people didn't take the medication. This means that a lot of money is being spent on testing drugs and that these drugs appear to not be working, but not because they aren't helpful, but because people aren't taking them.

There are already devices being tested that could monitor whether people are taking medications. There are sensors that can detect when a drug has been ingested. These devices can be used to notify doctors and other people making healthcare decisions with the patient. There are a lot of potential ethical issues with these devices. For example, if lack of adherence to medication causes so many deaths and costs so much money, and if we had the ability to track who was adhering to their medication, then might their be penalties for people who didn't adhere to their prescribed medication?  These types of questions need to be studied and make ingestible devices an exciting area in the future where we need to understand the costs and benefits of these technologies.

Your question also asked about whether these devices would only be used in healthcare. Yes, healthcare is the main driver for these devices right now in order to diagnose and treat disease. But other application areas exist too and are growing. For example, the ingestible pills I mentioned are also being used in areas of cybersecurity

2. You recently tweeted a meeting to discuss ingestibles with Intel.  What contributions are they making in this field?

Intel is a sponsor for the University of California, Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT). We met to discuss our current collaborations, like our Freshman200 study where we attempt to predict student health and well being, and a study we are doing to test how Intel/Basis bands compare to standard tools for measuring fitness and sleep. We also discussed future ideas within wearables, but I unfortunately can not go into the details of those discussions right now.

3. Do you think ingestibles are going to be more accurate at detection human bodily functions and behavior than external devices?  Or are they designed for people who are to lazy to wear wearables?

Ingestibles can add another data point. They can supplement, not replace, existing ways that we detect human behavior and disease. We currently have health care providers talk to patients, have patients complete surveys and answer questions, and have devices like pill counts to measure behavior. But valid, objective measures of behavior are really important to help people make decisions. When doctors ask their patients if they are taking their medications, patients often don't give an accurate response. This is not necessarily because they are lying, but there are a lot of other reasons like they can't remember or there is stigma associated with taking the medicine. By having sensors that can accurately and objectively know whether or not a person took medication, exercised, or stuck to their nutrition routine, we can learn a lot about how to help people. These tools provide another layer of data that can be used to guide decisions about people's health care and other behaviors. And yes, although they're not designed for people who are too lazy, by making something easier to use will make everyone more likely to use it. Cars weren't designed for people who don't want to walk, but they make it much easier for us to get around to place quickly.

4. How would you personally feel about an electronic device traveling in your body?  As a psychologist, can you imagine follow up counseling that would be needed to ensure the success or acceptance of medical applications of such devices?

This gets back to the interesting ethical questions that come with these devices. I discussed the ethical questions associated with technologies in the New York Times piece that was published earlier this month. We've done a lot of research on people's ethical views about technologies. If people think the benefits outweigh the risks, if the technology and people recommending it are intending it will do good, and if people are aware of the risks, then it is generally considered ethical to use. Personally, I wouldn't want a device like that traveling through my body until I had read studies about the long-term effects of us or unless I was told it was necessary for my health and well being.

5. Do you perceive technology as an enabler of public health or as a menace? Certainly your research proves we can easily collect huge amounts of health data.  On the other hand, one could argue that all this convenience leaves a chasm - less urgency in changing ourselves or our environments.

I try to avoid the question of whether or not technology is beneficial for public health, because it's unavoidable. People will continue to build technologies and if these are helpful to people then they'll use them. I see good technologies as tools that can help make things easier for people to do things. These tools can be used for good or bad means, these can be enablers of public health or they can be used as a barriers to public health and well being. When the telephone first came out, as with almost any big technology, people were scared that it would negatively impact our society. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. But it definitely made it easier for people to communicate. Technologies aren't going away but they are making it easier for people to do things. As a psychologist I see my role is to see how I can help people use them for things that will improve their lives and work and make the world a better place.

6. If you could design any implantable device to treat the conditions of digital behavior highlighted in your research, what would it be?  

I'd like to not have to sit at a computer and type. I like to walk while I think. I've tried audio and transcription software to talk while I walk, but this doesn't work as transcription software makes mistakes when detecting language. If something could read from my brain and transcribe that would be a lot more accurate...

Dr. Sean Young Report from NIH BD2K All Hands Grantee Event

1. What were your biggest take-aways from the BD2K All Hands Grantee event at the NIH?

The meeting focused a lot on data science approaches like creating new machine learning models. One researcher (Dr. Jiawei Han) who leads an expert group out of UI Urbana-Champaign had a poster showing some impressive new methods for data analysis methods. People were definitely interested in our approaches for social data also as they see the importance of data from new media being used to predict events and be used to solve real-world problems. I think the biggest take-away is that the "big data" area isn't going away anytime soon. The government and companies are putting a lot of resources behind studying this area and see huge potential in how it can change our life and work. It's always exciting being a part of an early movement where there is excitement and a lot of promise. Now that researchers know we have support, it's up to us to deliver on that promise.

2. Have you had specific feedback from the NIH on treating social media in a "serious," epidemiological research area? Did you find others at the BD2K event who are open to your ideas?

People are very open to the idea. Timing is great. I've been studying this area for over 10 years and it's actually the first time where almost everyone understands my research. That might sound crazy, but it's actually pretty common for researchers to be working on things that no one else understands, especially if it's related to technology. But people who used to question whether social media and technologies were a fad now so the tremendous amount of data from these technologies. They understand the area we're studying at a high level and when we show them specific examples of the things people say on twitter, or how people use wearable devices, they really get it. They understand our research, the potential of what we're building and studying, and how it can impact society. It's exciting to be able to share this with people.

3. Are there new or upcoming types of data that you would like to include in your research, that only the NIH can give you access to?

I have a call this morning with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They're really interested in having us modeling ways to monitor and predict disease. They'll be supplying datasets of disease across the country. We're also looking into game forum datasets from people who play and are interested in video games. We have a lot of data stored and ready to go for analysis.

4. If you could explain the value of BD2K grants to a layman, how would you put it?  What kind of return on investment has there been?

Science is based on math and statistics, but statistics are dependent on data. If enough data aren't available, then the statistics won't mean anything. I was walking my dog the other day and she decided to do one of her infamous "i'm done walking" tricks where she drops to the ground in the middle of the walk and won't move. She's scared of the sound of trashtrucks, and whenever a trashtruck comes by she drops and tries to take cover. A woman saw me, crossed the street, and told me the fact that my dog was doing that means she has bad joints and I need to get her to the vet immediately. When I asked her why she said that, she explained to me that her 10 year old dog does this and has bad joints. She surmised that my dog must have bad joints too. She didn't seem willing to listen to the old correlation is not causation argument.

The point is, people often come to incorrect conclusions because they don't have enough data. A vet would be less likely to have made the conclusion the woman did about my dog, not because vets are smarter or even because they have studied this, but because they see many more of these cases and therefore have a lot more data points to know when dogs drop to the ground because they're scared and when they do it because they're injured. The area of "big data" promises to give us a lot more data in order to analyze trends and outcomes and have more accuracy in our conclusions. There's a huge opportunity for a return on investment in this area. It not only allows us to be more accurate, but as in our work, it provides us with the ability to predict events we couldn't have predicted before. That means the ability for huge social returns like preventing disease and reducing poverty, and financial returns like predicting the stock market and finding the right audience of customers who want to buy products.

5. During the event I noticed you live Tweeting.  Did the use of social media change the way that you and your fellow researchers interact at an NIH event?

Most NIH researchers, or scientists in general, aren't big on tweeting. Most researchers are interested in doing their work and leave it up to others who may want to get their work out to the public. I find it tough to tweet and learn and that same time but I try because I think it's important to let the world know about what is happening in the science, tech, and public health community and I enjoy interacting with them about it.

6. A lot of the researchers at the BD2K event were focused on genomics and phenotype data collection.  Do we need to import terminology like genotype and phenotype into the study of social media to gain more understanding from the research community?  Are those terms already being used?

Genomics is a big area of study among big data researchers for a few reasons, but the most important reason is that we have a LOT of genome data. In order to do big data research, we need a lot of data, so researchers interested in this area often gravitate toward genomics. A lot of the advanced learning models are built on genomics data. When we work with a researcher like our own Professor Wei Wang, an expert in data mining, she has expertise in genomics data. She brings that language with her to our work. I therefore think it's unavoidable when working with experts in big data to not use language often used in genomics research. That's a good thing because it's gives a common language that people can use, but social data are different than genomics data, so we'll need to develop our own variation of the language over time.

7. What kind of improvements or additions would you like to see added to next years BD2K All Hands Grantee event?

The point of the meeting was to encourage cross-collaboration and talking between different groups and researchers. Doing multi-disciplinary work is something that universities and government always talk about and encourage, but they don't usually provide incentives for doing it. For example, researchers are supposed to publish their research, but most of the top journals are focused on one area, for example, cardiology or social psychology, and the researchers reviewing the science for those journals don't usually have interest or experience in other areas. That means that researchers doing interdisciplinary work have a tougher time getting their work respected and known. The big data area is designed to be interdisciplinary. Next year's meeting could really move forward by creating incentives for researchers to publish interdisciplinary work, like dedicated top journals and funding for projects that bring together experts from different fields to solve important problems.

FAQ with Sean Young, PhD

1. What was the "aha" moment where you decided that behavior prediction technology was the path you would dedicate yourself to?  Was there something you read or witnessed or experienced?

To clarify — I’m answering your question about my interest in behavior “prediction” technology, but my general interest in psychology and technologies came before this when I was at Stanford and working at NASA)

It was actually a multi-year 'aha' moment. I think all of my ‘aha’ moments come from my interest in doing things that most people think is crazy, weird, or not possible. If my pursuit leads to something valuable, it sparks an ‘aha’ moment. For example, my friend Gopal was working at Cisco and pulled me to work with him on a project called "mind map, or using technologies to map how humans think.

It was an ambitious project and so we started small looking at whether we could use data to predict anything about people. This was back in 2006 or 2007 when Facebook was growing and we could use Facebook book data for the study. I started keeping spreadsheets of my friends on Facebook to learn when they changed their profiles and explore why. I would document, by hand, when they changed anything, like when they added where they were going to school, removed an interest in football from their profile and replaced it by saying were interested in baseball instead, or changed their relationship status from single to "it's complicated." I'd call up my friends and ask them why they changed these  things. People had mixed reactions when I asked them. Most of my close friends understood me and chalked it up to me being inquisitive and weird. Some of my friends thought it was funny that I was doing this, and others thought it was creepy. (Little did they know that within a few years this would be commonplace-- there would be companies creating robots to monitor almost every action they took in life. At the time, behavioral targeting (or the ads you see targeted towards you when you’re online were terrible—guys with lives that revolved around playing fantasy sports would be shown ads for getting maternal eggs harvested. Ads are now a lot more accurate because they use these types of data to understand people) From this work, we ultimately published a pretty interesting paper on how to read behind the lines of what it really means when people change their relationship status. This was one of the first papers I know using social data to predict things.

At the same time, I was studying how to use technologies to prevent the spread of HIV. We were building online communities based on behavior change science, through an approach we called Harnessing Online Peer Education (HOPE). HOPE had people at risk for HIV join our online communities. (Since those initial studies we found that the HOPE approach has been pretty successful. In multiple studies in different groups across the world, we’ve seen HOPE get people engaged in long-term behavior change that sticks.) But we found something interesting happening. People were invited to private HOPE online community groups but immediately were sharing really personal information to strangers in the group, like what is was like being a married man who has sex with other men without telling his wife, or types of illegal drugs people were using. If people were instantly sharing such personal information with strangers through our HOPE communities, then perhaps they were also doing it on sites that were more public, like Twitter. The advantage to searching here was that Twitter provides access to a ton of their data, so we would be able to study “big data.” As I dug into the data, I was shocked at what people shared. There were a lot of people who had thought that social media was a pointless fad, a way for people and businesses to self-promote, and that it had no potential for social good. As I looked through the data, I thought I was finding a gold mine for advancing research in a ton of areas. Not to mention I was really excited because I wouldn’t be able to do 1/10th of the work on my own. I’d need to rejoin with my engineering friends I missed from graduate school and get their help. And I’d be able to learn a lot along the way about how people in different fields do research.

2. I can see from your research work on HIV that Twitter has played a critical role in your ability to predict the spread of disease.  Can this be applied to influenza and less extreme cases, or is there something specific about HIV on social media that made those results possible?

Twitter and other social media can definitely be applied to influenza and other areas. In fact, it’s easier to apply it to those areas. As long as people feel comfortable and free using social technologies, then theoretically we should be able to use data from these technologies to predict almost anything. The limiting factor is whether we have what is called “gold standard data,” or data on actual events occurring (like cases where people have contracted HIV or influenza), as well as the frequency of getting those data. For example, influenza data are provided frequently, every week I think. That makes it much easier to create models to predict influenza compared to something like HIV, where national data on HIV cases are released about 2 years after they occur. That means that there’s huge value if we can predict HIV. It’s 2015 right now and we won’t know until well into 2016 or 2017 how many HIV cases occurred. If we can use social data to predict that number a little earlier it could have a huge impact on people’s health, it could reduce disease, save money, and prolong people’s lives.

3. Is there some fundamental truth about social media that lends itself to public health?  For example, 30 years ago, if I dedicated myself to hooking up with an anonymous stranger for unprotected sex, I might scribble my phone number on a bathroom stall at a rest stop gas station.  If Sean Young, PhD existed as an HIV prevention advocate in the early 1980's, would you be calling up gas station owners for frequent reports on the latest bathroom stall graffiti?

That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say there is a fundamental truth about social media or social data. As a psychologist, I would say that everything that people do leaves a trace of their psychology. The trick is knowing how to interpret what they do and read between the lines to know what it means. Not everyone would write on a bathroom wall, and of the people that would, they would only do it in certain times and contexts. (I’ll save people from my bathroom humor by not describing when some of those times would be). Social media is no different. There isn’t anything unique about us being able to get data on people’s behaviors from social media that we couldn’t get from other places. The point is that there is sooooo much data—for example 500 million tweets a day --- that it’s easy to analyze the data. Researchers want as much data as possible to confirm their hypotheses. Because there’s so much social data it gives us the ability to test and refine hypotheses about why people do things and how we can use this information to predict and solve real-world problems.

4. If you could have a face to face with the CTO of Twitter and request some changes to their technology that would improve health outcomes and prevent disasters, what would they be?

Ha ha. You’re touching on some things I used to think about from a social entrepreneurial perspective back in the day, like building a Twitter designed to get people working together to solve important global issues. Twitter’s most recent earnings call shows they’re having some major business problems with an uncertain future so I’d let Jack off the hook and let him figure out what to do with Twitter first. After that, I’d ask him whether he’d be willing to help with an effort to bring together companies with large amounts of data like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Google, to have them provide access to public health researchers. Then he’d probably laugh and never talk to me again. 

5. What clues do human beings leave on social media that they are about to hurt themselves or others?  Are there some big flashing signs that society is missing and should be educated about?

There’s no quick answer for this. Psychologists know you have to observe people over time to understand their patterns. Clinicians can look for certain signs like people not making consistent eye contact to know something might be wrong. There are ways of translating this to social media. But the clearest example would be the college student in October 2014 who talked on Twitter about his fear and disgust about his own and other people’s lives. A month later he killed 3 students and then took his own life.

6. Looking at what's trending on social media now, including my own, is there a glaring prediction for some coming cataclysmic event that you can share with me?

A big drop in the stock market.

7. Has there ever been a moment, working with predictive technology, that you have felt compelled to have someone committed to psychiatric care or call the police to warn of a crime?

No. So far we’ve been working at a population level, or looking at large groups of people to learn about their patterns. More recently, we’re studying individuals and so it’s likely I’d get those moments in the future. There’s still an interesting ethical question about whether and when people should act on those insights and actually intervene.

8. You work in the Family Medicine Department at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.  How can physicians and therapists use social media to gain greater insight into their patients?  Do you foresee Twitter feeds becoming a diagnostic data type formally integrated into electronic health records?

While these questions are focused primarily on Twitter, there’s a lot more than Twitter that can be used to provide predictive information to help in areas like public health and medicine. Other forms of social media, like Instagram, as well as wearable device data and search data all provides insights about behavior too. The department and the health system as a whole is already interested in applying some of our research. For example, the health system has asked me to be involved in integrating social data with medical records data to learn how we can have a more complete picture of patient health. Also, we’ve built a technology platform used to change patient behavior that is being tested on UCLA patients to improve their health. We’ll be able to use the data from studies and technologies like that to better understand patient needs, increase patient engagement/retention, and improve delivery of care. 

9. From a theoretical perspective, is there anything in the work of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler or the other pioneers of psychology that prepared you for your research?  Is there anything that you find yourself returning to philosophically?

I remember an early psychology course I took in grad school at Stanford. The professor began the class by saying, this is a psychology class and so many of you might think of Freud. Almost everything that we’ll study has already been mentioned in some way by Freud. But there’s no basis for most of ideas. He wasn’t a scientist. That’s why there are barely any psychologists who still practice Freudian psychoanalysis or teach his theories. We use science to study our ideas and so this will be the last mention you’ll hear of Freud in this class.

As a social and behavioral psychologist, most of my theories come from classic psychologists like Kurt Lewin, Leon Festinger, Stanley Milgram, and Daniel Kahneman/Amos Tversky; my graduate school mentors like Lee Ross, Benoit Monin, Albert Bandura, Claude Steele, and Bob Zajonc; and friends and colleagues like Danny Oppenheimer, Dave Nussbaum, Jonah Berger, Chris Bryan, and Hal Hirschfield

10. Are you planning future studies that incorporate Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp or other social media technologies?

We’re in conversations like that right now and so I’m not sure what the companies would allow me to divulge at this point, but the short answer is yes.

I Need a Research Coordinator to Assist My Efforts in Prediction Technology

Looking for a rewarding career in cutting edge technology and big data analytics? The UC Institute for Prediction Technology bridges together researchers across University of California campuses to study how social data from social media, wearable devices, and online technologies can be used to predict real-world events in areas like health and medicine, politics, crime, education, and finance. While our work is broadly focused, most of our day-to-day work is with the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior where we study technologies for health and medicine. Under the direction of the Principal Investigator, the Research Coordinator will be responsible for day-to-day operations of assigned research projects and writing briefs related to research. Organize and monitor research activities, monitor students and volunteers, and maintain study files. Ensure timelines are met. Conduct community outreach efforts. The Research Coordinator will also conduct statistical analyses on the current and future research projects, and write up the research results into manuscripts, briefs, and grant applications.

The ideal candidate will be extremely organized and detail-oriented. Must have a minimum of a Bachelor's Degree and greater than 2 years of research and/or work experience. Demonstrated knowledge and skill in current and emerging internet and social media platforms.

To successfully address these tasks on time, the Project Coordinator must have a broad set of intelligence, be extremely diligent and task-oriented, and an efficient worker. Excellent writing skills required.

Job Qualifications

This position will require the ability to conduct and manage behavioral and clinical research under the direction of the PI, complete tasks according to direction and on time, work with community partners to promote and further research goals, ability to sensitively work with and talk to research participants, ability to conduct statistical analysis (e.g., regression analysis, mixed-effect models), and write up statistical and research results into a completed manuscript. Preferred: Experience or interest in technologies, social media, and website design.

Searching for a Senior Community Health Program Representative at UCLA

Searching for a Senior Community Health Program Representative at UCLA

Please apply for this position at

CES 2015: 5 Products Designed to Change Digital Behavior

As an academic scientist working at the intersection of psychology, technology, health, and business, I get to check out a lot of technology products while they're being developed. One of the most exciting times of the year is when new tech products get unveiled to the public. For many companies, this happens at a giant technology conference in Las Vegas called the Consumer Electronic Show (CES).

CES is more than halfway done at this point, so I wanted to give an update on some of the exciting products being displayed this year. As most of you know, our interest is in digital behavior or, how and why people use technologies. Products in this space make it easier for people do things like keeping healthy or keeping in touch with others. They also help people to predict things that will happen in the future in life and work, like devices that learn how to give recommendations on how to improve work productivity. There are a lot of products related to digital behavior, from wearable trackers that help people exercise (like Fitbit and Jawbone), work-related devices to improve task management, and big data-based technologies that create data-based insights to improve people's lives and work.

Here's a list of 5 new technologies in this area being showcased at CES this year:

  1. TempTraq: Want to be able to monitor a baby's temperature? This device can do it. TempTraq is a digital thermometer that senses a baby temperature and sends alerts when needed. They are currently seeking FDA-approval to use it as a medical device. It's not yet available for sale but they plan to release it soon.
  2. Misfit Swarovski Collection: I've written about the difficulties in getting people to keep using wearables and how our research can address this. Misfit is looking to address this by making devices look more fashionable. They've paired up with Swarovski so that trackers are not only giving you information about what you do, they're also making people look good.
  3. Myris: Entering usernames and passwords for security checks can get tiring. Myris promises to make it easier with this device. With a quick look at their eye scanning security device, they can validate a person's identity like MI6 in Bond movies.
  4. Panasonic Smart Mirror: This classic electronics company has created a "smart mirror" that can show people what they would like to see in the future. For people who aren't sure what make-up to get or glasses to buy, this mirror can show you what you'd like without having to put them on first. It also recommends things for you based on your face. It might be a while before this device can be purchased, but it's interesting to see where devices are headed in influencing behavior.
  5. AmpStrip: If you're an athlete looking to monitor your vitals and improve your workouts, AmpStrip is a new product by Fitlinxx that is looking to help you. It's packed with a bunch of sensors like ECG and an accelerometer to measure heart rate, movement, and sleep. Typically heart rate sensors are more accurate if they're worn over the chest, but this can be uncomfortable and awkward. AmpStrip is a little strip that goes on your body that's marketed as having accurate heart rate readings and can be worn 24/7.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying these are the best products at CES or ones that i'm recommending. I bring them up for you because I think they're interesting examples of how technology companies are thinking about the future of digital behavior and how to impact people's lives using technologies. Enjoy the rest of the conference!

What is the Future for Wearable Fitness Devices?

When I was in 3rd grade, I got a calculator watch. It was awesome. I was already on my way to being a nerd by having this black plastic wristwatch that allowed me to add, subtract, multiply and divide using the tiny buttons. A bunch of my friends had them too. It was actually cool to have a calculator watch because it was a new gadget that kids wanted. But then something happened.

 Jawbone Up.

Jawbone Up.

The idea of the watch got old. While it was cool having those little buttons to do math, I actually didn't need to do math all that often. And the little buttons didn't make it easy for me to do math anyway. It was easier to use a real calculator. So I stopped wearing the calculator watch. And so did the other kids in my school who had one.

 Basis Band

Basis Band

Wearable devices, like Fitbits, Basis Bands, and Jawbones, aren't that different from the calculator watch right now. They have a lot of potential, but they haven't yet reach that potential. They're cool gadgets, but that's about it. And that's why people stop using them within a few months of getting them. What can be done so that people keep wearing them?

They can be made more useful. They can incorporate the science of how to change behavior.

 Fitbit Wearable Devices.

Fitbit Wearable Devices.

Psychologists have come a long way in understanding how to change human behavior. We started by studying habits in rats and cats 100 years ago, to studying social groups, and more recently how the brain and people’s social networks affect them.

Right now wearable devices track behavior. Many even incorporate gamification. But they're still in the early stages because they aren't yet tailored for what people need to change behavior.

Wearable fitness devices have tremendous potential to make people healthier, save healthcare costs, and make health easier. But to do that, the devices need to be useful. They need to be built using advancements in behavior change science, like the science of social.