What Inspires You? A Q&A with Sean Young, PhD

Image courtesy of  Lynwood Lord

Image courtesy of Lynwood Lord

Who were the instructors or mentors that made the biggest difference in your life?

My mentors have shaped my life so much. I guess I should start with my parents, who encouraged me to pursue any area of work that I wanted. They taught me that I need to satisfy my basic living needs of having a roof over my head, but after that all I need is to pursue what makes me happy. That if I really went after what I wanted I'd be successful enough, and more importantly, I'd be happy. I have my music teachers, like Roberto Miranda, my bass instructor at UCLA, who taught me to live in the moment and listen to things around me. My psychology professors in college like Traci Mann and Matt Lieberman taught me that I was a bigger nerd than I thought I was, by inspiring me so much that I would show up at their office hours every week just to talk to them and learn. I had graduate school advisors who accepted me to Stanford and then taught me that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was, that there are really brilliant people out there and that it's humbling being a researcher as you have to be wrong a lot. I've also been inspired by friends in the tech and business world who have helped me see a vision of how technology and psychology is the future of the world. Finally, I think I'm constantly guided by a mentor I never met, my mom's father, but I frequently hear stories about how he would have loved to see me playing music and working in medicine as he put himself through medical school by being a concert violinist.

I really think that who I am in life is less about what I've done and more about how others have shaped me, whether they were my ancestors who died before I was born to help me, or my mentors who shaped my life while I've been alive. But I guess that just proves I’m a social psychologist.

What book made the biggest impact on you? Also, are there any science writers or authors in general who you look to to inspire the public about developments in technology or psychology?

I think more than books, the thousands of psychology research papers I have read have really made a difference in my life. They taught me that the way I used to see the world was actually an area of study. They also taught me that people are much more similar to each other and much more connected than I would have thought. They taught me to be open to people and optimistic about society because we're all in it together and experiencing similar things.

Off the top of my head, the first influential book that comes to mind is
Market Wizards. That may be because I'm odd (that book has probably never been named in a top-10 list of influential books), or maybe it means I don't read books enough, but the other part is that I think it is really fascinating and influential. It's a book of interviews with some of the top hedge fund managers and traders. It's not just interesting for the advice they give on finance, but it's extremely rich in psychology. People are extremely emotional when it comes to losing money and these market wizards have mastered that psychology. They explain their processes and paths, with many ups and downs, and I realized that the same principles could be applied far beyond trading, to mastering psychology and emotions throughout all parts of life.

You graduated from Stanford, so I’m wondering if you’ve been inspired by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley? Also, the Los Angeles area has its own technological boomtown in Santa Monica, which has embraced the nickname “Silicon Beach.” Do you see an opportunity to work with start-up companies in Santa Monica?

I’ve always cared about making sure my work applies to the real world. One way I've done this is to keep one foot rooted in the start-up community. For example, last week, I gave a presentation at the Seoul Forum in Korea (click here for video). At the beginning of the talk, I gave an example of a company I worked with at Stanford that got started when we were all students. The company took research I had done in psychology and incorporated it into a healthcare product. I was involved in a number of start-ups in grad school, throwing myself into every new experience I could find. Some examples were a rating system for assisted living facilities, a sports betting app, and a way to connect healthcare workers across the world to people in areas that experienced disasters like earthquakes.

When I moved to L.A., there wasn’t yet much of a start-up scene so I had to pull friends from the Bay Area to work with me, but over the past few years the L.A. start-up has gotten really hot. Some of the start-ups I’ve been involved with in L.A. have been one on creating an online health community, a prediction market that can be used to predict sports, music, and political events, and my own automated stock trading method to predict moves in the market. I haven't had much time where I can lead a start-up, so lately I've spent more time advising companies. I currently advise five companies that are primarily in the health and technology space.

School districts are competing to see who can install the most up-to-date technology and online learning tools. Do you see tech educational aids as a universal good for students, or have you heard of instances where they hinder learning?

I think technologies are just tools that can make things more efficient and able to reach a lot of people. They can be used for good or bad. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can lead to bad things, like people bullying each other, but they can also lead to good things, like getting people to be healthier when social media is paired with the HOPE intervention. I think the situation is the same for education. If used correctly, tech aids can improve education and inspire students. We were recently asked by a large funder to modify the HOPE intervention to improve teaching methods among teachers. I believe tools like HOPE that allow people to become educated all across the world at the same time can be really valuable in our educational system.

If you could make a 30-second speech to the entire world, what would you say?

If I could address the entire world, I'd rather do it in a song than a speech!

Vaccines and Evidence-Based Medicine: A Q&A with Sean Young, PhD

Researchers have discredited studies that link autism to vaccines, yet it remains a topic of concern for some parents, particularly among the affluent. What’s your take on why this remains an enduring issue in the news?

It’s easy to find associations between things. Sometimes those associations are true, sometimes they aren’t. For example, a classic example is the association between eating ice cream and death by drowning. Someone could look at that link and say that eating ice cream causes drowning, but that would obviously be false. The real reason for the link is that people eat ice cream on hot days, and they also go swimming on hot days. When it’s hot, you find more people eating ice cream and drowning, but it’s not that ice cream causes drowning, it’s that both happen together on hot days. A common expression you’ll hear in cases like this is “correlation does not imply causation.” That is, having two things happen together doesn’t mean one thing necessarily caused the other.

How does this relate to autism? People have seen an increase in autism and they are scared, and they’ve also seen an increase in vaccinations during roughly the same time period in the late 20th century. Some people see these associations and start making claims that vaccines cause autism, but science doesn’t back up those claims. But it’s a compelling argument because it’s built a base among educated, affluent people who are scared their kids will get autism. When people are fearful, it’s hard to use science or facts to convince them that their fears are unfounded – people’s fear, rather than science, takes precedence. Problems that elicit fear and other strong emotions make good news because people will pay attention.

Have you used social media to help people understand the benefits of adhering to a vaccination schedule or general medication schedule?

We haven’t done anything around using social media to change people’s perceptions of the link between vaccines and autism or other health problems. I have, however, talked in a previous post about how data can be used to understand and predict events. Because people readily share their views about vaccines, we could apply similar methods to mine social media data about vaccines and use that to predict whether people support vaccines and how this support would affect vaccination rates and disease outbreaks.

Despite advances in understanding both HIV and the human immune system, a fully successful vaccine to treat HIV is still not available. Do you have hope that one might still be developed, or do you feel other preventative therapies such as PrEP are as far as we’ll go?

I have hope, but I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this question. One current approach is to use genetics/genomics approaches to change genes and target HIV susceptible and infected cells.

Do you agree with doctors who have implemented a policy of only treating children who have been immunized according to the American Academy of Pediatrics schedule? And more generally, what do you see as the core behaviors/belief systems that might cause people to not have their infant vaccinated?

As a scientist, I trust that science is the current best approach, whether it’s science recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics or other organizations. All that matters to me is whether it’s good science, as opposed to poor science like the correlation relationship I described above. Science might not always prove to be right, as new results emerge and testing methods change, but at any given time I trust that scientific approaches are best. Rather than focus on what causes people to not have their infants vaccinated, I prefer to focus on what is working and leverage that science. We know that social norms have a tremendous affect on what people do, and that extends to vaccines. By creating a social norm that encourages people to vaccinate their kids, such as by using the HOPE social media model, I think we can make major changes in vaccination rates and reduce the spread of diseases caused by lack of vaccination.

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.