I almost spun myself down a rabbit hole this week when I searched for a popular media article to reflect on. I tend to be curious so I kept clicking on articles (on Science Daily) and skimming through them to see what might be interesting.
Eventually I figuratively smacked myself in the face and decided to decide on one article. I thought a bit about some of your interests (behavioral research students). I decided to seek out an article on a topic I knew a little less about but that many of you expressed interest in – research related to social media use. I chose to read a bit more about this topic so I would be prepared to guide anyone interested in developing a study related to social media.
Comparing forms of media and information
The ScienceDaily article called “Talk about yourself on social media? New study reveals brain network for sharing self-related information on Facebook” summarized research conducted by Meshi et al. (2016). The ScienceDaily article briefly described the findings by the researchers, namely, that greater levels of self-disclosure on Facebook correlate with brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and precuneus. The “pop” science article did a nice job detailing the number of participants in the study (N=35), describing the primary measures (Self-Related Sharing Scale and resting-state fMRI), and the general findings. They also put the research into context: Facebook is a huge social media platform and understanding the characteristics of individuals who are more likely to disclose information about themselves on these platforms can inform future research.
One qualm I almost always have with pop science articles (and sometimes with peer-reviewed articles) relates to the language that’s used to describe the findings. More specifically, I often see vocabulary that implies a cause-effect relationship or overstates the findings. To be honest, I’m guilty of overstating results myself. It’s challenging to reel in your excitement or to describe something in an interesting way without over-interpreting the data. In this case, the title is the culprit: “New study reveals brain network for sharing self-related information on Facebook.” This implies that this network is FOR self-disclosure. However, the network is actually involved in a broad range of behaviors and mental activity. In fact, the network of midline regions is involved in self-referential cognition (thinking about yourself) more broadly. So perhaps a more accurate interpretation would be…. “Greater activity in brain networks related to self-referential processing predict self-disclosures on Facebook.” Words like relate or predict imply correlation, which is more accurate in this case.
I also read the peer-reviewed article referred to in the ScienceDaily post. Meshi et al. (2016) provide more context to motivate their research study. For example, self-disclosure is an important social behavior, and when done appropriately, sharing information about yourself can benefit your mental health and social relationships. They also describe the “cognitive process model” as a mechanism for how humans decide to share information about themselves. This model suggests that we weigh positive/negative aspects of sharing information while keeping self-relevant information in working memory. This was interesting to me, because, as a professor, I think about how to effectively use self-disclosure to increase student interest and motivation. Appropriately using self-disclosure in the college classroom can be tricky, because I simultaneously want to maintain a professional relationship with students and not reveal too much personal information about myself that could compromise that relationship.
The authors hypothesized that functional connectivity (i.e., co-activation of brain regions that are spatially distant) with brain regions associated with self-referential processing would be greater among individuals who report greater self-related sharing. Their results were generally consistent with their hypothesis. Brain regions related to self-referential processing (medial prefrontal cortex & precuneus) were functionally connected to brain regions related to working memory/social cognition (e.g., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) AND the degree of functional connectivity predicted self-disclosure (i.e., more co-activation of these brain regions relates to more self-disclosure).
While I was reading the article, I did have to look up some jargon that I wasn’t entirely familiar with. For example, the term “mentalizing” was familiar to me… but I didn’t feel like I could define it or give an example of it to another person, so I looked up what this mean (it refers to how we make sense of our self/others, for example, by imagining mental states of others).
After reading these articles, I listened to SYSK podcast episode on narcissism which I thought was loosely related to the idea of self-disclosure. For example, narcissism involves deficits in self processing and interpersonal functioning. Self-disclosure requires both self-referential thinking and mentalizing, therefore we could think of narcissism as a personality trait that may relate to poorly executed self-disclosure (or lack thereof). Of note, the podcast definitely was less specific (referring to things like “the cerebral cortex” rather than a specific brain area) than either of the two forms of written media. Also, the hosts often speculated and provided their own conjecture and opinion on the topic of narcissism, which could be misinterpreted as fact/evidence by an audience less well informed about psychological research.
Taken together, each form of media carries its own pros and cons. For example, the podcast and pop science articles are easier to digest and provide a nice background on research that is more accessible. This is great for pre-research and preliminary research as you (BR students) are figuring out what direction you want to go for your research studies. These forms of media can provide some of the vocabulary that will help you conduct a more effective literature search. However, as suggested above, popular media tend to overly simplify concepts and often overstate findings. The individuals writing about or discussing the science in popular media are not experts in the given field – they are journalists who are interpreting science.
The primary literature (empirical, peer-reviewed studies) provide more context and detail. For example, the empirical article on self-disclosure provided me the theoretical background that helps motivate their hypotheses. I also read the exact questionnaire they used to measure self-disclosure (which is a surrogate for actual self-disclosure – an important detail in interpreting their results). Of course, wading through scholarly articles can be challenging – especially reading the results section (and sometimes the methods section depending on the research). The degree of technical jargon can make reading these article daunting and exhausting at times. But this is a skill you will develop over time, with practice. Remember, you should not expect to understand everything after a quick read through an empirical article.
In other words, popular media are great starting points that provide a quick snapshot of “what” you might want to study. These forms of information can often generate more enthusiasm for a topic because they tend to be easier to understand and relate to. The peer-reviewed empirical research articles go beyond just telling me “what” and provide a more extensive why and how. This will be especially important moving forward. A theoretical stance will help you generate a hypothesis and careful reading of methods section will help you develop your own research study.
Research Ideas Based on Reading
Finally, after reading these articles and listening to the podcast I was thinking of how we could study social media using a college-aged sample with relatively limited resources. This made me think of mind wandering, which is often studied in relation to self referential processing and the default mode network. Behaviorally, researchers use vigilance tasks like the Sustained Attention to Response task, which requires participants to do a really boring task. For example, they might see numbers presented one at a time and be asked to respond by pressing the spacebar except when they see the letter 3 (the target). In these types of tasks, the target is presented very infrequently. This is a type of Go-Nogo task. A similar task (which is on psytoolkit) is the Mackworth clock task. Mind wandering is measured by errors of commission (e.g., pressing spacebar when 3 appears – a false alarm).
In one study, the researchers induced positive, negative, or neutral moods and found participants were more likely to experience lapses in attention to the task (presumably because of mind wandering) when in a negative mood (Smallwood et al., 2009). It might be interesting to examine whether individuals high on self-disclosure are more/less susceptible to the effect of mood on mind wandering. In other words, it might be interesting to examine whether the relationship between self-disclosure and mind wandering differs depending on mood.
Testing out measures
Based on the above reading and ideas, I went to psytoolkit and checked out some surveys and experimental tasks. Again, I get super pumped about tiny ideas and want to check everything out. But I focused in on a couple things related to the above topics.
There weren’t any questionnaires on self-disclosure so I checked out the narcissism questionnaire, the social intelligence questionnaire, and the empathy quotient questionnaire. When looking through the tasks/questionnaires on this site, be sure to note whether the demo includes the FULL questionnaire or just part of it. Also note that there are many other measures out there not on this site. I just like it because it’s a repository of resources in one location to easily skim through. As I was taking the questionnaires, I noticed some overlap/similarity in the items. I also noticed that with some questionnaires, I would have liked more of a scale rather than a bipolar response. Before choosing any scales/questionnaires for your research (BR students) you’ll want to check the validity/reliability in the original article(s) that developed the construct.
I also completed the Iowa Gambling Task because I was curious what the version on psytoolkit was like. I used the IGT in grad school for research and so I knew the contingency’s of the game already. It was interesting to see a different version of the task.
Freie Universitaet Berlin. (2016, March 7). Talk about yourself on social media? New study reveals brain network for sharing self-related information on Facebook. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 28, 2018 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160307125546.htm
Bryant, C., & Clark, J. (2017, December 19). Narcissism: But what about me? http://podcast. How Stuff Works: SYSK. Retrieved from https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/narcissism-but-what-about-me.htm
Meshi, D., Mamerow, L., Kirilina, E., Morawetz, C., Margulies, D. S., Heekeren, H. R. (2016). Sharing self-related information is associated with intrinsic functional connectivity of cortical midline brain regions. Scientific Reports, 6, 22491. DOI: 10.1038/srep22491
Smallwood, J., Fitzgeral, A., Miles, L.K., Phillips, L. H. (2009). Shifting moods, wandering minds: Negative moods lead the mind to wander. Emotion, 9, 271-276. DOI: 10.1037/a0014855