Category Archives: Tech

science you can use without thinking

The More Things Change . . . New Media, Kids, and the Payne Fund Studies

Once again we face the menace of new techology dividing the generations. The NYTimes runs a story today detailing fractured family relations, split asunder over cell phones, text messaging, computers, and that annoying shorthand (ykwim, dy?). The writer, Laura Holson, does a nice job stitching quotes from both teams of combatants and manages to get an Ivy League expert from MIT to provide a scientific overview. Did you know that kids are using new media differently than their parents? And that this is going to make those kids different from those parents?

In my previous life as a professor, I taught a large lecture (400 students) intro course on mass media and communication for 12 years. Given my penchant for quantitative and experimental tomfoolery, the course took a strong social science perspective, meaning that if you don’t have theory, randomization, and lots of numbers (including Greek symbols), it’s a bunch of opinionated crap you could get leaning over the fence with your neighbor. For a geek like me, reading such technical stuff is actually interesting, life changing, and perhaps the ticket to eternal salvation!

One of the most curious findings in the social science research on media and communication, especially in America over the past 100 years is the recurring theme of New Media Divides the Generations. It is a smaller example in the genre of topics that ebb and flow, like climate change. One of the strongest research programs ever conducted was the Payne Fund studies aimed exactly at understanding how New Media pitted young versus old. Here’s the fun part: The studies were done in the late 1920s.

Briefly, the Payne Fund was a nonprofit foundation, much like the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations of today, and it provided financial support to a wide range of scholars and scientists who banded together in a loose group to investigate the impact of the relatively new media of the time, motion pictures. The group produced an eight volume series of books that is still available in libraries and bookstores. What makes this series an amazing intellectual achievement is the range of talent, the variety of questions asked, the scope of methods employed, and the general cooperation of these different research teams. In its own miniature way, the Payne Fund studies were like those much larger and more famous research efforts, the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb or the Human Genome Project. It is an effort at Big Research and they did it in the 1920s.

My favorite from the series was written by Louis Thurstone and Ruth Peterson. It described a long series of experimental field studies of the impact of motion pictures on social attitudes, stereotyping, and prejudice. (If you study either or both media and attitudes, you’d find this book compelling. The methodology is rock solid and the results are as meaningful today as they were then. Of course, it lacks an fMRI measurement, so it may be a complete fantasy. Maybe you could write a grant application to replicate these studies with the latest toy in neuroscience. Might actually get funded even if it makes no contribution to theory development or practical application, but, hey, isn’t that the nature of funded research?)

Briefly Thurstone reported what we still find today: More exposure to a message creates more change and the direction of the message (positive or negative) determines the change. Thus, if people receive a lot of positive messages about a different ethnic or racial group, those people will have more positive attitudes. (Almost rocket science, isn’t it?)

If you trudge over to your favorite research library, you’ll find these books way back in dusty, ill-lit shelves, perhaps even in some ancient reserve building off-campus. Wear a breathing filter mask because you will be exposed to particulate matter from past! When you locate the books, just pull one down and start reading. You’ll actually be a little bit high from breathing in that old air and debris, plus you’ll be learning! Or else contracting tuberculosis!

The main point from these studies is that media messages did affect kids, and adults, too, and in similar and different ways. (Kids usually showed more extreme responses.) And, you’ll be struck at the identical worries people expressed back then to what the New York Times expresses today. In fact, there is a recurring pattern of media effects if you look over the long history of media in America: Kids embrace new media while adults eye it suspiciously. And universally, with every technological innovation you will find a chorus of parents claiming that the New Thing makes kids rude and impolite. Here’s a quote from today’s Times story to illustrate:

Mr. Pence is well aware of how destabilizing cellphones, iPods and hand-held video game players can be to family relations. “I see kids text under the table at the restaurant,” he said. “They don’t teach them etiquette anymore.” Some children, he said, watch videos in restaurants.

You can substitute any Old Media (movies, radio, TV) for the New Media (cellphones, iPods, handhelds) and you can reach back into the Payne Fund and find somebody saying the same thing about kids back then.

My point in this, beyond playing the nagging expert who’s smarter than you because he is willing to risk tuberculosis while going to the library, is to point out the false conflict that often arises in people’s perceptions of daily life. We tend to focus so strongly on our own point of view in real time that we cannot or do not step back and think more broadly about the social and cognitive events we are judging. In persuasion terms, I’d call this an illustration of both biased processing and attribution theory. First, we tend to find what we look for (biased processing – those rude kids nowadays) and second, we tend to explain things with convenient, top of the head reasons (attribution – it’s the damn cellphone!).

If you take a seriously nuanced view on New Media (wouldn’t you expect that from the New York Times?!?) you’ll find that there are reliable patterns of response to it. Sure, younger people seem to “get it” faster and they make more “creative” use of the media compared to older people. Yet, at the same time when you dig deeper, you’ll find kids who hate the New Media and won’t use it unless required; and you’ll find adults who are the inventors and early adopters who always seem to be living like Max Headroom, 20 minutes into the future. Media effects are rarely large, simple, and direct even if that’s the party line at the New York Times.

And one fact never changes: Those youngsters nowadays are just simply rude!

Queen of Tomorrow . . . Today or at least When I Found Out

If you’ve read the Page on subliminal persuasion you’ll recall the main point: It exists, but produces a weak effect under the best lab conditions so it’s no big deal for the real world. I did, however, close with a caveat about new technology. If you can deliver lab-like control (i.e. dominate the visual field) in the real world, then we might have the Queen of Tomorrow scenario where some smart kids from MIT create both the hardware and the software needed to Rule The World.

Well, kids, here’s the hardware.

myvu presents video glasses compatible with iPod video. It looks exactly right for the job. I have no personal experience with the glasses, so I don’t know how much visual attention they require, but it should be in the ballpark. And, if they are sufficient today, there’s always tomorrow and version 2.0.

Now, we need some smart retailers working with those MIT crazies to create a sensor that identifies a person wearing these glasses, then transmits a subliminal ad as the wearer walks by some kind of product and you’ve got the Queen of Tomorrow.


It will be interesting to see how this plays out. You can bet your bottom dollar, your good right hand, and Aunt Tillie’s best pair of underwear that somebody will try this (if they haven’t already). It’s just a technology problem . . . and a bit of an ethical problem, but if you’ve read the news today we learn that those evil business kids cannot be trusted. The Fuqua School of Business caught 34 MBA students cheating. Hey, if they cheat in grad school on a lousy take-home test, then do you really think there’s any ethical hurdle for subliminal persuasion?

Imagine the horror in the press when this breaks! Then maybe Congressional hearings. Maybe Henry Waxman will get in on this.

Seriously, subliminal technology in an immediate sales environment would probably be fairly effective. And remember, subliminal, by definition, means what you don’t see is what you get. In other words, you don’t know it’s there and hence you cannot by definition have any kind of volition or consent in the interaction.

And past the sales environment, it becomes an interesting training problem. A company could require employees to wear these goggles as part of the job and within normal use, provide subliminal bursts about motivation, honesty, and effort. The company could provide full disclosure of the possible use of subliminals and require consent as a condition for employment. Thus, you’d sign on for it, but then never know when you’re actually getting the subliminals (because if you knew, they wouldn’t work).

Interesting times and all that.

P.S. Persuasion Update for March 1, 2012. MyVu is out of business! You can still purchase their glasses but they’ve gone on to bigger and better things. But, Google is now in this game!