Digital media cause shallowing of scientific research

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From the University of Winnipeg News Centre, a press release dated 04/11/2013, “Study Supports Theory On Teen Texting And Shallow Thought“:

A University of Winnipeg study finds that students who are heavy texters place less importance on moral, aesthetic, and spiritual goals, and greater importance on wealth and image. Those who texted more than 100 times a day were 30 per cent less likely to feel strongly that leading an ethical, principled life was important to them, in comparison to those who texted 50 times or less a day. Higher texting frequency was also consistently associated with higher levels of ethnic prejudice. […]

The main goal of the study was to test the so-called ”shallowing hypothesis,” described in the Nicholas Carr bestseller, The Shallows, and by some social neuroscientists. According to the shallowing hypothesis, ultra-brief social media like texting and Twitter encourages rapid, relatively shallow thought and consequently very frequent daily use of such media should be associated with cognitive and moral shallowness.

As a result of the press release, this research has been widely reported: “Too much texting can make you shallow, obsessed with bling and have low self-esteem issues says university study“, Daily Mail 4/13/2013; “Frequent texters tend to be shallow, research suggests“, CBC News 4/11/2013; “Too much texting can make teens shallow: Study“, Times of India 4/15/2013; “Heavy texting makes teens shallow“, ANI 4/14/2013; “Texting Study: Frequent Texting Makes You Shallow, Says University Of Winnipeg“, Huffington Post Canada 4/12/2013; “Heavy texting linked to lesser ethics, greater prejudice, study finds“, UPI 4/13/2013; “Texting Linked To Shallowness, Racist Attitudes“, Medical Daily 4/13/2013; “Texting Linked To Being Shallow Person Obsessed With Bling And Image, New Study“, The Inqusitr 4/14/2013; “Study: Frequent Texters Tend to Be Shallow, Wealth-Obsessed“, SFist 4/12/2013; “Study: People Who Text Frequently Tend To Be More Racist, Shallow“, CBS Cleveland; etc.

Interestingly, this is the second time around around for this bombshell, with the first pass being associated with a conference presentation more than a year ago (Paul Trapnell and Lisa Sinclair, “Texting frequency and the moral shallowing hypothesis”, Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Diego, CA 2012).

This was reported e.g. in Kathleen Doheny, “Can Too Much Texting Make Teens Shallow? Study: Young People Who Text Frequently Focus on Wealth, Image; Less on Moral, Spiritual Goals“, WebMD 2/3/2012. But it wasn’t picked up so widely at the time, perhaps because the presentation was rather more circumspect:

“Heavy texters do seem to be a little more materialistic and less concerned about inward growth,” says Paul Trapnell, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg in Canada.

The frequent texting, he says, is ”weakly correlated with traits, goals, and attitudes that indicate low interest and engagement in reflective thought.” Those who texted very frequently were also more concerned about wealth and image than those who did not text as often.

He conducted the study with Lisa Sinclair, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg. She presented the findings in San Diego at the 13th Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

“One can’t say it’s cause and effect,” Trapnell tells WebMD. “There could be a hundred different reasons why these associations exist.”

“Although the overall size of the finding is small in absolute terms, the finding was very reliable across several years,” he tells WebMD.

This time around, the authors have learned not to use buzz-killing phrases like “weakly correlated”, “can’t say it’s cause and effect”, “small in absolute terms”, etc.

But my main point here is that 14 months and two rounds of publicity later, there’s still no publication except for the press releases. There’s nothing cited or linked on the authors’ web sites, nothing that Google Scholar can find (except for an empty reference to the SPSP 2012 poster), nothing on arXiv or cogprints– nothing. Two years of press releases with no publication suggests, shall we say, a certain lack of scientific depth. Trapnell and Sinclair must be texting too much.


Seriously, why should we care? Why does traditional scientific etiquette frown on publicity in advance of any documentation of the publicized research? Because such popularization is often over-interpreted, under-controlled, egregiously mis-described, or simply irrelevant to the associated issue.

If the underlying research is documented in reasonable detail, we can determine that the public representation is misleading or nonsensical, as I did in the cases cited above. But if there’s no documentation beyond the press release and a few media quotes from the authors, all we can do is register the opinion that there probably isn’t much there — that we’re looking at weak correlations in a domain where lots of dependent measures (many measured “traits, goals, and attitudes”) and lots of possible independent measures (various levels and patterns of social-media usage) make it almost inevitable that some weak correlations will be available.

In addition, there are many reasons to expect weak relationships between amount of texting and various measures of “shallowness”, on common-sense grounds that don’t involve any causal effects of new-media usage —  for example, Craig Ross et al., “Personality and motivations associated with Facebook use“, Computers in Human Behavior 2009:

Conscientiousness has previously been shown to be negatively related to the use of the Internet and other forms of CMC (Butt and Phillips, 2008 and Swickert et al., 2002). This trend is likely given that those who are high on the trait of Conscientiousness are dutiful and responsible in their tasks, and therefore those scoring high on the trait of Conscientiousness are more likely to avoid CMC tools which may serve as procrastination or distraction tools from their daily tasks.

Is this the sort of thing that’s going on the Trapnell and Sinclair research? Who knows? Until serious documentation of the research is available, all we can do is speculate.



19 Comments

  1. Y said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    “study proves that today’s damn kids really are no good.”

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    Why can’t they dance like we did?
    What’s wrong with Sammy Kaye?
    What’s the matter with kids today!

  3. bks said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    Twitter for Neurosurgeons [sic]
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3062806/

    –bks

  4. Victoria Simmons said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    How did fourteen months of press releases suddenly turn into two years of press releases? Or did I misread?

    [(myl) Let’s say, two unpublished conference presentations at successive annual meetings, accompanied by press releases.]

    In my field there’s a long turnaround time between conference papers and publication. Perhaps the next order of business should be to get in touch with the authors to see if any publication is in the pipeline.

    [(myl) If a publication is “in the pipeline”, and the authors are not willing or able to put draft papers up somewhere, then the press releases should stay in the pipeline as well.]

  5. Nathan said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    Extraordinary claims require something something.

  6. Sylvain said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    Maybe the second round of releases has something to do with a similar release at http://www.miriamhospital.org/wtn/Page.asp?PageID=WTN000415 ?

  7. KathrynM said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    Um, yeah. “ultra-brief social media like texting and Twitter encourages rapid, relatively shallow thought and consequently very frequent daily use of such media should be associated with cognitive and moral shallowness”

    Unlike ordinary conversation, in which sentences are lengthy and carefully developed, thought is slow and deep.

    Oh, wait a minute. That could explain why so much of the population has been cognitively and morally shallow throughtout history. Breakthrough!

  8. Sarah Proud and Tall said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

    From their own press release:

    “Despite these findings, they note that daily immersion in texting, Twitter, and Facebook has not prevented the “digital native” generation of young adults today from becoming more tolerant and accepting of human diversity than any previous generation. Trapnell and Sinclair see little reason for moral panic over “moral shallowing” at the present time, but conclude the topic may warrant greater research attention.”

    Move along. Nothing to see here.

  9. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

    Shallowness can cause text messaging.

    Text messaging can cause shallowness.

    A third factor can cause both shallowing and test messaging.

    The correlation between the two can be very weak in the first place.

    So why does the narrative that technology causes shallowness get to be the preferred one?

    [(myl) One superficial factor here is Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

    But you can ask, Why do people like Carr think and write things like that? And why do people publish and buy the results?

    One level deeper, we can observe that the meme is an old one. Thus Gail Harrison, “Modern Psychology in its Relation to Discipline“, Journal of Proceedings and Lectures 53:658-661, National Education Association of the United States, 1915:

    We seem to have dropped into an age of entertaining, a breathless going from one sensation  to another, whether it be mechanical toys for the five-year-old or moving-picture plays for the sixteen-year-old. It not only destroys their power to think, but also makes happiness, contentment, and resourcefulness impossible. At seventeen, life is spoken of as “so dull” if there is not “something doing” every waking hour.

    Or in purpler prose, Spengler:

    [I]t is out of the power either of heads or of hands to alter in any way the destiny of machine-technics, for this has developed out of inward spiritual necessities and is now correspondingly maturing towards its fulfilment and end. Today we stand on the summit, at the point when the fifth act is beginning. The last decisions are taking place, the tragedy is closing.

    Every high Culture is a tragedy. The history of mankind as a whole is tragic. But the sacrilege and the catastrophe of the Faustian are greater than all others,  greater than anything Aeschylus or Shakespeare ever imagined. The creature is rising  up against its creator. As once the microcosm Man against Nature, so now the microcosm Machine is revolting against Nordic Man. The lord of the World is  becoming the slave of the Machine, which is forcing him — forcing us all, whether we are aware of it or not — to follow its course. The victor, crashed, is dragged to death by the team.

    Or Marx on alienation:

    Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.

    Or more recently, various authorities on the effects of television.

    The details vary widely, but the general idea is that new kinds of machines destroy individual creativity and resourcefulness.]

  10. D.O. said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

    Why don’t we have research that shows that because of rapid and ubiquitous communication young people can be a part of the community throughout the day and therefore increase their socialization with all attendant benefits? Can we have some optimistic spin, plz.

  11. TC said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    D.O.–

    Though not exactly scholarly, there is a distinct narrative in tech writing about social media solving social ills, a la Twitter & the Arab Spring. Which, to me, seems as unlikely as its converse, above.

  12. Alex Blaze said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    All I’ll say is that I know from my days in online media that if you point out that these “researchers” who publish press releases instead of academic papers, who use spotty methodology to make huge claims (and who tend to be concentrated in psychology and sociology departments, so maybe it’s more of a culture of incompetence and they can’t see why anyone would think their work isn’t wonderful), you’ll get nasty emails from them about how you just don’t understand how brilliant they are.

    Have fun, Mark!

  13. lilchum said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    There is another possible hypotheses: that the majority of adolescents in any given population of humans are shallow, shiftless, and immature.

  14. Andy Averill said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    In my youth it was the telephone that marked the end of civilization. But social media, texting, etc, all require typing, ie writing. It may not be deathless prose, or even necessarily require standard spelling and grammar, but at least the parts of the brain that translate thoughts into the written word are being exercised. Add in all the other things you have to learn to use these tech gadgets, and it seems like you could make the case that kids today are actually smarter than their parents.

    PS, love the line about “Nordic man” in the Spengler quote. Didn’t realize he was one of those guys.

    [(myl) Big time. He goes on:

    And then, at the close of last century, the blind will-to-power began to make its decisive mistakes. Instead of keeping strictly to itself the technical knowledge that constituted their greatest asset, the “white” peoples complacently offered it to all the world, in every Hochschule, verbally and on paper, and the astonished homage of Indians and Japanese delighted them. The famous “dissemination of industry” set in. […]

    And so presently the “natives” saw into our secrets, understood them, and used them to the full. Within thirty years the Japanese became technicians of the first rank, and in their war against Russia they revealed a technical superiority from which their teachers were able to learn many lessons. Today more or less everywhere — in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa — industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition. The unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed. The others have caught up with their instructors. Possibly — with their combination of “native” cunning and the over-ripe intelligence of their ancient civilizations — they have surpassed them. Where there is coal, or oil, or water-power, there a new weapon can be forged against the heart of the Faustian Civilization. The exploited world is beginning to take its revenge on its lords. The innumerable hands of the coloured races — at least as clever, and far less exigent — will shatter the economic organization of the whites at its foundations. […]

    For these “coloured” peoples (including, in this context, the Russians) the Faustian technics are in no wise an inward necessity. It is only Faustian man that thinks, feels, and lives in this form. To him it is a spiritual need, not on account of its economic consequences, but on account of its victories — “navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse.” For the coloured races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as house. timber, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose. This machine-technics will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments — our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins like old Memphis and Babylon. The history of this technics is fast drawing to its inevitable close.. It will be eaten up from within, like the grand forms of any and every Culture. When, and in what fashion, we know not.

    ]

  15. Brett said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    @Andy Averill: Spengler had very strong notions of Western (particularly Germanic, but by no means exclusively) cultural superiority. (Whether this was the product or the cause of his famous beliefs about cyclic history seems to be an interesting question.) However, he did not believe in racial superiority. In Germany, he was seen as a supporter of ultra-right-wing groups like the Nazis during the 1920s and early 1930s, but he broke with the Nazis not long after they came to power, largely because he disagreed with their racism and antisemitism.

  16. Matt said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    Or how about Socrates, according to Plato in the Phaedrus? It’s not just text messaging: writing itself is inhuman, artificial, destroys memory, and weakens the mind.

    [(myl) Indeed:

    At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

    Writing makes us shallow! Socrates said so — and what do you bet that Trapnell & Sinclair could confirm this hypothesis, by replicating their research using all forms of writing (rather than texting) as the independent variable?]

  17. maidhc said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    It looks like they gave a multiple choice test where one of the questions was how often do you text, and the others are some attempt to measure “moral, aesthetic, and spiritual goals” and value placed on wealth and image. Then they ran some statistics on the results.

    The hard part of that is coming up with multiple-choice questions that are good measurements of the things you are trying to measure.

    Measuring aesthetic goals:

    I would rather go to a (pick one)
    1. singles bar
    2. baseball game
    3. action movie
    4. art museum

    Like that? We can’t tell.

  18. Brett said,

    April 17, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    It dawned on me recently that Socrates, at least, may have had a genuine philosophical reason for not writing down his ideas. The core of the Socratic method is forcing the learner to work things for themself, with the teacher assisting by questions asked from feigned ignorance (Socratic irony). Socrates likely felt that putting his reasoning and conclusions in written form would rob people of the necessity/opportunity to discover the the truths for themselves. (The same attitude certainly exists today with some law school professors, who teach using the Socratic method; they may write books about the courses they teach, then forbid their own students from reading them.)

  19. Jason said,

    April 17, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    I thought Socrates didn’t write anything down because they poison leads to writer’s block. Among other things.

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