Applied Sociology

After being at Stanford for 5 weeks, the dorm I’m living in got together to do an activity called “Crossing the Line” (of which I’m sure many people are familiar) that involves a statement of varying ambiguity being made, followed by everyone who identifies with the statement stepping across a line on the floor for a short amount of time. I’m also taking a sociology class, and I’ll be honest: I was watching people’s behavior most of the time.

As humans, we assign fixed “levels” of preferred intimacy with persons depending on our relationships with them. Our brain—consciously or otherwise—works to maintain that level.

Many factors play into how we calculate our current intimacy (rather than preferred intimacy) with a person. For example, when you say that you are “close” to someone, you mean that you are comfortable with higher levels of intimacy. Literally, though, standing closer to someone increases your current intimacy. If that goes beyond your preferred level, it has to be compensated by decreasing intimacy in some other way. This is why everybody avoids eachother’s gaze in a crowded elevator.

Beyond eye contact and interpersonal distance, other more surprising things influence current intimacy. If you listen to a person’s heartbeat, your preferred interpersonal distance increases. That is, when told to stand a comfortable distance away from the person, you will stand farther away than normal. This works even if the heartbeat is synthesized—you just have to be told that it is from the person in front of you.

This effect works in the other direction. Humans suffer various negative side effects when separated from their intimate partners for long period of time or over long distances. This is, tentatively, a result of the same “preferred intimacy” phenomenon. Skype calls can do much to alleviate this; the sight of a human face works wonders on our social subconscious, even if it is just through a computer screen.

I did not foresee the consequences of taking a sociology class: my perception of large groups is forever changed.


The Persuasion Effect

What is the mechanic of group activities that make them so fun? Something can be absolutely boring, until suddenly a group of friends is doing it too, at which point your interest is piqued. This effect also fuels trends. A trite example is behavior in a school system. Every grade looks down on the previous year with disdain, claiming that “they were never that annoying”. Although it could occasionally be true, generational trends generally don’t occur in that manner. If there are admissions, varying parameters could cause general shifts. But the most likely explanation is this “Group Blindness”. If everybody you interact with has certain traits, the trait become less noticeable in yourself and others and you begin to trend towards it. It’s the mechanic behind fashion trends, memes, language shifts, and mob mentality. I think the best thing to call it would the the Persuasion Effect.

I’ll give a personal example to illustrate. In the Computer Systems Lab (a research lab open to the whole school) at my school, there is always a majority of people using the workstations for gaming before school and during lunch. Trends tend to pass over the core group, pulling in others temporarily. At first the widely played game was Starcraft. It started with a group of Koreans, but then more and more people started trying it. That trend died down to the original group of players as soon as Minecraft was introduced. At first many of us sneered at it. Then, one by one, we got sucked in. Now, however, there is just a small assortment of people who play it on a daily basis. The next trending game was Urban Terror. Right now, at least 80% of the computers are occupied by people playing it. My friends and I used to play it, but it seems that the trend has passed from one ‘clique’ (although we are generally a well integrated community at my school) to another. Many of the Sys Lab (as we call it) frequenters find the current players annoying and disruptive. I have no doubt that OI was just as annoying when I played, but it didn’t seem that way while I was playing, because my friends and acquaintances were acting the same way.

While group mentality certainly has a large influence on your behaviors and preferences, personal preference, stemming from negative or positive reinforcement in your personal experience, also has a big say. In trivial things such as Print vs. Cursive, Pen vs. Pencil, and Notebooks vs Legal Pads, personal preference plays a much larger role than trend reinforcement. The two effects, while similar, are distinct. External influences, such as offhand comments or direct instances of comparison between two modes, contribute to personal preference as much as interior observations of the pros and cons of two options. Trend reinforcement happens through passive observation, conscious or not. If you see lots of people acting a certain way, you are more inclined to act that way and regard it as normal (thus consciously noticing it less). Consistent reinforcement, even subtly, affects trend preferences (but also habits, if the reinforcement is yourself going through a motion), while distinct occurrences over a long period of time with intervals in between are more likely to influence personal preference. That’s why efforts to raise awareness work. You are overwhelmed with commands to do something so that when you get into a situation (such as throwing away a can), the commands will come to mind and you will be influenced (such as recycling the can, rather than tossing it).

Jeeze, after writing that thick swath of words I feel like I have a philosophy degree. I wrote overly complex and obtuse text to express a fairly simple concept, possible even confusing the matter more with my explanation. Reminds me of an anecdote from Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman, in which he puzzles over a sentence and finally realizes that it just says “people read”.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality games are great. They are a good way to encourage certain real life behaviors using game mechanics. For instance, there are a range of research projects focused on creating games that reward players for keeping track of and increasing environmentally sound behaviors, such as recycling and saving energy. Most of these games pit players against other real players, encouraging users to climb to the top of the leaderboards both locally, globally, and within groups of friends. Some games use virtual rewards within the game to encourage behavior. Zombies, Run! is a game that uses recreational running as the main game mechanic. As people run in real life they pick up items in the virtual world and progress the story. Players must also avoid virtual enemies by changing their routes in real life.

Ever since I played Skyrim I have had the idea of real life stats. As you did things during your day you could level up your skills and then compare them with friends. Skills could be anything from button-pressing to sneaking to agility to bush-trimming. Only recently though did I make the connection between ARGs and that idea. The game combines self-competition, leaderboard competition, and player vs. player competition. A person might focus on strength, so they might work out every day and then enter the activities they did from a wide selection. An algorithm would weight different activities differently, etc. But the skills aren’t only physical. People could increase their analog electronics skills, for example, or palm-reading.

Increased stats would unlock various ingame pieces of equipment, quests, and story arcs. Quests would require players to complete daring real life tasks, collect virtual items, or figure out puzzles. Quests would often involve prominent features of the surrounding area. An agility quest might involve cutting through a park while avoiding virtual defenses, or delivering an item to a virtual character in limited time. Puzzles could use public inscriptions, decoded in a special way, to point to ingame treasure. Generic quests such as gathering items or reaching various locations would also be available.

A large part of competition between friends would be PVP contests. The object is to either directly tag your opponent and tell them a code word, at which point they have to give you their number, or to lead them into a trap you have set. Other rules of engagement could also be available. Increased stats would help you in your struggle. Abilities, such as being able to locate your opponent, obscure your location, detect traps, or convince virtual characters to mislead your opponent, would come with increased levels of the respective skill. Equipment like traps and invisibility cloaks are available from ingame merchants for a price, but certain skills let players operate such equipment more effectively. Races are another option. Instead of trying to defeat your opponent, you are merely trying to complete a quest in a faster time than your challenger.

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