- Longitudinal research spotlights the significance of relationships when it comes to happiness.
- An investigation revealed that TikTok has been promoting harmful content to young users.
- Conspiracy theories have been thriving on social media platforms since the pandemic.
- Chatbots now pose threat to higher education.
As I prepare for another academic semester, I have been immersing myself in recent research within the field. Here is a list of some of the most interesting and timely research and developments happening in the social sciences right now.
"Social Fitness" Is Just as Important as Physical Fitness
One of the longest longitudinal studies in psychology—starting in 1938 and continuing to the present day at Harvard University—reveals that a critical facet of happiness appears to be our relationships with others.
The researchers use the term “social fitness” to reflect on how cultivating our social ties and relationships is just as important from a longevity perspective as the effort or focus many put into their physical fitness. In lieu of the ways many of our social ties have experienced rupture since the pandemic, such a finding reiterates our interconnectedness with others and how important it is to put effort and time into connecting with our loved ones.
As reported by The Harvard Gazette:
"Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants" (Mineo, 2017, para. 9).
Moreover, the results from this longitudinal study are also consistent with other research that has identified loneliness as a significant risk factor for negative health outcomes as a person ages.
Higher Education May Be Upended by Chatbots
A cover story from The New York Times this month identified that a popular chatbot, ChatGPT, may be used by students to create sophisticated essays for their courses that are hard to detect as having been written by machines.
As readers may imagine, this has caused quite a stir in education—particularly higher education, where there is often greater time and effort put into large-scale writing assignments as part of the coursework for students. I have received emails of concern from administrators and faculty from both of the higher education institutions where I work.
Indeed, there is growing dialogue surrounding how to combat the ever-more sophisticated opportunities for cheating that tech like this affords our students today. As reflected by the cover story in the Times:
"Across the country, university professors like Mr. Aumann [professor featured in the story who discovered the best-written essay in one of his classes was generated via this technology], department chairs, and administrators are starting to overhaul classrooms in response to ChatGPT, prompting a potentially huge shift in teaching and learning. Some professors are redesigning their courses entirely, making changes that include more oral exams, group work, and handwritten assessments in lieu of typed ones" (Huang, 2023, para. 6).
While I think it is too early for higher education to get into panic mode over this technology, it does raise significant concerns regarding how the craft of writing is taught to our students and what utility they see in cultivating this skill. Moreover, on top of all the other demands faculty has had to shoulder since the pandemic, this technology further raises the stakes for us to generate more creative and nuanced ways to measure performance in writing in our classes in ways that reduce the chances that our students will turn to these bots to generate work on their behalf.
Social Media Is Harmful for Youth
An excellent source for deep investigations into social media platforms and their potential effects on users, The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) published a report at the end of 2022 entitled, “Deadly by Design: TikTok Pushes Harmful Content Promoting Eating Disorders and Self-Harm in Users’ Feeds” (CCDH, 2020).
While the title says it all, what is particularly noteworthy regarding this investigation is that it expands the scope of social media influence beyond Facebook—a popular platform whose potential effects are studied endlessly by psychologists—to more popular platforms that younger users in particular are migrating to and spending more time on relative to Facebook.
Particularly disturbing elements of this investigation revealed that problematic content was oftentimes recommended very quickly to new and young users, and that consumers didn’t have to do much browsing to be directed towards problematic feeds such as content related to promotion of both suicide and eating disorders. Readers are strongly urged to refer to the website for more details regarding this analysis.
Conspiracy Theories Are Thriving Online
While many of us have observed both political polarization and radicalization in the culture today, it is reaffirming to have such anecdotal observations verified by scientific work. Namely, consistent with other work that has come out since the pandemic, Dow et al. (2021) have identified that conspiracy theories have thrived, noting the pandemic as a significant catalyst for such a process.
Some of the notable findings of their research include: With the widespread disruption of regular cognitive and social structures and a greater proclivity to migrate online since the pandemic, in seeking alternative cognitive and social structures, many social media users have become radicalized. Moreover, social media is a significant purveyor of conspiracy theories, triggering contagion effects of this radicalization process, a resistance to changing such beliefs, and oftentimes translating into real-world harm. Indeed, it is no longer useful to separate the online world from the world “out there” as with the ubiquity of smartphones and social media platforms; the two are now intricately connected.
Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2023
Dow, B. J., Johnson, A. L., Wang, C. S., Whitson, J., & Menon, T. (2021). The COVID-19pandemic and the search for structure: Social media and conspiracy theories. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 15(9), e12636. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12636
Huang, K. (2023, January 16). Alarmed by A.I. Chatbots, Universities Start Revamping How They Teach. The New York Times: Technology. Retrieved on January 20, 2023 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/16/technology/chatgpt-artificial-intelligence-universities.html?smid=em-share
Mineo, L. (2017, April 11). Good Genes Are Nice, But Joy is Better. The Harvard Gazette: Health & Medicine. Retrieved on January 20, 2023 from: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/