Earworms: How and Why Music Gets Stuck in Your Head

Have you ever had a song playing in  your mind that you just can’t tune out? The social science term for this is “involuntary musical imagery” (IMI) otherwise known as an “earworm.” In this post, I’ll discuss research about IMI, focusing on data from a study by Victoria Williamson and colleagues tracing the “earworm” phenomenon. I end by discussing some gaps in the research, and I reflect on my experiences with earworms.

Much of our thinking happens without our conscious attention. Involuntary thoughts are always running in the back of our brains. These unconscious thoughts happen spontaneously, but they reflect our prior experiences. So why do earworms exist? It turns out that they serve both a functional and a socio-psychological purpose.

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The Myth About Women in Science? Bias in the Study of Gender Inequality in STEM

The Myth About Women in Science? Bias in the Study of Gender Inequality in STEMA new article on CNN by psychology professors, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, boldly proclaims that gender bias in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a myth. Their research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Unfortunately, their work has a flawed methodological premise and their conclusions do not match their study design. This is not the first time these researchers have whipped up false controversy by decrying the end of sexism in science.

Williams and Ceci write on CNN:

Many female graduate students worry that hiring bias is inevitable. A walk through the science departments of any college or university could convince us that the scarcity of female faculty (20% or less) in fields like engineering, computer science, physics, economics and mathematics must reflect sexism in hiring.

But the facts tell a different story…

Our results, coupled with actuarial data on real-world academic hiring showing a female advantage, suggest this is a propitious time for women beginning careers in academic science. The low numbers of women in math-based fields of science do not result from sexist hiring, but rather from women’s lower rates of choosing to enter math-based fields in the first place, due to sex differences in preferred careers and perhaps to lack of female role models and mentors.

While women may encounter sexism before and during graduate training and after becoming professors, the only sexism they face in the hiring process is bias in their favour.

Williams and Ceci’s data show that, amongst their sample, women and male faculty say they would not discriminate against a woman candidate for a tenure-track position at a university. Sounds great, right? The problem is the discrepancy between their study design, that elicits hypothetical responses to hypothetical candidates in a manner that is nothing like real-world hiring conditions, and the researchers’ conclusions, which is that this hypothetical setting dispels the “myth” that women are disadvantaged in academic hiring. The background to this problem of inequality is that this is not a myth at all: a plethora of robust empirical research already shows that, not only are there less women in STEM fields, but that women are less likely to be hired for STEM jobs, as well as promoted, remunerated and professionally recognised in every respect of academic life.

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Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism

Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism
Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism

Dehumanisation and “super-humanisation” are two sides of the same coin serving a racist agenda. Dehumanisation is the process by which conscious and unconscious bias leads people to see a racial minority as less human – less worthy of respect, dignity, love, peace and protection. Psychology research finds that White police officers and young White students are more likely to see Black children as young as 10 years of age as being less worthy of protection and inviting violence in comparison to White children. Super-humanisation is on the other end of the dehumanisation continuum. It is when majority groups harbour latent ideas that minorities have special qualities or powers that make them less deserving of bodily consideration and pain relief. Research finds that White people have a tendency to see Black people as being stronger and therefore more able to withstand pain. These two twin processes, that place Black people outside of humanity, are steeped in colonial practices and they contribute to excessive policing and violence aimed at Black bodies. There are implications of dehumanisation and super-humanisation on the ongoing events in Ferguson. This social science research speaks to the issues raised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Continue reading Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism

Untangling Pop Culture’s Obsession with the Milgram Experiment

Photo: Millgram Experiment participant. Via Pacific Standard.
Photo: Milgram Experiment participant. Via Pacific Standard.

The Milgram Experiment, which supposedly shows that all human beings are capable of participating in torture under the watchful eye of an authority figure, has captivated popular culture for half a century. Why is that, given that there are finer social science studies out there? This post describes the experiment as well as another famous psychology experiment, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment. I critique these studies as well as exploring the public’s fascination with them, despite their methodological flaws. I provide a case study of how popular culture reproduces the Milgram Experiment as a universal “truth” about humanity’s innate propensity towards “evil.” The truth is that the Milgram Experiment is highly flawed and it tell us very little about our genetic predisposition for torture. What the Milgram Experiment does show, however, is that storytelling falls back on simplistic narrative about good and evil. Social science, in this case psychology and neuroscience, is just another plot device to reproduce the basic notion that “good people” can be made to do “bad things.” The social reality is much more complex and disturbing because it forces us to re-examine the relationship between obedience, culture and social interaction.

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The Social Costs of Japan’s Nuclear Disaster and What Sociology Can Do To Help

Man at the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. By SSoosay. Via Flickr.

Much of the world’s media was focused on the horrific disaster that followed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station meltdowns that began on the 4th of April. An estimated 130,000 people were initially evacuated and 70,000 people presently remain displaced from their homes due to nuclear radiation. In my homeland of Australia, media interest has largely waned on this issue and we don’t hear much about what has happened to Japan’s internal refugees. In today’s post, I will touch on the social policy conditions that exacerbated the effects of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. I focus on the ongoing sociological impact of this disaster on Japan’s so-called ‘nuclear refugees’.

Given that my blog is dedicated to experiences of difference (or ‘Otherness’), I am particularly concerned by reports that survivors are being stigmatised for not returning home, while others who have stayed behind along the periphery of the ‘nuclear zone’ are turning to suicide from the despair over the devastation of their land. From the perspective of sociology, social planning and social policy, the magnitude of the refugee crisis could have been avoided. I discuss how sociology can help manage the social problems that the internally displaced Japanese citizens are facing. Sociology can also address future natural disaster responses and contribute towards sustainable planning.

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Sociology of Altrusim

The Bad Chemicals, Sharing is Caring

In a vexing new twist on the established theories of altruism, a neurologist, an engineer and a veterinarian argue that ‘selflessness’ can be ‘pathological’. They’re talking about human behaviour, even though they are not social scientists who are trained to study the social consequences of human behaviour. Natalie Angier’s New York Times article interviews the researchers about their upcoming book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, which will explore the hazardous and self-destructive extremes of ‘helpful behaviour’. The research used to exemplify ‘pathological altruism’ includes:

  • highly empathetic nurses who ‘burn out’ because they care too much for their patients
  • anorexic patients in hospitals,
  • victims of abuse,
  • so-called ‘animal hoarders’ (people who take care of too many animals they cannot afford to keep).

There are several individual and institutional causes for stress, mental illness and abuse that are not easily explained by altruism-gone-wrong. It seems especially problematic to suggest that a victim of abuse is being altruistic through their experiences of violence. Provocative, yes. Helpful? Probably not. The sociological study of altruism reveals why this is the case.

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