big data

Black Friday Discussion with Sean Young, PhD

1.  We are in the middle of the 2015 holiday season.  Are there findings in your research that help people stick to a New Year's Resolution?

Yes, there’s a lot of recent psychology research, from our own group and others, that studies why people don't keep doing things and what can be done to help people keep doing things they want to do, like New Years resolutions.  People plan to go the gym the first week of New Years and they're good at following through with that. Gyms are packed with people the first couple of weeks of January. Gyms are selling new memberships and getting people back who haven't been in a while. But what happens after a few weeks? The gym empties out. People stop exercising. They've already lost their follow-through and it’s not even February. 

How do you get people to keep their resolutions, whether it's going to the gym, keeping a healthy diet, or stopping procrastination? This is a lengthy topic so I'll focus on one piece of advice that we've learned through our research. It's called the science of social.

People are motivated by others. They want to conform to what others are doing, get excited when others are doing the same things they are, and try their best to fit in. This can lead to unwanted consequences like people bullying others, or people have polarized political views, but it can also lead to good things like helping people to keep healthy. We've had great success with the science of social through things like our HOPE online communities, which have gotten people to keep healthier behaviors. The HOPE communities harness the science of social by having peer role models guide and motivate people to change their behavior. How can people apply this research to keep their own New Years resolutions? They can join in-person or online communities with others who have similar resolutions. They can also make a pact with friends or neighbors and keep each other accountable for sticking to their resolutions. There are a lot of other ways that we've discovered that can be tailored to people's individual needs, but harnessing the science of social is an easy and surefire way to help everyone keep their resolutions longer.
2. Many parents probably have the same New Year's resolution - getting their kids to do their homework each day.  Are there steps or a process that you can delineate for this?

Psychology is something that's pretty unique to people. It’s based on things like people’s place of birth, cultural and religious background, current location, and their education and income. For that reason, I try to get to know as much as possible about the person or people I’m working with in order to craft a strategy that is uniquely fit for their psychology. That being said, there are still some really good general pieces of advice based on research that parents can use to get their kids to do their homework everyday.

One thing that can be very effective is to have a schedule. Kids want to have boundaries set for them. Creating a schedule for them is one way to do this. By putting aside a block of time each day that the child knows is “homework time,” parents can create a habit and get children expecting that they have to do their homework each day. That expectation is important as it sets the boundaries for kids. When kids have a different schedule each day, for example, soccer practice from 3-5pm one day but then the next day they have the ability to choose what they want to do from 3-5pm, they learn that they can choose to do what they want and don't learn to build a habit. If you want to build a habit around having kids do their homework, pick a time each day for them to do their homework, block off that time on a calendar or schedule that they'll see each day, and have some way of verifying and checking off that they did their homework that day as planned. Another thing that parents can do is to be role models for the kids and set a block of time for themselves to do work at the same time as their kids. For example, when kids seeing their parents reading books, they’ll be more likely to read, but if they see their parents watching television, then that’s what they’ll think they can get away with doing instead of homework. Finally, it's always important to reward kids for good behavior using positive reinforcement methods.

3. Most people struggle with finding a balance between enjoying holiday meals and controlling their weight.  Can you provide a strategy for how to get oneself to stick to a nutrition plan?

A week or two of holiday meals isn't usually the problem for people who want to eat healthier. That’s because people don’t usually eat healthily for a week or two and then continue eating healthily without trying. Similarly, a week or two of unhealthy eating doesn’t mean that people will automatically keep eating unhealthily. That's good and bad news. It’s good news if you already have a healthy routine, bad news if you don't. It means that finding that balance between healthy eating and holiday meals starts long before the holiday. It means that people need to create the right environment to get them to build a health lifestyle. One of the simplest and most concrete things that people can do to eat healthily is to stop buying unhealthy foods. Research studies have found that employees who sit near unhealthy foods (for example, a lot of workplaces have a vending machine area or a table where cakes and goodies sit) are more likely to be overweight than people who sit farther from this area. It's a pretty simple principle. Although people strive for willpower and motivation to eat healthier, the real secret is to stay away from things that are unhealthy. That will make it easier for people to stick to nutrition plans.
4. With January 1 around the corner, many companies will be adding new employees. Is there any advice you can provide to a small business CEO on how to onboard new employees?

Psychologists have done a lot of research on social norms, or on the ways that people expect they should act from watching others. When you start a new job, you don't know how you're supposed to act. You look to your coworkers and supervisors to learn how to behave. Take dress style. A lot of people start a new job with formal dress clothes like slacks and a tie. But after a few days, they might see that most people are wearing jeans. That reinforces a social norm that employees don't need to wear a tie and that jeans are okay. The interesting thing is, you don't need a large group of people to set that social norm. If only a handful of people are wearing jeans, it already gives new employees the idea that they can test out wearing jeans at the workplace, and if no one says there is a problem with this, then they’ll continue to wear jeans. This is an important principle for onboarding new employees. It means uniformity among employees is very important and that social and cultural norms in the workplace need to be established immediately.

5. Since we're discussing small business CEO's, how can we take your research and extrapolate principles for making products more engaging?  Are there specific steps or tips that you can share?

The social norms piece is also important in making new products more engaging. If product designers can let new users know that their product is one that the rest of the world thinks is engaging then they’ll be off to a great start in creating an engaging product. Take the onboarding example above. Imagine you’re creating a mobile app to onboard new employees. You’ll need to test it extensively beforehand to ensure that new users think that other users understand the platform, are excited to use it, and are actively engaged. You can use timestamps of recent activity to your advantage by letting new users see that people are frequently and actively engaged. But how do you get enough active users to start this process? We’ve given a step-by-step approach for how to build organic online communities as one example of how to do this. Features like these help to reinforce social norms and make products more engaging.
6. As a behavioral psychologist, looking at Black Friday and Cyber-Monday, what ideas can you share on how to incorporate psychological principles into marketing and sales?  What principles do you think are already being used in products that people might be buying now?
Some sites are doing a great job of using psychology and behavioral economics to increase product purchases. Take flash or lightning sales. These sales give the appearance of scarcity and make people think they have to purchase a product immediately to avoid losing the sale. This isn’t new to Cyber Monday sales though. Think about other product promotions that only sell to the first 50 customers. These are designed to get people into the storefront knowing that they’ll sign up for an email list or buy other products, even if these other products aren’t heavily discounted.

Another thing that companies appear to do is to heavily market a small number of big discount items and use that to lure people into thinking all of the items are heavily discounted. They might say that a pair of shoes is 50% off the retail value, but those shoes might normally be the same price, 50% of the retail value. When the company shows customers those shoes after showing them a pair of jeans that really are 25% off their normal value, then it makes customers think that they should scoop in and quickly buy the shoes that are 50% off, even though they are always 50% off. The moral is, Black Friday and Cyber Monday can bring some great deals, but you’ve got to do your homework and avoid the psychological tricks if you want to get those deals.
What I’ve discussed above are marketing tricks that people can use to get customers into their stores. But if you really want a sustainable business of engaged and dedicated customers, then it’s important to reward your customers and make them feel they are getting good deals even after they purchase. Having high quality products is obviously one way to do that. Building an engaged social community like we discussed above it another way to do that. Pairing positive marketing with good customer experiences is the best way to get customers engaged.

Dr. Sean Young Report from NIH BD2K All Hands Grantee Event

1. What were your biggest take-aways from the BD2K All Hands Grantee event at the NIH?

The meeting focused a lot on data science approaches like creating new machine learning models. One researcher (Dr. Jiawei Han) who leads an expert group out of UI Urbana-Champaign had a poster showing some impressive new methods for data analysis methods. People were definitely interested in our approaches for social data also as they see the importance of data from new media being used to predict events and be used to solve real-world problems. I think the biggest take-away is that the "big data" area isn't going away anytime soon. The government and companies are putting a lot of resources behind studying this area and see huge potential in how it can change our life and work. It's always exciting being a part of an early movement where there is excitement and a lot of promise. Now that researchers know we have support, it's up to us to deliver on that promise.

2. Have you had specific feedback from the NIH on treating social media in a "serious," epidemiological research area? Did you find others at the BD2K event who are open to your ideas?

People are very open to the idea. Timing is great. I've been studying this area for over 10 years and it's actually the first time where almost everyone understands my research. That might sound crazy, but it's actually pretty common for researchers to be working on things that no one else understands, especially if it's related to technology. But people who used to question whether social media and technologies were a fad now so the tremendous amount of data from these technologies. They understand the area we're studying at a high level and when we show them specific examples of the things people say on twitter, or how people use wearable devices, they really get it. They understand our research, the potential of what we're building and studying, and how it can impact society. It's exciting to be able to share this with people.

3. Are there new or upcoming types of data that you would like to include in your research, that only the NIH can give you access to?

I have a call this morning with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They're really interested in having us modeling ways to monitor and predict disease. They'll be supplying datasets of disease across the country. We're also looking into game forum datasets from people who play and are interested in video games. We have a lot of data stored and ready to go for analysis.

4. If you could explain the value of BD2K grants to a layman, how would you put it?  What kind of return on investment has there been?

Science is based on math and statistics, but statistics are dependent on data. If enough data aren't available, then the statistics won't mean anything. I was walking my dog the other day and she decided to do one of her infamous "i'm done walking" tricks where she drops to the ground in the middle of the walk and won't move. She's scared of the sound of trashtrucks, and whenever a trashtruck comes by she drops and tries to take cover. A woman saw me, crossed the street, and told me the fact that my dog was doing that means she has bad joints and I need to get her to the vet immediately. When I asked her why she said that, she explained to me that her 10 year old dog does this and has bad joints. She surmised that my dog must have bad joints too. She didn't seem willing to listen to the old correlation is not causation argument.

The point is, people often come to incorrect conclusions because they don't have enough data. A vet would be less likely to have made the conclusion the woman did about my dog, not because vets are smarter or even because they have studied this, but because they see many more of these cases and therefore have a lot more data points to know when dogs drop to the ground because they're scared and when they do it because they're injured. The area of "big data" promises to give us a lot more data in order to analyze trends and outcomes and have more accuracy in our conclusions. There's a huge opportunity for a return on investment in this area. It not only allows us to be more accurate, but as in our work, it provides us with the ability to predict events we couldn't have predicted before. That means the ability for huge social returns like preventing disease and reducing poverty, and financial returns like predicting the stock market and finding the right audience of customers who want to buy products.

5. During the event I noticed you live Tweeting.  Did the use of social media change the way that you and your fellow researchers interact at an NIH event?

Most NIH researchers, or scientists in general, aren't big on tweeting. Most researchers are interested in doing their work and leave it up to others who may want to get their work out to the public. I find it tough to tweet and learn and that same time but I try because I think it's important to let the world know about what is happening in the science, tech, and public health community and I enjoy interacting with them about it.

6. A lot of the researchers at the BD2K event were focused on genomics and phenotype data collection.  Do we need to import terminology like genotype and phenotype into the study of social media to gain more understanding from the research community?  Are those terms already being used?

Genomics is a big area of study among big data researchers for a few reasons, but the most important reason is that we have a LOT of genome data. In order to do big data research, we need a lot of data, so researchers interested in this area often gravitate toward genomics. A lot of the advanced learning models are built on genomics data. When we work with a researcher like our own Professor Wei Wang, an expert in data mining, she has expertise in genomics data. She brings that language with her to our work. I therefore think it's unavoidable when working with experts in big data to not use language often used in genomics research. That's a good thing because it's gives a common language that people can use, but social data are different than genomics data, so we'll need to develop our own variation of the language over time.

7. What kind of improvements or additions would you like to see added to next years BD2K All Hands Grantee event?

The point of the meeting was to encourage cross-collaboration and talking between different groups and researchers. Doing multi-disciplinary work is something that universities and government always talk about and encourage, but they don't usually provide incentives for doing it. For example, researchers are supposed to publish their research, but most of the top journals are focused on one area, for example, cardiology or social psychology, and the researchers reviewing the science for those journals don't usually have interest or experience in other areas. That means that researchers doing interdisciplinary work have a tougher time getting their work respected and known. The big data area is designed to be interdisciplinary. Next year's meeting could really move forward by creating incentives for researchers to publish interdisciplinary work, like dedicated top journals and funding for projects that bring together experts from different fields to solve important problems.