Focus on CES: The Science Behind How to Brand Products


It’s that time of year again: tech companies have set up shop at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to spotlight their new devices. CES is incredibly popular—more than 175,000 people attended in 2015. 

Hot products such as drones and virtual reality devices are getting major exposure at CES, so there’s no arguing the show is a powerful springboard for breakthrough products. Some companies spend vast amounts on branding initiatives for devices launched at the show, only to see them quickly fail or never make it to market. This raises the question: does branding really matter when it comes to whether a new product succeeds? 

Consider Tesla’s entry-level car, the Model S. If we define branding as a constellation of feelings associated with a product, Tesla gets an A+ for its efforts. All of the core ideas associated with branding—a clear, consistent message; energy and attitude; a visible, passionate ambassador—are present. In turn, the company has been incredibly successful in its relatively brief existence. However, it’s more common to hear words like “mission” and “purpose” when Tesla is mentioned, terms not commonly associated with a brand.  Tesla seems to have the ability to appeal to people who care about its branding as a premium or green tech company as well as those who aren’t concerned about the brand but feel its cars have great utility. 

Consumers have either a fixed or growth mindset. Consumers with a fixed mindset seek to reinforce their own positive self-image (e.g., people who consider themselves environmentalists buy green products) while those with a growth mindset don’t care about the brand as much as finding products that will help them learn new things or improve themselves. This simple framing device is useful to consider at the beginning of the product development phase, as mindset helps to answer the most basic question about a product: who is it for?   

One study found that women with a fixed mindset perceived themselves to be better looking and more glamorous when using a Victoria's Secret shopping bag versus a plain bag. In another study by the same research team, students with a fixed mindset rated themselves as more intelligent and hardworking after using an MIT-branded pen versus an unbranded pen. The underlying idea is that people with a fixed mindset use brands to reflect who they are. On the other hand, people identified as having a growth mindset are more keyed into the idea of “process”—they see themselves as incomplete and capable of change. In short, a person with a growth mindset is more interested in how a product will improve his or her life. 

Mindsets are increasingly being seen as an important way to understand behavior. They influence what products people are drawn to and which messages they find the most persuasive. Returning to the example of the Model S, it may be that Tesla is so successful because its cars appeal to both mindsets. That is, the car is a luxury product, thus reinforcing the validation needs of the fixed mindset, but it also has a very strong appeal for those with a growth mindset—that’s where concepts of sustainability, innovation, and “mission” come into play. 

Whether you’re a well-established business, a startup in search of funding, or an entrepreneur looking to popularize a website, knowing the mindset of your audience can help shape what product you develop and how it finds its way to the world. Moreover, this knowledge gives designers, engineers, and marketers a shared way to strategize, and can help determine how much funding should be devoted to branding.

With a clear vision and an understanding of your target audience (and a little bit of luck), even the most outlandish product has a chance to succeed.

Overcoming "the Politician Effect": How to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick

Here’s an interesting finding: one third of online donations are made in the month of December and 22% of all gifts occur in the last two days of the year. This end-of-the-year donation rush happens because of New Year’s resolutions to do social good, tax breaks, and most importantly, because people want to help others. Yet, when asked whether they’re only giving because it’s the end of the year, most people say they’ll continue donating throughout the year. Why don’t people follow through with their resolutions to keep giving to charity? And this isn’t just a phenomenon that relates to charity - people don’t follow through with their New Year’s resolution’s to exercise and a ton of other things. So, how can you help people to stick with things they say they want to do?

A common response is that you can’t get people to follow through with things: some people follow through, others don’t.  Those who don’t follow through with their promises are just unmotivated or hypocrites. 

Take education. Students often write to me asking to get involved with our research. They schedule to meet with me, express their enthusiasm, and tell me they want to learn how to build technologies that get people to be heathier, predict disease outbreaks, or predict and stop cyberbullying. But when a project director assigns them something to complete, some of these students suddenly disappear. They stop responding to emails, stop showing up to meetings, and seem like they aren’t interested. What flakes or hypocrites, right? Not necessarily.

Social psychological research on attitude-behavior consistency explains that people are more likely to follow through with things they say that are specific, rather than general. For example, in a study on organ donation, people were asked whether they think positively or negatively about organ donation and then given a form allowing them to register to donate their organs. Surprisingly, the people who said they supported it weren’t that much more likely to register to donate than those were not supportive. However, people were also asked more specifically whether they would be willing to donate. Compared to those who said they weren’t likely to donate, those who said they were willing to donate were much more likely to actually donate.

This “Politician Effect,” as I call it, explains how people can appear like they aren’t following through with their plans when it might be because the communication was too vague. It can explain why some students in the scenario above don’t follow through with their plans of being involved in our research projects. Although they said they were generally interested, they might not have said they were interested in completing a specific project.

The lesson is, asking people the right questions, and communicating with the right words, can sometimes make the difference between a person seeming like a hypocrite or a saint. It can also mean the difference between them following through with their resolutions in the New Year and beyond. While it’s true that sometimes people don’t follow through with things even when they’re clearly described, we find that overcoming the Politician Effect helps a lot more people to follow through with their plans. For other strategies we’ve found on how to get people to keep doing things, look here.

Whether you’re an organization looking to get donors beyond the end-of-year donation rush, a teacher or manager helping students or employees to follow through on their education, or a friend trying to help another friend stick with their New Year’s resolution to be healthier, think about the Politician Effect. You’ll be more likely to help people follow through with their goals if you help them plan goals that are specific and use precise words. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

From Houston to Hanukkah: The Psychological Benefits of New Experiences

Last week, after finishing a presentation at the National HIV Prevention Conference, I took a cross-country flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles (via Houston). After boarding the plane, I found my seat next to a middle-aged woman. To be courteous, I introduced myself to her. In a distinct Southern drawl, she told me her name was Laura and that she was flying home to Houston to spend Christmas with her family.

I nodded and began to arrange my carry-on items. I started a mental review of what had transpired at the conference: who I’d met, whether my presentation was successful, and what I had to do when I arrived home.

"Do you live in Houston?” Laura asked.

“No,” I said, welcoming the break in silence to learn about her life. I explained that I was returning from a meeting and was anxious to get home after a busy schedule of traveling the past few weeks.

“I understand,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the holidays to relax with my family. I planned to use this flight to do some Christmas shopping. Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”

 “Well, I’m Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah,” I said. “So luckily, I’m already done with most of my shopping.”

“Oh,” she said. She opened her laptop, paused, and said, “That’s great. I know someone who’s Jewish.”

I laughed. “On behalf of our people, I hope he or she didn’t disappoint you,” I joked.     

Despite our apparent differences, we wound up talking throughout the flight—about her transition from an accountant to an event planner, my work as a behavioral scientist, and about life in Los Angeles vs. Houston. I realized that by the end of the two-hour flight we knew a lot about each other’s lives and beliefs. “You have to see the rodeo in the spring,” she said as we touched down in Houston. Before heading out, she handed me a piece of paper with her email address and phone number. “Come visit during March. My husband and I would love to show you a real Texas rodeo,” she said, with a wink and genuine warmth.

On the second leg of my trip, I thought a lot about Laura. Before meeting her, I would have thought we’d have little to talk about, no common ground. Her views and daily life were way out of alignment with my own, yet getting to know her turned out to be one of the highlights of my short trip.

Research has shown that we prefer to associate with people who think like we do. This tendency, known as confirmation bias, is the behavior of seeking or interpreting ideas in a way that favors personal beliefs. Finding ways to understand confirmation bias is a major feature of the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Dr. Haidt focuses on the world of politics, but his underlying theme is that relationships shouldn’t simply be about trying to sway or inform people. Rather, every relationship offers the opportunity to learn a new perspective—something I always try to keep in mind.

Being open to a conversation with a stranger on a plane (or on your local street corner) won’t cure the world’s ills, but it’s a start at uniting people from different backgrounds and cultures, and it might lead to a new friendship—or even the opportunity to attend a rodeo.

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.

FAQ with Sean Young, PhD

1. What was the "aha" moment where you decided that behavior prediction technology was the path you would dedicate yourself to?  Was there something you read or witnessed or experienced?

To clarify — I’m answering your question about my interest in behavior “prediction” technology, but my general interest in psychology and technologies came before this when I was at Stanford and working at NASA)

It was actually a multi-year 'aha' moment. I think all of my ‘aha’ moments come from my interest in doing things that most people think is crazy, weird, or not possible. If my pursuit leads to something valuable, it sparks an ‘aha’ moment. For example, my friend Gopal was working at Cisco and pulled me to work with him on a project called "mind map, or using technologies to map how humans think.

It was an ambitious project and so we started small looking at whether we could use data to predict anything about people. This was back in 2006 or 2007 when Facebook was growing and we could use Facebook book data for the study. I started keeping spreadsheets of my friends on Facebook to learn when they changed their profiles and explore why. I would document, by hand, when they changed anything, like when they added where they were going to school, removed an interest in football from their profile and replaced it by saying were interested in baseball instead, or changed their relationship status from single to "it's complicated." I'd call up my friends and ask them why they changed these  things. People had mixed reactions when I asked them. Most of my close friends understood me and chalked it up to me being inquisitive and weird. Some of my friends thought it was funny that I was doing this, and others thought it was creepy. (Little did they know that within a few years this would be commonplace-- there would be companies creating robots to monitor almost every action they took in life. At the time, behavioral targeting (or the ads you see targeted towards you when you’re online were terrible—guys with lives that revolved around playing fantasy sports would be shown ads for getting maternal eggs harvested. Ads are now a lot more accurate because they use these types of data to understand people) From this work, we ultimately published a pretty interesting paper on how to read behind the lines of what it really means when people change their relationship status. This was one of the first papers I know using social data to predict things.

At the same time, I was studying how to use technologies to prevent the spread of HIV. We were building online communities based on behavior change science, through an approach we called Harnessing Online Peer Education (HOPE). HOPE had people at risk for HIV join our online communities. (Since those initial studies we found that the HOPE approach has been pretty successful. In multiple studies in different groups across the world, we’ve seen HOPE get people engaged in long-term behavior change that sticks.) But we found something interesting happening. People were invited to private HOPE online community groups but immediately were sharing really personal information to strangers in the group, like what is was like being a married man who has sex with other men without telling his wife, or types of illegal drugs people were using. If people were instantly sharing such personal information with strangers through our HOPE communities, then perhaps they were also doing it on sites that were more public, like Twitter. The advantage to searching here was that Twitter provides access to a ton of their data, so we would be able to study “big data.” As I dug into the data, I was shocked at what people shared. There were a lot of people who had thought that social media was a pointless fad, a way for people and businesses to self-promote, and that it had no potential for social good. As I looked through the data, I thought I was finding a gold mine for advancing research in a ton of areas. Not to mention I was really excited because I wouldn’t be able to do 1/10th of the work on my own. I’d need to rejoin with my engineering friends I missed from graduate school and get their help. And I’d be able to learn a lot along the way about how people in different fields do research.

2. I can see from your research work on HIV that Twitter has played a critical role in your ability to predict the spread of disease.  Can this be applied to influenza and less extreme cases, or is there something specific about HIV on social media that made those results possible?

Twitter and other social media can definitely be applied to influenza and other areas. In fact, it’s easier to apply it to those areas. As long as people feel comfortable and free using social technologies, then theoretically we should be able to use data from these technologies to predict almost anything. The limiting factor is whether we have what is called “gold standard data,” or data on actual events occurring (like cases where people have contracted HIV or influenza), as well as the frequency of getting those data. For example, influenza data are provided frequently, every week I think. That makes it much easier to create models to predict influenza compared to something like HIV, where national data on HIV cases are released about 2 years after they occur. That means that there’s huge value if we can predict HIV. It’s 2015 right now and we won’t know until well into 2016 or 2017 how many HIV cases occurred. If we can use social data to predict that number a little earlier it could have a huge impact on people’s health, it could reduce disease, save money, and prolong people’s lives.

3. Is there some fundamental truth about social media that lends itself to public health?  For example, 30 years ago, if I dedicated myself to hooking up with an anonymous stranger for unprotected sex, I might scribble my phone number on a bathroom stall at a rest stop gas station.  If Sean Young, PhD existed as an HIV prevention advocate in the early 1980's, would you be calling up gas station owners for frequent reports on the latest bathroom stall graffiti?

That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say there is a fundamental truth about social media or social data. As a psychologist, I would say that everything that people do leaves a trace of their psychology. The trick is knowing how to interpret what they do and read between the lines to know what it means. Not everyone would write on a bathroom wall, and of the people that would, they would only do it in certain times and contexts. (I’ll save people from my bathroom humor by not describing when some of those times would be). Social media is no different. There isn’t anything unique about us being able to get data on people’s behaviors from social media that we couldn’t get from other places. The point is that there is sooooo much data—for example 500 million tweets a day --- that it’s easy to analyze the data. Researchers want as much data as possible to confirm their hypotheses. Because there’s so much social data it gives us the ability to test and refine hypotheses about why people do things and how we can use this information to predict and solve real-world problems.

4. If you could have a face to face with the CTO of Twitter and request some changes to their technology that would improve health outcomes and prevent disasters, what would they be?

Ha ha. You’re touching on some things I used to think about from a social entrepreneurial perspective back in the day, like building a Twitter designed to get people working together to solve important global issues. Twitter’s most recent earnings call shows they’re having some major business problems with an uncertain future so I’d let Jack off the hook and let him figure out what to do with Twitter first. After that, I’d ask him whether he’d be willing to help with an effort to bring together companies with large amounts of data like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Google, to have them provide access to public health researchers. Then he’d probably laugh and never talk to me again. 

5. What clues do human beings leave on social media that they are about to hurt themselves or others?  Are there some big flashing signs that society is missing and should be educated about?

There’s no quick answer for this. Psychologists know you have to observe people over time to understand their patterns. Clinicians can look for certain signs like people not making consistent eye contact to know something might be wrong. There are ways of translating this to social media. But the clearest example would be the college student in October 2014 who talked on Twitter about his fear and disgust about his own and other people’s lives. A month later he killed 3 students and then took his own life.

6. Looking at what's trending on social media now, including my own, is there a glaring prediction for some coming cataclysmic event that you can share with me?

A big drop in the stock market.

7. Has there ever been a moment, working with predictive technology, that you have felt compelled to have someone committed to psychiatric care or call the police to warn of a crime?

No. So far we’ve been working at a population level, or looking at large groups of people to learn about their patterns. More recently, we’re studying individuals and so it’s likely I’d get those moments in the future. There’s still an interesting ethical question about whether and when people should act on those insights and actually intervene.

8. You work in the Family Medicine Department at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.  How can physicians and therapists use social media to gain greater insight into their patients?  Do you foresee Twitter feeds becoming a diagnostic data type formally integrated into electronic health records?

While these questions are focused primarily on Twitter, there’s a lot more than Twitter that can be used to provide predictive information to help in areas like public health and medicine. Other forms of social media, like Instagram, as well as wearable device data and search data all provides insights about behavior too. The department and the health system as a whole is already interested in applying some of our research. For example, the health system has asked me to be involved in integrating social data with medical records data to learn how we can have a more complete picture of patient health. Also, we’ve built a technology platform used to change patient behavior that is being tested on UCLA patients to improve their health. We’ll be able to use the data from studies and technologies like that to better understand patient needs, increase patient engagement/retention, and improve delivery of care. 

9. From a theoretical perspective, is there anything in the work of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler or the other pioneers of psychology that prepared you for your research?  Is there anything that you find yourself returning to philosophically?

I remember an early psychology course I took in grad school at Stanford. The professor began the class by saying, this is a psychology class and so many of you might think of Freud. Almost everything that we’ll study has already been mentioned in some way by Freud. But there’s no basis for most of ideas. He wasn’t a scientist. That’s why there are barely any psychologists who still practice Freudian psychoanalysis or teach his theories. We use science to study our ideas and so this will be the last mention you’ll hear of Freud in this class.

As a social and behavioral psychologist, most of my theories come from classic psychologists like Kurt Lewin, Leon Festinger, Stanley Milgram, and Daniel Kahneman/Amos Tversky; my graduate school mentors like Lee Ross, Benoit Monin, Albert Bandura, Claude Steele, and Bob Zajonc; and friends and colleagues like Danny Oppenheimer, Dave Nussbaum, Jonah Berger, Chris Bryan, and Hal Hirschfield

10. Are you planning future studies that incorporate Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp or other social media technologies?

We’re in conversations like that right now and so I’m not sure what the companies would allow me to divulge at this point, but the short answer is yes.