January 19, 2017

Facebook researchers at SPSP 2017

By: Joshua A. Tabak

This week I will be speaking at SPSP 2017, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual convention, about behavioral science in industry.  As I reflected on how I spend my time as an industry practitioner – traveling the world to understand the users or potential users of the products and services Facebook delivers to people around the globe – I realized there is one particular area where closer partnerships from industry and academia may be able to shine new light in social and personality psychology: that of cross-cultural psychology.

I will illustrate my perspective through a story about how social and personality psychology currently treats cultural differences in behavior as well as some thoughts on how industry and academia may partner in the future to change some underlying dynamics and gain a true global understanding of the world.

Let’s start with food; many foods have generally agreed-upon, established associations based on where they originated (or are perceived to have originated) or ethnic association.

If you think about fried chicken, many people in the US would automatically associate it as being from the South, just as they would culturally associate spaghetti as being from Italy.

What would you think if I told you about a meal where the spaghetti was in a sweet red sauce and was served with fried chicken? Would you believe me if I told you it was a meal typical of an Asian country?  Does that meal fit with your concept of “Asian food”?

I asked a sample of 233 participants from an online panel, representative of people in the USA, which of the following meals they thought was “Asian food”:

  • Steak and eggs
  • Shrimp and grits
  • Fish and chips
  • Fried chicken and spaghetti
  • None of the above.
Figure 1. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.

As you can see (Figure 1), the respondents overwhelmingly said that none of the meals were “Asian food” – but fried chicken and spaghetti is. This is not a trick question. This meal is squarely from the Philippines, an Asian country. The meal may not be immediately associated as Asian amongst the US population due to Western culinary stereotypes that tend to lump together countries we are more familiar with, such as China and Japan, while largely ignoring the rest of the varied and vast Asian continent. We researchers also fall into the trap of basing our conclusions about Asia on data from a sample of Asian countries that cannot reasonably generalize to the entire region.

If fried chicken and spaghetti is an Asian meal and none of us knew that, what else are we missing?

While Asia is a vast, diverse area of the globe, I could not remember ever seeing a published paper from social psychology that included research from the Philippines. So we checked four top journals: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, and found that in the past decade, there has only been approximately one paper published that included data collected in the Philippines. Why is that? The Philippines is an archipelago nation of about 100 million people in Southeast Asia. A high percentage of its population not only speaks English but also has regular personal interactions with Westerners due to jobs in tourism or business process outsourcing (i.e., call centers). Yet over the past ten years, in 4 top journals, the vast majority of the data collected in the East – the data for nearly 80% of the papers we examined – was only collected in China or Japan. One reason that data from China or Japan probably cannot speak to psyche and behavior in the East or Asia as a whole is that Asia is replete with countries whose cultures have been influenced by Western colonization, yet China and Japan were never colonized by the West.

Psychology’s undersampling is not unique to the Philippines; the same goes for Indonesia, another Southeast Asian archipelago nation. Over the past ten years, approximately one published study included data collected from Indonesia. I find that surprising given that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, with over a quarter of a billion citizens. Perhaps the fact that it is a predominantly Muslim country is irrelevant. However, I believe Indonesia offers the potential to discover interesting social phenomena built upon Muslim values (similar to how US-focused research often finds roots for psychological phenomena in Judeo-Christian values). Indonesia is certainly very different culturally than China and Japan, so why aren’t we, as a field, doing research there?

The issue with cross-cultural psychology is not just that research is primarily conducted in two Asian countries. The concern is how we, as a field, generalize from the data we collect. In these top four journals over the past ten years, the overwhelming majority of papers included data collected from only one Asian country, yet about half of them made some sort of holistic East vs West generalization in their conclusions.

So where do we go from here? From here, we need to go everywhere. We can’t keep collecting data from two Asian countries and assume that we are bringing a global perspective to the field. Here are two thoughts:

Figure 2.
  1. Social and personality psychology as a field has an opportunity to develop a new paradigm: extremely brief (think 5 minutes or less) academic studies that do not rely on random or representative samples. Industry researchers often accept requests from each other to add very brief “tack on” studies to their longer research sessions; coopting this practice to propose brief academic studies that could be tacked onto existing industry research plans across the globe might create low-cost collaboration that could yield tremendous amounts of data for academics from countries that they do not typically have access to for data collection. The countries I have travelled to over the past 5 years are shown in Figure 2; multiply that across the number of practitioners who travel abroad for work and imagine how much of the world we could cover if we tacked on a little academic study to every business trip we took.
  2. Partner with local researchers practicing outside academia. Whenever I conduct research outside the US, I partner with skilled local researchers. They often do not have the same backgrounds as academic psychologists, but that doesn’t detract from the valuable insights they have about the local population or their abilities to be valuable research collaborators.
Delivering my talk at SPSP.

SPSP 2017 brings together the top social and personality psychologists in the world, giving us the opportunity to present and discuss research, network and collaborate on projects, while advancing science and pedagogy in the field. I’m looking forward to working with my fellow psychologists in industry and academia to discuss together how we might all bring a truly global perspective to our work.

Other Facebook Research being presented at SPSP:

Does the Course of Premarital Courtship Predict Newlywed’s Subsequent Marital Outcomes?
By Grace Jackson, UCLA (now at Facebook), Thomas Bradbury, UCLA and Benjamin Karney, UCLA.

Income Inequality and Infrahumanizing Attitudes toward Political Outgroups, by Emily Becklund, UC Berkeley (now at Facebook) and Serena Chen, UC Berkley.

Preparing Your Students for a Career in the Private Sector, by Liz Keneski, Erin Baker, Tim Loving, and Kelley Robinson all of Facebook.