Sharing what others believe: separating information stereotypicality and complexity in communication

Funded by FCT
PTDC/MHC-PSO/4447/2012; 01/05/2013 to 31/10/2015
Researcher: Elizabeth C. Collins

Some information spreads quickly between people, some does not. By understanding how information will disseminate through a group or culture, we learn how to predict trends, and change attitudes and behaviors (Ce10). Much is known about what information spreads, and who communicates it to whom, but it is still difficult to predict what information will ‘go viral’ or to correct false beliefs, such as false stereotypes. Existing explanations of information flow focus on two factors: the complexity of the information and the relational tie strength of the people communicating. Here we propose research that will, for the first time, examine information stereotypicality and information complexity as separate variables because we believe they have different effects on information flow. We will also differentiate between two types of strong relational ties: quantitatively strong (interaction duration and frequency) and qualitatively close (emotional closeness).


The project’s principal investigator, Elizabeth Collins, has a significant body of research on communication, including within a social network. Diniz Lopes is an expert in shared information and intragroup interactions. Consultant Eliot Smith is an expert on research into social cognition and social networks. Consultant Shuoyang Zhang is an expert in tie strength and information dissemination. The PI and the consultants collaborate regularly. They have contributed significantly to the project proposal and the PI will rely on their expertise in all throughout the project, including study designs, data analyses, and manuscript preparation.


Research has shown that simple information (e.g., a job opening, a typical behavior by someone) spreads quickly and spreads between people who are mere acquaintances (weak ties) as well as between people who are close (strong ties; Gr73). Complex information (information requiring more cognitive resources for comprehension; e.g., complex technical information, someone’s unusual behavior) spreads across strong ties (close friends, relatives, work team members) more than weak ties (acquaintances; Ha99). In group discussions, there is bias toward discussing information known by all group members (shared information; StTi85). Culturally non-normative information (e.g., a ghost story from a foreign culture) is transformed into culturally shared information (Ba32). Because cultural stereotypes are one type of shared information, or common ground (ClScBu83), and easily understood (ZoTaMoLeLaCh09) they are frequently communicated (LyKa03; Ru98). Stereotype consistent (SC) information spreads over weak ties (LyKa03) more than stereotype inconsistent (SI) does; however, this difference is attenuated across strong ties (McLyClKa04; RuSaHa03). Because SC information tends to be both simpler and more shared than SI, this earlier research cannot distinguish the effect of complexity from that of sharedness.


The common definition of relational strength is also problematic. Quantitative strength is conceptually distinct from, although positively correlated with, qualitative closeness (MaCa85; Zh09). Usually, when measuring tie strength, only one dimension is measured. We plan to separate these concepts and examine how information spreads between people with different types of strong ties. This distinction is important because we hypothesize that quantitative strength and qualitative closeness will have different effects on information spread. If frequent interaction is expected (quantitative strength), interesting (Gr75) complex information should be communicated; however, SI information should be communicated only if the relationship is qualitatively close, independent of quantitative strength. This is because SI information is culturally non-normative (ZoTaMoLeLaCh09), and thus likely to cause discomfort if discussed by conversation partners without common ground about that topic. We expect the reverse as well: communicating SI information should increase ratings of qualitative closeness. We will also examine whether communicating complex information increases ratings of quantitative strength.


It is possible that these variables have simple main effect relationships: increasing quantitative strength increases communication of complex information (and possibly the reverse); and increasing qualitative closeness increases communication of SI information (and the reverse). However, preliminary findings suggest that these variables interact in more complicated ways, which we plan to examine with this project.


Understanding information dissemination is vital to many other psychological phenomena, such as persuasion and attitude change; and interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup relations. This research will increase our understanding of stereotype maintenance and change, as well as pluralistic ignorance (PrMi93) as well. Thus it will be applicable beyond academics, to business, social services and public policy interests.






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