Thursday, August 4, 2011

Three words, a world of difference

I am teaching a field course in Algonquin this summer, and I "stress", i.e. grade, two components of field work during this course: a group science project, and an individual natural history project. So the distinction (and similarities) between qualitative and quantitative are on the forefront of mind. This if, of course, compounded by Ingrid who will bring the qualitative approach into the hypothetico-deductive, quantitative, bastion that Integrative Biology is, after years of being exposed to Tom Nudds's beating the bush ;-)

I recently wrote about a discussion with Ingrid on this subject, and I ended with the question:
"So now I have these two pieces of information dealing with the same issue, one qualitative, on quantitative. Which one is the most memorable, most true, most relevant?"
Since I have no background at all in the study of this distinction between quantitative and qualitative evidence, I am slowly re-discovering the literature on this subject, in my own, rather passively, Google Reader driven, way. There is probably some great literature on this, both quantitative and qualitative, but given my personal preferences, this article that recently appeared in PNAS (Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self by Bryan et al.), has a clue to answering one of these three questions. In a real experiment, they asked potential voters how importing voting is for them, but with two experimental conditions:
"In each experiment, participants completed one of two versions of a brief survey. In one version, a short series of questions referred to voting using a self-relevant noun (e.g., “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?”); in the other, questions that were otherwise identical referred to voting using a verb (e.g., “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”)."
Based on previous research:
"So we hypothesized that using a predicate noun (e.g., “to be a voter”) as opposed to a verb (e.g., “to vote”) to refer to participation in an upcoming election would create a greater interest in and likelihood of performing that behavior—registering to vote and voting. If this hypothesis were confirmed, it would be evidence for the more general theoretical idea that simply framing a future behavior as a way to claim a desired identity can motivate that behavior."
 This simple difference in three words ("to be voter" versus "to vote") increased the actual, measured, voting by more than 10%! Now if we combine this amazing result with an assumption that it is easier for somebody to self-identify with a story about somebody else versus a graph or a statistic, I think that the starting hypothesis to the question "Which one is the most memorable?", is the qualitative piece of information. Whether this makes it also more true, and consequently more relevant, is still a completely different matter.

The results of this study also have other implications, though. One of the basic tenets in course design are learning objectives (see for instance this document from the University of Guelph). I advocates SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) verbs. The document already stresses the importance of writing them from the student's perspective, which makes it easier for the students to self-identify with them, but how about a study that randomly divides a class in two, and one half of the students get the learning objectives with action verbs, the other half with action nouns. Would this also result in a 10% increase in learner outcomes?


  1. And here is a review of a book that explores a similar idea:

  2. So cool! What a neat experiment and telling results.

    I couldn’t help but analyze the two questions a little bit, and interpret them slightly cynically:

    “How important is it to you to be a voter?”—the way I read it, this question doesn’t ask whether you value being a voter, but whether you value democracy. “Being a voter” doesn’t mean that you actually vote, just that you have a certain right and live in a certain kind of society. So, it’s not surprising to me that people self-identify more with “being a voter”—it means you care for democracy (even if you don’t care to vote).

    Whereas, “How important is it to you to vote?”—this question asks whether you value actual voting. Again, it’s not surprising to me that people self-identify less here; a lot of people care for democracy, but don’t end up translating that value into actual voting. The verb is just a little too close for comfort; it means you actually have to change your habit, make an effort, disrupt your day to go to the voting booth. The noun, on the other hand, is a step removed from those actions. “Being a voter” means you can like democracy and feel good about it, and yet remain completely complacent. “Being a voter” lets you enjoy the idealisms of democracy in the theoretical; no need to turn it into a practical.

    The authors contend that participants self-identified more with the noun than the verb. I wasn’t really sure about this. I thought perhaps they were simply responding to two questions with two different meanings. And the honest answer is that: Yes, we like democracy, but no, we don’t want to have to do anything extra.

    However, regardless of what the participants were responding to (a difference in linguistics, or a difference in meaning), I still think the results were pretty amazing: self-identification with “being a voter” actually compelled people to Vote! It seems that people actually took on the behaviour of an ideal that made its way to their consciousness (via the survey). It’s so interesting to wonder about the mechanisms that caused this to happen.

    We could say that people have an innate desire to be good, active citizens (“democracy’s important and I should vote”), and that self-identification with this ideal (“why yes, it is important to me to be a voter”) actually affirmed this innate desire, which compelled a change in behaviour.

    Likewise, we could say that people have an inclination to be apathetic (“democracy’s important and I should vote, but what difference would it make anyway?”), and that self-identification with this sentiment (“well, no, voting’s not that important to me; it’s futile, plus I don't have the time”) affirmed this apathy, and perpetuated the routine passivity that characterizes North America’s democratic process.

    I like the optimism of the authors. They believe that people want to be good, and that there are ways to bring closer that innate goodness already present in our identities.

  3. I think the cynical interpretation is exactly what the authors mean: "Previous research has shown that people have a strong desire to see themselves as competent, morally appropriate, and worthy of social approval (4–11). They also see voting as appropriate and socially desirable (12, 13). Thus, being the kind of person who votes may be seen as a way to build and maintain a positive image of the self—to claim a desired and socially valued identity. Accordingly, people may be more likely to vote when voting is represented as an expression of self—as symbolic of a person's fundamental character—rather than as simply a behavior." And they acknowledge that these two questions are different.

    And talking about words, these authors are not just optimists because they "believe" that people want to be good, they actually illustrated the innate goodness in us can be manipulated in a positive way. This of course begs the question, can it be manipulated in a negative way?