Something for the weekend

Being a member of a close-knit group brings benefits, but there are downsides as well

The benefits of strong social connections have long been recognised - contentment and good health for example are just two of the plusses for individuals in a group. But if you happen to be on the outside of the group the negative consequences - according to the latest research - could be quite detrimental.

Academics from Chicago Booth and Kellogg have discovered that tight social connections can encourage groups members to view outsiders as “subhuman”. And the tighter the social connections, such as within the military or athletic teams then the more inclined group members can be to view outsiders derogatorily.

Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at Chicago Booth and Adam Waytz, a professor of management and organisations at Kellogg, suggest that belonging to a close knit group may encourage members to view those outside the social circle as having diminished mental capacities as if for example they are objects rather than people.

In a series of experiments the pair found that if participants were asked to think about someone close to them, this in turn could encourage a tendency to dehumanise other people. And in an additional experiment when the participant was actually with a close friend and then shown photographs of suspected terrorists, their reaction to the photographs showed “increased dehumanisation” and participants were also more willing “to endorse harsh interrogation practices towards them”.

The academics stress however that their research does not indicate that social ties always increase negativity towards others, but rather that it can “enable dehumanisation”.

The article is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

● As online shopping becomes more popular, customers are changing the way in which they choose goods. Whilst they would once go to a shop, look at a product and assess its various attributes - shape, design, weight, colour for example, this is no longer possible. Instead many online shoppers rely on customer reviews - a star system for example or the number of reviews - as an indication of whether the product is a good buy.

But academics from the Stern School of Business point out that consumer reviews - online comments written after an item has been purchased - are possibly even more of a valuable indication of whether or not a product will capture consumers’ attention and sell well. Existing text mining techniques they say have tended “not to provide quantitative evaluations of product features”.

In their paper Deriving the pricing power of product features by mining consumer reviews, published in Management Science, Anindya Ghose and Panagiotis Ipeirotis, associate professors in Stern’s department of information, operations and management sciences and Nikolay Archak a doctoral student, aim to estimate the “economic impact of user-generated product reviews by identifying the weight that consumers put on individual evaluations and product features and estimating the overall impact of review text on sales”.

Using economic and predictive modelling methods the researchers looked at the sales and online reviews of digital cameras and camcorders from Amazon. They have discovered that textual content in a product review can not only be used to understand consumer preferences for different product features but can also be of benefit to retailers as it can be used for “predictive modelling of future changes in sales”.

Previously they say, terms such as “easy to use” and “good design” were difficult to evaluate because of their subjective nature, whereas “long battery life” is a more objective evaluation. By combining modelling methods the researchers say that this can help to understand the “relative economic weight that consumers place on the features irrespective of whether they are objective or subjective”.

In turn they add, such information would help manufacturers and retailers to discover which features of their product contributed most to sales and which features should be promoted in advertisements.

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