September 26, 2016

Are Social Scientists Anti-Social? How to Test Hypotheses

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A colleague recently posed this question about social scientists' behavior while we chatted after a social event. She thought it was particularly interesting that sociologists, of all people, might not be the most social bunch at a gathering.

Of the small group engaged in this informal discussion, we considered this idea and searched for examples in support. We each agreed that we tended to be more on the introverted side, needing downtime to recharge after having lots of social interactions. I mentioned that one of my favorite activities is taking a walk while listening to a book (listening to books is the primary way I use my smartphone—not for texting, talking, using social media, or otherwise interacting with others).

Another colleague agreed and said that he would spend every day reading if he could, and we agreed that we wouldn’t be in academia if we didn’t all like to read—an activity that requires someone to be comfortable withdrawing from social interactions for at least a little while. Others in the conversation thought about their other friends in academia and agreed they would probably be less social.

I thought about professors I had as a student who were quite animated in the classroom but were extremely shy otherwise. One former professor walked around reading a book. I once got on an elevator right next to him and he never stopped reading. I’m not sure if he didn’t notice I was there or just didn’t want to engage in small talk.

We talked about other universities where we have friends, and discussed how many of them were in sprawling metropolitan areas. They probably lived far away from some of their colleagues, making it more difficult to gather socially outside of work.

One of us noted that friends in New York City were in their offices regularly before the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps because the transportation system there makes it easy to commute. And the small apartments in the city might not have enough space for people to comfortably work at home, so going to work is necessary to get anything done. (We commented on how much more work we get done at home because we are not interrupted by socializing.)

Maybe, the originator of the idea volunteered, those of us who are less social are better able to observe social interactions among others if we are not quite insiders.

The notion that social scientists tend to be less social is of course just a hypothesis, which we, being social scientists, acknowledged in our conversation. It was a compelling topic of conversation, and we had no shortage of examples to “support” the hypothesis, but this was just anecdotal evidence. What would we need to do to find actual support if we wanted to research this topic?

  1. First we would have to operationalize our variables. We might all have a sense of what it means to be “antisocial” or introverted, but we would have to come up with a concrete measure. It’s not enough to ask people if they are antisocial or introverted on a survey, we have to be very specific about what this means. Perhaps we could borrow a series of questions from psychologists to form a scale for our measure.
  1. We would have to choose a sample. If we hypothesize that social scientists are more antisocial, does that mean all social science disciplines? If so, compared with what? Would we compare social scientists to professors in the life sciences? The humanities? (I suspect we might be more social than some in these disciplines.) Or those who are not in academia? 
  1. Once we pick our comparison group, we would need to consider the possibility of self-selection bias, or the possibility that the characteristic we are testing for drove the decision to go to graduate school and become a college professor. Like my colleagues and I talked about, the fact that we all are interested in reading and thinking critically about abstract concepts—something that might be associated with more introversion—may have led us to become college professors in the first place. We could compare college professors to those with PhDs in the same field who chose to go into another profession. Are there other characteristics that might set apart the sociable from the less sociable? 

The big question we might ask—certainly before conducting any research—is why might this issue matter? I’m not sure it really does, other than as an interesting topic of conversation amongst colleagues. But it is an example of how we might make very keen observations about the world around us, observations that feel true, and yet they are merely anecdotal. Our observations can help us construct hypotheses, but we can’t draw conclusions about human behavior without conducting a well-planned research study.


A great observation! I am a freshman studying psychology and sociology at MSU Denver. I really want to enroll at USC and hopefully have you as a professor! I'm a huge fan of your work and love these posts you contribute to the blog.

I am an introvert as well, an INFJ according to the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). It would be interesting to see a study done using the MBTI to see what fields of study have the largest amount introverts and extroverts. You said you’re not sure why this issue might matter. If studies showed that sociologists were largely introverts, course material could be adapted in ways to better suit that personality type, but also to push them outside of their comfort zone. Alternatively, we could look at ways to make sociology more appealing to extroverts and increase their enrollment in sociology courses, thereby creating a more diverse body of students.

A bunch of anti-social social scientists engaging in a group conversation about the lack of socialising and smalltalk among scientists in their field.
I really appreciate the irony.

Hi there

I'm one of the Mentors on a Coursera course on Quantitative Research Methods, run by the University of Amsterdam. In fact, this course:

Great post. It contains much of the theory our students are grappling with, but in a real world and understandable example. I love that you've also included a basic outline of the thought process behind converting your casual conversation into a research methodology and then also asked the all important question of, does this matter?

I've linked to your blog post from our student forum. Thanks for posting.

Kathryn Elliott

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