Commentary RESEARCH

Big data boosts social mentality studies


2021-09-08 07:28

Chen Hao
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Social mentality generally refers to the sum of consensuses, emotions, feelings, and value orientations extensively present within the whole of society, or various social groups and social categories, over a period of time. Positive and healthy social mentality is the premise of social stability and the social psychological basis for effective social governance and innovation. Therefore, for any society undergoing rapid development and change, the significance of social mentality studies is beyond doubt.


When it comes to social sciences in China, social mentality is a widely accepted yet ambiguous concept. So far, social psychologists haven’t reached a consensus on issues such as the correct definition of social mentality. Nonetheless, it may be the second most frequently used term after “social psychology” in related studies, though it may also be the most misused term. Scholars employ the term “social mentality” from different perspectives or simply on intuition, and their understanding of its connotations is quite variable. 

Social mentality is, as both a psychological fact and a social reality, something that evades straightforward conceptualization. It contains multiple psychological constructs. Either from the theoretical level or the operational measurement level, social mentality is like a conceptual umbrella. It seems that any prominent social psychological characteristics and ideological trends of the whole society or a particular social group can be put under the purview of social mentality. 

Moreover, the structure, mechanism, and measurement index of social mentality are primarily based on subjective theoretical analysis. Without the definition and analysis of the basic elements and structure of social mentality, the empirical study of social mentality will inevitably be incomplete. One-sided description of the social phenomenon concerned and the characteristic analysis are deemed to lack the power of systematic explanation and prediction.

Therefore, we need to ask: what are the relatively clear and stable set of necessary variables under the conceptual umbrella of social mentality? Is there a more concise internal framework between the elements, such as the basic structure of social mentality? In view of the large number of existing and temporarily juxtaposed social psychological concepts (e.g. sense of trust, sense of justice) and a small number of localized new constructs (e.g. sense of gain) that are incorporated into the conceptual umbrella, what can we learn from the theoretical model of personality psychology and the exploration and development path of its authoritative measurement tools? 

The research and development of the Chinese Personality Assessment Inventory (CPAI), which is driven by both theory and data, is meant to explore the basic structure of Chinese personality. It does so by constructing an inventory relevant to Chinese culture while retaining the high standards of test validity and reliability expected of established assessment instruments.

In this context, social psychology researchers can borrow the dimensionality reduction methods of big data technology, and try to create an “N-dimensional model” similar to CPAI’s “four-dimensional model” in measuring the basic structure of Chinese social mentality.

Impact of social media

Will the popularization of internet technology, especially social media applications in the Web 2.0 era, lead to substantial changes in the formation and development of specific social mentality? In other words, is there a unique phenomenon and mechanism of internet social mentality? Or is it just the formation and changing process of social mentality, which is visualized in real time by the internet to a greater extent? This is an unsolved problem worth further exploration in both theoretical and empirical aspects.

The rise of cyber psychology, also known as internet psychology, web psychology, or digital psychology, was dominated by North American psychologists. Under their influence, scholars generally held the view: the so-called new virtual social scenario brought by internet technology will greatly change human psychological and behavioral patterns. 

Typical studies in cyber psychology include online and offline personality differences, network de-individuation, and group view polarization (i.e., metaphorical concepts of “echo chamber” and “information cocoon” in communication studies), concluding that people in virtual space show different psychological and behavioral characteristics in contrast to real-life scenarios. 

However, a number of subsequent studies rejected such a myth. Concrete studies found that the personality traits people display online and offline are more consistent or feature-enhanced than they are substantially different from each other. It is true that de-individuation will occur more often in anonymous cyberspace, just like when we are in a noisy crowd in reality. However, it is easier for individuals to identify with certain real-life social groups online. 

As classical collective action theory in social psychology anticipated, the internet is likely to activate some real-life group identity more heterogeneously and frequently at some point, upon taking into account nation, region, gender, class, viewpoint, values, and preference factors, so as to highlight such a group identity, and lead individuals to think and act correspondingly.

In the past three decades, the studies of internet psychology have yet to cross the existing theoretical boundaries of social psychology that primarily focuses on real-life situations. Therefore, there is no recognized and influential new theoretical framework in the field of internet psychology.

Big data

However, in the internet era, the massive digital information traces left by individual and group behaviors make it possible to better study the formation and development process of social mentality. Today, big data technology is reshaping the social psychology research paradigm, creating an opportunity for the empirical study of social mentality structure and its evolution mechanism.

At present, the application of informatics approaches has already paid large dividends, leading to advances including novel data collection approaches, the adaptation of computational techniques and insights, the enhanced aggregation and organization of psychological data, and large-scale data mining and synthesis. 

Tal Yarkoni, an American scholar on computational psychology, proposed an emerging discipline called “psychoinformatics” that uses tools and techniques from the computer and information sciences to improve the acquisition, organization, and synthesis of psychological data, which has drawn wide attention from academics in relevant fields. 

In addition, Michal Kosinski, operations director at the Psychometric Centre, who conducted the research with his Cambridge colleague David Stillwell and Thore Graepel from Microsoft Research, analyzed a data set of over 58,000 US Facebook users, and found that users’ race, age, IQ, sexuality, personality, substance use, and political views can be predicted from automated analysis of only their Facebook Likes more accurately than most of their friends and family could predict them.

At the same time, similar big data psychological research such as the Big Five Personality Traits Model based on social media texts and spatial mobile location information, and the Social Cognitive Interpersonal Process Model based on mobile phone and other wearable devices, also generate fruitful results.

Chinese index system

Going forward, social mentality research can rely on massive text information data collected from representative samples of users on social media platforms, and big data technologies such as machine learning, to build a big data index system for measuring social mentality in China. 

The big data index system formed by mapping and association modeling with traditional social mentality questionnaire data is expected to reveal the basic dimensional structure of social mentality through the identification of necessary variables and dimensionality reduction. Compared with the dimensional indexes generated by conventional social mentality questionnaire data, the new measurement system based on the massive digital traces of the internet can realize automatic real-time perception on a more representative and broader group of internet users. It can depict the psychological characteristics of individuals and macro groups in a dynamic manner, thus mapping out how individuals and society interact and construct the most macro-psychological relationships. It can also help us understand how social mentality plays a role in shaping individual mentality. In the end, we can clarify the mechanism of the occurrence and development of social mentality to a greater extent.

Bearing that in mind, social mentality researchers in China might as well prepare for a rainy day and use the panel data analysis and time series analysis technology to predict the trend of Chinese social mentality, comprehensively promoting big data applications in Chinese social mentality studies, and improving the modernization of social governance in a scientific manner, so as to better serve the goal of the times to meet people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.

Chen Hao is an associate professor from the Department of Social Psychology at the Zhou Enlai School of Government at Nankai University.




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