This new, uncharted area of scientific research is the focus of Associate Professor Emma Thomas, and her expertise is in high demand.
Online technologies are providing a powerful lens that is magnifying critical aspects of social behaviour. This year, people have inevitably engaged more and with greater intensity online, prompting questions about many psychological aspects of online engagement.
“The technology may be new, but the psychology is old,” says Associate Professor Thomas, recipient of an SA Young Tall Poppy Science Award in 2018. “There is a set of psychological responses that probably have motivated political engagement and extremism since the beginning of time. Now we can see that these behaviours of people engaging in revolutions and political violence, or even misinformation and rumour, are being expressed and exposed on an immense, never-before seen scale thanks to social media.”
Associate Professor Thomas suggests that we are all participating in a vast global social experiment where online technologies make everything possible. “What motivates people to donate to relief funds, or take to the street in protest? What makes them co-act with other people who share their ideals about how they want the world to be? These are gritty scientific questions, underpinning real-world problems that need to be better understood.”
Shaping such new research requires breaking down many accepted norms. The idea that people form groups based on their shared opinions – the subject of Associate Professor Thomas’s PhD study – was contrary to psychologists’ accepted view that meaningful groups are primarily based on gender, race or other formal affiliations. And for a field of science that focuses on social influences, very little research examined real, actual social interactions between people. Yet while other academics quibbled over the idea that people form strongly polarised groups based on social and political ideals, the global firestorm of online interaction began to take off. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter started to have a resounding effect and a new field of study gained traction.
Standing at the frontier of something so very new is daunting, but not overwhelming. “Sometimes people say to me that these events are so multifactorial and complicated, that they are impossible to study via the traditional methods of science. But I say if the human body, in all its complexity, can be studied by breaking it down to examining molecules, cells and enzymes, then we can use the same kind of methods to understand these social and political phenomena,” says Associate Professor Thomas. “We conduct experiments, but we’re still trying to describe and understand. Understanding the motives from the perspective of the person who is engaging is the first step. It’s only after achieving this that we can start to intervene more effectively.”
However, her studies also involve extreme groups, aiming to identify what binds them and maintains their belief structures. It ranges from right-wing extremists to groups sharing aberrant beliefs, such as anti-vaxxers or people who believe 5G caused COVID-19. “If you're the only person who thinks that the telecommunications network is making you sick, you would probably be treated as someone with a psychological delusion. If you share that with someone online and they agree with you, it’s no longer just an individual thought, but can become the basis for forming a new group around shared opinions and beliefs about social relations.
“The same mechanisms that can be used to organise good in the world can also explain how people mobilise around ideas that seem completely bizarre to someone outside of that group. The psychology has similar elements, although some of the key ingredients are different.”
Associate Professor Thomas’s perspective came from wanting to study what motivates people to make social protests. She initially studied psychology believing it would help her to get a job that involved working with people, but during the course her interest in unsolved questions about social influence ignited a passion for research. “It was the scale of charitable response to the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 that struck me,” she says. “Other entrenched forms of disadvantage don’t elicit the same extraordinary levels of public support, so my early work set about identifying what motivates people to support humanitarian causes.”