The sounds of social life: exploring students' daily social environments and natural conversations
Mehl, Matthias Richard
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Recently, concerns have been raised that psychology has lost contact with naturally-occurring social life and that the discipline would benefit from a course correction towards more context- and culture-sensitive research. What do people do over the course of a day? What psychological factors account for the different lives they live? These questions aim at rather basic issues in psychology. Yet surprisingly little is known about how individuals behave, select situations, and interact with their environments in the real world. We have recently introduced the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) as a research tool for sampling behavioral data in naturalistic settings. The EAR records 30-second snippets of ambient sounds in participants’ immediate environments approximately every 12 minutes. This dissertation used three major EAR data sets to reveal how students’ social lives are related to basic psychological processes that traditionally have been at the heart of the discipline. Study 1 laid the methodological foundations by showing that the EAR is generally tolerated well by students, perceived as fairly unobtrusive, and worn with high levels of compliance. Study 2 provided a quantitative ethnography of students’ daily lives. It established the base rates and the degree of interindividual variability in their social environments and natural conversations. It further tested for gender and ethnic differences in social life. Finally, it identified systematic circadian fluctuations in students’ daily lives. Study 3 investigated the role that everyday social life plays in interpersonal perception. Following Brunswik’s lens-model paradigm, the analyses showed that unacquainted observers formed fairly accurate personality impressions about a target person on the basis of the person’s EARrecorded social life. With regard to the underlying perceptual paths, the analyses revealed that observers’ impressions were shaped by various cues derived from the targets’ daily interactions, locations, activities, moods and language use. Taken together, the three studies identified the ways people select and interact with their everyday environments as powerful behavioral markers of individual differences. On a broader level they laid the foundation for a psychological study of naturalistic person-situation interactions that offers a new look at basic conceptual questions in personality psychology.