“This is us” - Questions for Lisa Oswald

March 26, 2024

Our institute has over 300 employees. But that is just a number. Who are the people at our institute? What do they do and what drives them? In our "This is us" format, colleagues answer questions about their work and their motivation.

To mark International Women's Day on March 8, 2023, we launched the series "This is us". We have now profiled 12 female scientists. We are following on from this and introducing Lisa Oswald from the Center for Adaptive Rationality. In the previous article in our series, we introduced Sarah Power from the Center for Lifespan Psychology.

One of your research topics at the Center for Adaptive Rationality is the question of how people use the internet, particularly with regard to their political interests. What fascinates you about this topic?

Digital media have become an integral part of our everyday lives. The internet gives us access to an unprecedented breadth of information and large parts of interpersonal communication are now mediated via digital media. This development also applies to the political context: both news consumption and public discourse on political issues are becoming increasingly digitalized with complex implications for discourse dynamics and society as a whole. In recent years, we have seen increasingly problematic developments across many established democracies, such as the rise of populism and right-wing extremism. This raises the question of the role of digital media in this development, what are the underlying psychological mechanisms and can we derive starting points for interventions? However, since neither a complex media system nor a political system can be simulated in a laboratory, these are really difficult questions that can only be answered with a combination of different empirical methods and, in the best case, on an interdisciplinary basis. For example, we are currently planning a large field and interaction study in which we have people discuss political issues under various experimentally controlled conditions in large online forums. To do this, we are combining methods from psychology, political science and computational social science.

Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok in particular are used to disseminate political topics. But how can trustworthy sources be identified? Is it possible to avoid polarization? 

We are currently planning a study on this question in Germany, in which we will test various strategies against each other. Previous research shows that it is probably better to focus on sources rather than on the information itself. If you enter a misleading political claim into a search engine, similarly misleading content tends to be suggested, which can reinforce belief in the false claim. If, on the other hand, you search for information about the source of the claim, it is usually quickly debunked. This technique is called "lateral reading". Sources are also more stable within the media landscape than information, so it can pay off in the long term to research the trustworthiness of sources and then refer back to them again and again. Nevertheless, all of these techniques require motivation to inform oneself on the basis of established facts. 

Do your scientific findings influence your private use of social media?  

I think so. I try to keep my use of social media generally in check, using some "self-nudging" techniques. My colleague Anastasia Kozyreva is researching this. Also, I don't really get political information from social media, but have other routines for getting current news via journalistic media (e.g. journalistic podcasts and an online subscription to a major newspaper). This means that I focus on well-known, trustworthy sources and try to go more in-depth than broad. Nevertheless, I like to use the convenience of my smartphone and scroll through the app of the newspaper I subscribe to, similar to a social media feed. 

Why did you decide to study psychology and how did this develop into your current focus on political science?  

I have always been interested in people's experiences and behavior. The subject for my bachelor's and master's degree was therefore a quick and clear choice. During my studies, I developed an interest in statistics and research methods and wondered to what extent the data we leave behind on the internet could be used to answer psychological research questions. I therefore completed a second master's degree in social data science at the Oxford Internet Institute. During this master's, I expanded my programming skills, but also worked more and more with political scientists and realized that many of my research questions lay at the intersection of these subjects. I have always been particularly interested in collective phenomena and looked at the social and societal context of people. In addition, I have certainly always been motivated by questions about how psychology could help to better understand complex social problems. I think psychology and political science are disciplines with complementary strengths and weaknesses, conceptually and methodologically, that need to interact more with each other. 

What do you like about the Max Planck Community?  

It is actually possible to work in an interdisciplinary way here and the research conditions are excellent. Some of my colleagues have very different backgrounds and research focuses, but specific expertise is generously shared, work is enthusiastic and methodologically rigorous, and the atmosphere is generally very good. I enjoy coming to work every day. 

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