Professor Pierre, what is mass manipulation of human behavior by social media?
These days, freely accessing information on the internet is a part of most people’s daily lives. But as they say, nothing in life is free. The internet has been monetised in such a way that the consumer is often the product, especially on social media sites that mine our personal information and preferences.
When we look at the world with our eyes, we choose where to go and what to look at. But when we look at the world online, internet algorithms are giving us more of a guided tour, steering us to what someone else wants us to see and do.
On social media, those algorithms can drive us into “echo chambers” that limit our view of the outside world and from people with different perspectives.
Can you give us some examples of this?
Our online preferences are used to show us a tailored view of the world (that’s different from someone else’s with different preferences) in order to guide us to places where clicks translate to revenue, whether we’re talking about informational sites, social media sites, or sites that sell products.
And so on a very basic level, if you search for something online, targeted advertising for related products will appear on your Facebook feed.
That’s a different process than in the old days when we went to a library, or an encyclopedia, for information.
Now, when we look for information online, we have access to a much broader range of informational sources, but we interact with it in ways that are designed to get us to invest our time and money.
Of course, advertising billboards and newspaper/magazine ads did the same thing this long before the internet, but having the internet means that we’re now subjected to advertising at every turn and in much subtler ways.
That might sound like a modern convenience, until you realise that it’s not just a matter of being subjected to advertising.
It’s also about our private information – what we click on, what we buy, and even where we are at any given moment – being sold to those who use that data for their own profit.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that this has been used not only to steer our attention and our spending habits, but also to get us to vote one way or another (e.g. for Brexit in the UK or for Trump in the US). This is what’s meant by the consumer being the product.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is an of extreme example of how people can exploit our online presences. It usually refers to using the internet to get information about people, to follow or monitor them, and to interact with them in unwanted ways that amount to harassment.
One reads about women who are victims of stalking by their ex partners or spouses. How dangerous is this and what should such women do?
Unfortunately, stalking is a real problem, especially for women that have ended and are trying to break free from relationships. At its worst, stalking culminates in violence. In many places, stalking is illegal and requires help from law enforcement to deal with it effectively, but even then easy solutions can often be elusive.
Does the same happen to men as well?
Yes, stalking in its various forms happens to both men and women.
How common is mobbing as a workplace hazard?
Mobbing refers to a kind of bullying or harassment that’s done by a group of people. It can happen anywhere – in school, at work, and in online spaces. I’m not aware of any data to know just how common it is in the workplace. Probably there’s significant variation depending on the work environment.
Not talking about delusions but do some employers actually stalk their employees?
Stalking can be perpetrated by anyone in any setting.
Now about delusions, what is mass hysteria and can you give us some day to day examples of this?
Delusions are false beliefs held by individuals with an extreme level of conviction relative to the evidence to support it and counter-evidence to refute it. Delusions are generally considered to be symptoms of mental illness and are beliefs that are usually not shared by other people.
In contrast to delusions, mass hysteria, or more properly mass psychogenic illness, is a term that’s used to describe groups of people who develop physical or psychological symptoms in response to fears and perceived threats through suggestibility.
In other words, when groups of people develop specific fears, such as having an illness, they can notice or develop symptoms that they then believe are attributable to the thing they fear.
The Salem Witch Trials, in which young women developed ‘fits’ that were attributed to witchcraft, offers a classic historical example, but examples of modern mass psychogenic illness remain relatively common today.
Note that term, mass hysteria, is often used more loosely and pejoratively to describe any unfounded fears held by groups of people.
Cannabis is becoming increasingly favoured, and in some countries, it is even legal. What is cannabis induced psychosis and can it cause permanent changes in the brain?
Cannabis-induced psychosis refers to psychotic symptoms that emerge in the setting of cannabis use or intoxication.
This is more common today due to the increased availability of cannabis products with higher THC potency as well as synthetic cannabinoids (e.g. Spice).
Several decades of research has also found that cannabis use, especially at an early age, is associated with an increased risk of developing a chronic psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia.
That risk occurs in a ‘dose-related’ fashion, meaning that the risk increases with increasing amounts of cannabis use as well as with the use of cannabis products with higher THC potency.
There is some evidence that this might be associated with permanent structural changes in the brain.
Medical marijuana is now becoming fairly commonplace. What would you say are the benefits and what are the trade offs?
Like any drug or medication, there are risks and benefits to cannabis use. An important difference between cannabis and prescription medications is that the latter have been rigorously tested to isolate therapeutic effects to an individual chemical compound, establish its effectiveness through controlled clinical studies, and gather data on side effects over time.
Marijuana, in contrast, contains hundreds of different chemical compounds so that we don’t know what effects, good or bad, might be attributable to any single compound.
Well-designed clinical studies examining the potential therapeutic effects of smoked cannabis are few and far between and where there is data to support effectiveness for conditions like pain, we know very little about what form to use, how to best dose it, or what longer-term side effects might be.
There hasn’t been enough research to justify thinking of marijuana as a medicine to be used for health reasons or to properly understand its potential harms. In that sense, while cannabis may have some medicinal value, ‘medical marijuana’ is a bit of misnomer based on what we know at the moment.
To what extent does nutritional counselling aid those with mental illnesses?
By definition, eating healthy is good for us, but the reality is that there’s a lot of controversy about how to define healthy eating and what optimal diets might be.
We know a fair amount about what we shouldn’t eat, but we still have a lot to learn about the advantages and risks of more specific diets.
We know very little about how diet affects mental illness. My work on nutritional counselling in mental illness has focused on how to help those with mental illness to lose weight and to make better choices for healthy eating.
Obesity and other ‘metabolic’ diseases like diabetes are more common among those with mental illness and are sometimes cause by the medications prescribed to treat them.
It might seem obvious, but nutritional counselling, using techniques that are effective in people without mental illness, seems to be helpful for those with mental illness as well.
Please tell us about your years growing up.
I was lucky to have a comfortable childhood. My parents were married and were both scientists. My mother and my grandmother, who lived with us, were immigrants.
Doing well in school and striving for excellence was strongly emphasised at an early age, which helped me to get into college and medical school and become a doctor.
But there was plenty of time for fun and even getting into trouble from time to time. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I spent much more time having fun outside with my brother or my friends, usually without direct parental supervision, than I did indoors in front of a computer screen.
Apart from self motivation, do tell us about those who inspired you on your way to your current profession.
Most of the credit definitely goes to my parents, but I’ve had important role models and mentors during the long path it took to get me where I am today.
My interest in psychiatry stems from a fascination and curiosity about human behaviour and how out brains interact with the world around us to result in mental illness, especially psychotic disorders.
I’m also very interested in how understanding mental illness can help us understand normal brain functioning and what makes us who we are as individuals. And I love working in academia, where I get to teach and write.
Our readers are mainly the youth in different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
I’ve been fortunate to find a career that I find highly stimulating, suits my skill-set while avoiding my weaknesses, contributes to a better world, and allows me to live a comfortable lifestyle.
Achieving all four isn’t always easy but I would advise young people to strive for that–doing what you love and what you’re good at that allows you to live the life you want to live and to leave the world a better place.
In order to get there, listening to all the usual advice we get as children, like doing well in school, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and trying to get along with others is worthwhile too.
Joseph Pierre M.D. is a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is a graduate of MIT, the UCLA School of Medicine, and the residency training program at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. He has authored over 100 papers, abstracts, and book chapters related to schizophrenia, antipsychotic medications, substance-induced psychosis, delusions and delusion-like beliefs, auditory hallucinations and voice-hearing, and a variety of other topics including the neuroscience of free will and culturally sanctioned suicide. He also writes the Psych Unseen blog at Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psych-unseen).
Photos: Shutterstock; From the Archive of Prof. Joseph Pierre
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