Nomothetic Explanations and Fear of Unfamiliar Things

Bringing two concepts together, in Research Methods today we discussed the MTV show 16 and Pregnant as part of our effort to look at cause-and-effect relationships in the social sciences. The authors of a new study on the aforementioned television program demonstrate a strong link between viewership and pregnancy awareness (including declining pregnancy rates) amongst teenagers.

We used this information, along with a hypothesized link between playing video games and violent behaviour. I then asked students to think about another putatively causal relationship that was similar to these two, from which we could derive a more general, law-like hypothesis or theory.

The computer lab presented us with another opportunity to think about moving from more specific and contextual causal claims to more general ones. Upon completion of the lab, one of the students remarked that learning how to use the R statistical program wasn’t too painful and that he had feared having to learn it. “I guess I’m afraid of technology,” he remarked. Then he corrected himself to say that this wasn’t true, since he didn’t fear the iphone, or his Mac laptop, etc. So, we agreed that he only feared technology with which he was unfamiliar. I then prodded him and others to use this observation to make a broader claim about social life. And the claim was “we fear that with which we are unfamiliar.” That is generalizing beyond the data that we’ve just used to extrapolate to other areas of social life.

Our finishing hypothesis, then, was extended to include not only technology, but people, countries, foods, etc.

P.S. Apropos of the attached TED talk, do we fear cannibals because we are unfamiliar with them?