3 Social Science Discoveries Every Author and Reader Should Know

Over the last fifty years, social science disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, and economics, have grown substantially in terms of popularity and research findings. Today scientists from these disciplines are collectively publishing thousands of research articles every year on all kinds of topics. So, what have they learned about humankind that authors and readers should know? Here are just a few of their discoveries.

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1. We’re All Linked Together

Although we may feel independent, we are incredibly linked together. The social psychologist Stanley Milgram illustrated this aspect of humanity when he investigated the small world problem, which is the probability that two people picked at random could be connected to each other with very few links between them.

Back in the 1960s, Milgram’s six degrees of separation experiments started with random people in Omaha, Nebraska, who were asked to mail packages to a designated yet unfamiliar person in Boston, Massachusetts by first sending their packages to a friend who might know someone who might know the Boston resident. By the end of the experiment, the number of intermediaries ranged from two to ten people with a median of five people. Thus, any two random Americans appeared to be separated by only five people, or six links in the chain.

Later researchers updated these experiments and found that the network chains are more complicated than Milgram had envisioned, but nonetheless they often came up with similar results, even with electronic packages, like email, and even on a global scale.

How Social Networks Apply to Authors and Readers

As authors and readers, we may wonder how a book skyrockets to success, like Harry Potter. Our first thought might be: The book is just awesome and everyone recognizes it. However, in the case of Harry Potter, many publishers rejected it before it got picked up by Bloomsbury, and publishers are supposed to be in the know and have a well-trained eye for potentially popular books.

Instead, what social scientists find is that there are many authors who are similarly talented in terms of writing and who are just as creative, producing equally interesting and potentially popular books, but these authors don’t enjoy even a smidgen of the success.

As Gardiner Morse discusses in a Harvard Business Review article, “Rather, it arises dynamically, driven in large part by…a social chain reaction.” He goes on to suggest that social networks that have a range of personality types in them “can enhance the odds that a new idea or product will catch on.” But, there can’t be too many opinions or too few opinions. And the social networks can’t be too dense, where everyone knows everyone, and can’t be too open, where it is made up of mostly friends of friends.

I guess Goldilocks had it right. As far as social networks, having a good mix of people can spread the word about a book across the globe rather fast, possibly within six degrees, as well as encourage more people to buy and read the book.

2. Why People Don’t Change Their Minds

Ever met someone who refused to change their mind, even in the face of evidence? Social scientists find that people process facts through feelings and life experiences. When facts become inconvenient, a backfire effect often occurs. People dig their heels in. The reason is explained with cultural cognition theory. People strongly identify with various groups because group membership affords personal gratification and survival. When the group is threatened, we become defensive to show ourselves to be worthy group members and to keep ourselves safe.

And educated people may be the most likely to do it because they often have greater motivation to support a particular group as well as the ability to make certain facts conform to their own biases while being able to intellectually dismiss opposing evidence.

How Cultural Cognition Theory Applies to Authors and Readers

Genre fiction is everything in the market and publishers know it. The reason that they want writers to have a clear genre for the book is because readers identify with a particular genre. They become “romance” readers or “Mystery” buffs or “Fantasy” fans. And they don’t genre hop too much. They become a part of a tribe and it feels good. They enjoy it. So, as writers, it is probably best to pick a genre that we also enjoy and pump out stories that resonate for that group of readers. If those readers read a book expecting one type of story, but get the conventions of a different genre or if some of the plot structures don’t adhere to the familiar genre the readers will likely be turned off—even if all the evidence suggests that the story is wonderful.

3. Cultural Capital is More Important than Economic Capital

Most people want to make money to some extent. Yet, fewer of us understand what makes the process of accumulating economic capital possible. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that the exchange of cultural capital is what makes the difference between rich and poor. Cultural capital refers to a reservoir of cultural knowledge about tastes, worldviews, norms, and values. People with a lot of cultural capital can exchange it for economic capital. They know how to answer job interview questions, for example, or how to interact with people in power. Even naturally intelligent people who have little cultural capital are unable to use their innate intelligence to realize economic capital. Consequently, without cultural capital, it is very difficult to earn money.

How Cultural Capital Applies to Authors and Readers

These days readers tend to expect that authors will interact with them, particularly through some form of social media. And we have all seen people on social media who make cultural errors, from WRITING IN ALL CAPS to saying the wrong thing. For instance, talking about conflict and power, as reflected in stuff like the Ultimate Fighting Champion/Mixed Martial Arts, might work for action/adventure readers, but probably wouldn’t work for romance readers, who may be more interested in conversations that have an emotional impact and involve relationships. As we build up more cultural knowledge about a genre and the cultural likes and dislikes of the readers of that genre, authors and readers can exchange their ideas and experience smoother and better social interactions—which would be great for everyone. Authors can build a following of “fans” and readers can have fun talking with their favorite authors.


Social science has learned a  lot about people over the years. Some of the findings show that we’re extremely interconnected, which means that information and persuasion will be passed along to people in certain ways; we’re a group oriented people, meaning that we come to favor certain genres and develop reading expectations that need to be met; and we like to talk to each other, but in particular ways, and so it’s important to know the cultural interests of group members to experience positive interactions. Or, as Mark Twain says, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

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Photo Credit: geralt from Pixabay.

Clovis Whitman

Clovis Whitman is an independent author of coming of age and new adult fiction, because he has always been fascinated by the simple yet complex question of "Who are you?"

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