Transcript of the podcast:
Speaker 1: We've all known just one queen. She's a person we've always looked up to.
Speaker 2: She's just a wonderful person.
Speaker 3: My mom called me earlier. She was crying on the phone because the queen has been a huge part of her life and everyone's life. We've all grown up with her.
Speaker 4: She's always been such a reliable figure in my life and always just been our monarch, and it feels so bizarre to think that she's not.
Katy Milkman: You just heard a tiny sample of the millions of emotional reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth in 2022. Reactions from people who'd never met her. These clips poignantly illustrate a fascinating aspect of human relationships, how we can feel a strong connection with someone who is a stranger.
In this episode, we examine several of these types of unequal or one-sided relationships, and we look at how knowing details about a relative stranger can affect your own feelings of anonymity and your decision-making.
I'm Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It's a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories, illuminating predictable quirks of human behavior that can help or hinder you, and then we examine how these stories relate to the latest research in behavioral science. We do it all to help you make better judgments and avoid costly mistakes.
Hannah Sung: It's very much well known that K-pop idols are really discouraged from having romantic relationships or at least public ones.
Katy Milkman: This is Hannah.
Hannah Sung: Hi, my name is Hannah Sung, and I’m a BTS fan.
Speaker 7: BTS.
Speaker 8: BTS.
Speaker 9: BTS.
Speaker 10: BTS.
Speaker 11: Bey-tey-esse
Speaker 12: BTS.
Katy Milkman: BTS is one of the most successful musical acts in the world. The band performs catchy, highly choreographed South Korean popular music, also known as K-pop. Hannah stumbled on the band a few years ago.
Hannah Sung: It was 2020. I was like 43 years old. And becoming obsessed with a boy band was not on my bingo card, but that's what happened. I was on YouTube, and the algorithm fed me a video of BTS performing at the MTV Video Music Awards. And I was blown away, and then I watched it again and again and again. It was a really amazing performance because you could see that it was all green screen, but it looked like they were on stage. There were backdrops of Seoul and New York City. They seemed so natural at it, even though all the rest of us were scrambling with like, "How do you make a TV show in the pandemic? Everything's remote." And you could just really tell that this was not their first time at the rodeo.
Katy Milkman: Hannah got to know the band's music and watched a lot of their performance videos, but it was another type of content that led Hannah to feel genuinely connected to the group.
Hannah Sung: I started watching videos of them just interacting with each other. I was watching clips of their reality shows. What really drew me in was watching them be friends and caring for each other and laughing together and all kinds of video of them working out their conflicts together, too. There's an entire world where you can kind of be a fly on the wall and watch them live, watch them go on vacation. There's also this way of speaking that I felt was always open to that third person, basically us, the person who's watching.
Katy Milkman: It's common for fans to have favorite members of the groups.
Hannah Sung: My bias is Jin. My bias wrecker is V. Your bias is your favorite, and I don't really know why that is, but, listen, you got to speak the language, and then your bias wrecker is your second favorite.
Katy Milkman: Biases in K-pop are just the personalities that fans lean towards and not to be confused with the behavioral biases we cover on this show. Hannah knows a lot about her BTS bias.
Hannah Sung: So Jin is the eldest member of BTS. He's super handsome. I know his birthday is in December. I know he's a huge foodie. He has a brother. He seems to have a great relationship with his parents. He would often be pictured calling his mom. He and RM, who is the leader of the group, they're besties. They're quite good friends who lean on each other for support. You would see Jin eating a slice of pizza with chopsticks or some random thing that fans will just really glom on too. I thought, "Oh, that's so cute."
Katy Milkman: Hannah's experience is similar to millions of other fans where a rich but lopsided relationship develops with the musicians. This partly explains why artists' personas are highly curated by the K-pop industry.
Crystal Tai: Normally a K-pop group, each member has their own role.
Katy Milkman: This is Crystal.
Crystal Tai: My name is Crystal Tai.
Katy Milkman: Crystal covers East Asian culture and business trends at Jing Daily.
Crystal Tai: For instance, there is the lead vocalist, and then there is the rapper who comes in during the interlude, and then there is a visual, who's really good at just looking good and doing the dance moves, and then there might be a lead dancer. Each member will wow you in different ways. And put together they become this incredible force.
Katy Milkman: Like American pop artists, K-pop artists are very influential when it comes to fashion and style. But K-pop takes fan engagement to another level, where aspects of artists' personal lives are managed by their labels as well.
Crystal Tai: An idol is expected to be devoted to their career and their fans. Traditionally, idols are not expected to date. There have even been no-dating clauses in a lot of their contracts. I don't think it's as prevalent these days, but traditionally, idols are expected to just focus on their main job and stay single. You have an image to maintain and a very important relationship with the fans.
Katy Milkman: The key word is relationship. But in K-pop, or any celebrity-based industry, that relationship is naturally quite lopsided. One artist might be connected to millions of fans, while the fans just focus on a handful of artists. But individual fans can still feel like they're a part of their idol's lives, and they feel like they have a stake in their idol's behavior.
Crystal Tai: Idols are expected to not swear, to obviously not commit any crimes. Their conduct has to be pristine. They have to have good manners. All genders are expected to maintain certain physical standards. They have to be graceful; they have to have gravitas and presence. Idols are basically expected to look and act perfect, period.
Katy Milkman: To give you a sense of what that looks like, take the band Super Junior, an early South Korean pop group that blew up and reached an international audience.
Crystal Tai: Super Junior is one of the most popular K-pop boy bands in South Korea. Their first mega hit that went globally viral was "Sorry, Sorry." This was in 2009, and across social media, people were learning the dance routine. They were doing it themselves and then sharing videos of themselves dancing from Mexico to the Philippines. It was a big thing.
Katy Milkman: 2009 was back in the early days of the international K-pop phenomenon, but the global success of Super Junior revealed the very restrictive rules that some K-pop artists are obliged to follow and what can happen when they don't.
Crystal Tai: Lee Sung-min is a member of Super Junior. He's one of the more prominent members because not only is he a lead vocalist in the group, but he's also a lead dancer, and that speaks to the immense talent that he has as both a dancer and singer.
Katy Milkman: This talent, along with the popularity of the group, meant that there was an intense media spotlight on Sung-min.
Crystal Tai: So in 2014, when he was 28 years old, there were rumors that Sung-min was dating Kim Sa Eun, an actress and model. They had been spotted together going on dates, but it was not confirmed that they were dating.
Katy Milkman: Remember, dating is often frowned upon in the K-pop world. Part of the reason is to maintain the illusion of availability and connection to the fans. Despite this, Sung-min was determined to pursue love.
Crystal Tai: Sung-min and his girlfriend, Kim Sa Eun, decided to get married. This actually created controversy at the time. One of the members of the group, his grandfather had actually died around that time. It was still considered a bit of like a mourning period for the group, and fans as well, and so it was seen as disrespectful that he would choose to get married around the same period.
Katy Milkman: The controversy grew when it came time for the wedding. Sung-min and his fiancée set a date during a time when Super Junior was scheduled to be performing.
Crystal Tai: This angered some fans because they felt that it was unprofessional that you would prioritize your personal life over the group's activities. Quite a few fans felt like they had been left out and betrayed and like they weren't being told what was going on in their idol's life.
Katy Milkman: When these fan-idol relationships are damaged, there are real consequences.
Crystal Tai: When fans are upset, they might put together petitions and send these letters signed by thousands, or millions even, to the record label and share it on social media saying that the idol should apologize or that they should be boycotted or that they should quit.
Katy Milkman: Sung-min eventually released a lengthy statement apologizing for being inconsiderate to his fans, but his career in the band was essentially finished.
Crystal Tai: He has been subjected to boycotts by fans over the years, and when the group announced that they would be making a full group comeback, I believe in 2019, they sent out a new petition asking that Sung-min not rejoin the group. He hasn't been very active in the last nine years.
Katy Milkman: A musical career seriously damaged, for dating, for not announcing a wedding, for getting married during a tour. These may all seem like minor transgressions to an outsider, but to K-pop fans, these behaviors can hurt—and they can affect business. Here's Hannah Sung again.
Hannah Sung: It's very obvious why that would be the case. It's a business reason. I'm not saying that that's a good reason. I just think it's fairly transparent. That discouragement, I'm sure, is built into the system. It's called a scandal if you are dating someone and it's public. That is, I think, engineered so that each K-pop idol can be "available" to a fan, the idea that that person could be your dream boyfriend or girlfriend.
Katy Milkman: Those intense feelings translate into big business for the artists, the labels, the venues, and even other businesses like McDonald's.
Hannah Sung: McDonald's did a BTS meal in 2021. It drove a 26% quarter-over-quarter leap in sales in the U.S. So just think about that for a second—how many McDonald's meals that is? And worldwide sales rose 40% at McDonald's because of this one boy-band meal. It's really wild the purchasing power of these fans. It's just sheer numbers. But it's also the devotion. So you've got those two together, and it means big bucks.
Katy Milkman: Now, whether we can blame the BTS meal for all those McDonald's profits is a little hard to disentangle, but the enormous impact of these musicians' actions on the value of their management company isn't at all ambiguous.
Hannah Sung: When BTS said they were taking a break or hiatus in 2022—HYBE is their management company—instantly, HYBE's valuation on the stock market dropped 28%. That means that they lost $1.7 billion in stock value from this one band saying, "I think we're going to take a break."
Katy Milkman: While the new dating policies of certain K-pop management companies have relaxed in recent years, you can see why the industry takes the artists' reputation and availability so seriously. Here's Crystal Tai again.
Crystal Tai: The fans are this incredible rallying force, the way that they're able to propel their idols' releases into literal success. But also, fans will write letters to them, send them gifts or flowers, and maintain fan clubs as well. Financially, emotionally, in terms of their time, it's a big investment on the fan's part, so of course they would expect the same if not more back from their idols.
There is an aspect of attachment. The fan might project some of their own hopes and dreams onto the idol as well, which is actually really nice. I mean, it can be a healthy thing if it's positive and motivating and aspirational in a good way. A lot of fans, they might feel lonely or they might be going through something difficult, and they just feel less alone when they feel like they can connect with certain idols.
Katy Milkman: Crystal Tai is a senior managing editor at Jing Daily. She's also an author and trend forecaster and covers culture and business across East Asia. She's based in Vancouver. Hannah Sung is a journalist and podcaster based in Toronto, where she helps run the Media Girlfriends podcast company. You can find links to their work and their favorite K-pop artists in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
The psychological relationship between K-pop artists and their legions of fans is similar to the relationships we see in Hollywood or pro sports or the British monarchy—or really anywhere large groups of people interact in a mediated way with performers or celebrities. The asymmetries in these so-called relationships is what makes them so odd, and the relationships are sometimes referred to as parasocial interactions or one-sided relationships.
Relationship asymmetries also occur in less extreme social situations. The relationship between a college professor and their students, for example, or a preacher and their congregants. And recent research shows that parasocial relationships can influence your decisions, not only overtly by changing the opinions you hold, the merchandise you purchase, and perhaps even the fan mail you send, but in more subtle ways too.
My next guest is a behavioral scientist who looks for solutions to pressing social issues such as poverty, crime, and violence. Some of his recent work shows how knowledge about others affects our own sense of anonymity, and it explores an intriguing and subtle way that this can affect behavior in asymmetrical relationships. Anuj Shah is an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Anuj, thank you so much for joining me today.
Anuj Shah: Of course. Great to see you, Katy. Thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.
Katy Milkman: I am hoping you could start by explaining the effect that knowledge about other people has on our own sense of anonymity—say, our knowledge of a celebrity or a politician or even someone in our workplace or neighborhood who has a high profile.
Anuj Shah: Yeah, so I think one way to think about how we see others is that we generally expect there to be some symmetry or reciprocity in our relationships. So if I see you as a friend, then there's a good chance that you see me as a friend as well. If I see somebody as a stranger, they probably see me the same way.
Now, even though it's generally true, it's not always true, right? There are times when there are asymmetries where I might know more about somebody than they know about me, but in general, it seems like people might overgeneralize this assumption about our relationships, and we might see symmetry where it doesn't exist.
So why that might matter for what we think others know about us or a sense of anonymity is that when I know a lot about somebody, because I assume that there's going to be reciprocity or symmetry, I'm going to assume that they know a lot about me as well. And so when you take a well-known celebrity who I know a lot about, I might then feel like, "Oh, they must have some knowledge of me as well or some familiarity with me," when in fact there's a deep asymmetry there.
Katy Milkman: That's really interesting. I have to admit that as a professor with 150 students, I always find it a little scary how my students expect me to know things about them just because they've gotten to hear me yabber and talk about myself all semester, and then I realize I don't have that knowledge.
Anuj Shah: Absolutely.
Katy Milkman: Of course, you have the same experience.
Anuj Shah: Yeah, exactly.
Katy Milkman: So it happens with real celebrities and not real celebrities, just people you interact with in a classroom or in a workplace.
Anuj Shah: That's right.
Katy Milkman: So why do you think it is that knowing these things about someone else makes us feel like they know us too? You talked about the fact that we expect symmetry, but where is that expectation coming from?
Anuj Shah: Well, I think there's two things. So one is that in general there is that symmetry or reciprocity, so it's usually true. But I also think that when we're trying to get inside the minds of others or think about how other people see things, we usually start with ourselves and then we adjust away from that.
And so if I feel like I have some level of familiarity with somebody else, and I'm trying to guess, "Well, how familiar are they with me?" I'm going to anchor on my initial sense of what I know about them, and I'm not going to adjust away enough from that to say, "Well, here are all the reasons why they actually don't know very much about me at all." So it's both the generalizing from past experience and just focusing on ourselves and our own sense of familiarity when trying to get a sense of what other people know about us.
Katy Milkman: I love that. So interesting. Could you describe some of the research studies that you have run demonstrating that knowledge about other people affects our sense of anonymity?
Anuj Shah: So we have a few different lab experiment paradigms to test this, and then we also test it with a field study as well. In all of our lab experiments, we do these online, and we tell participants that they're going to be interacting with another online participant, but they're otherwise mostly going to be anonymous. These are strangers that think they're interacting with strangers. But there's a bit of deception here in that there is no other person. Instead, we simulate the "partner's" responses, so we have total control over what our participants are seeing. And in all of these studies, we ask participants to answer a few basic icebreaker questions. So, in the first study, for example, we ask them three basic multiple choice demographics questions like, "What is your employment status? What kind of area do you live in within the United States? And what is your marital or family status?" And there's multiple choice responses.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, I love that design. It's so clever to make people who are sitting in front of a computer feel like they're having a real interaction with another person who also answered these icebreakers. I really like that.
Anuj Shah: Yes. And then we simply just ask participants, "If you were to meet this person, how well do you feel like they would know you?" Another way we do it is we ask participants to write down four things that are true about themselves and one lie about themselves. And what we find is that when participants have more information about their partners, and when they have information about their partners, they think their partners are more likely to know which of their statements is a lie. So it's a more concrete way in which people might feel like their partners know them better.
Katy Milkman: That's fascinating. I love those experiments. I think they're such a clever way of getting at this basic phenomenon. But I also love the field study that you ran that shows it's not just a low-stakes phenomenon that arises in these lab interactions, but also it matters in important policy contexts. Could you talk a little bit about that work?
Anuj Shah: So we did a field experiment in partnership with the New York Police Department. And the actual motivation for this project actually started in the field context. So before there were any lab experiments, we were doing qualitative interviews with folks who had been previously incarcerated or otherwise involved in the justice system. And one of the questions that we asked, which I'm not sure was a great question because it assumes some intentionality on the part of the folks that we're talking to, "There were probably times when you thought about going forward with something that might be an offense or a crime, and you stopped. What might have made you stop?"
And it wasn't the most common response, but something that came up a few times that seemed psychologically interesting was people talked about whether they knew the officers in their neighborhood. So one kid, for example, talked about how there was an officer that everybody knew in the neighborhood, and this officer even had a nickname, they called Birdman. And they said, "Whenever Birdman was around that would get us to step back or chill," he would say, "and we wouldn't jump the fare or whatever." And what's interesting is that he wasn't just saying, "Oh, because I know this officer, I'm worried about how he's going to see me." But rather it was more along the lines of "Because I know this officer, he must be paying more attention to me."
And so from there we started wondering, well, is it the case that what's actually going on is this kid is saying, "I know a lot about this officer, so he must know a lot about me or must be more attuned to my actions." So drawing on the lab experiments that we did, we then asked, "Is there a way for this to change how we do community policing?" And part of the goal of community policing is for people to know their officers better and for officers to know the community better. But it's never really been intentionally built into the program that you try to let residents know more about officers. Officers often want some level of anonymity because they worry, "Anything that's known about me could come back to hurt me," for example.
So, in our intervention, we worked with neighborhood coordination officers (or NCOs), who are community policing officers, and residents in public housing developments throughout New York City. And the basic gist of it is we either randomized housing developments to a condition where it was business as usual, no change in how neighborhood coordination officers interacted with them, or we sent mailers to residents in those developments that included three factoids about their neighborhood coordination officers, things like what their favorite sports team is to how long they've been a police officer or why they became a police officer, things like that.
And what we find is that in the housing developments where residents had information about their neighborhood coordination officers, they were more likely to say that, "If I did something illegal, I think this officer would be more likely to know about it." And we find modest short-lived crime reductions about three months after the interventions delivered. We see reductions between about 5 to 7%. Now, those effects fade out four to six months and seven to nine months after the intervention. But this promising evidence that when residents learn more about their neighborhood officers that they think officers are more attuned to their actions and that could curb crime.
Katy Milkman: Such an amazing study. Do you worry that this bias could lead us to make any mistakes?
Anuj Shah: There are areas where I worry that it could be a problem. So I think about it in the medical context, for example, where as you become more familiar with your doctor, that you might assume that they would be more familiar with anything that's going on in your life, any changes in your health or ailments. And when you have a short amount of time with your primary-care physician, for example, that you might leave some things unsaid, when in fact it will be helpful for your doctor to know. And so I worry about the potential for there to be under-sharing. When you know something about somebody else already, you might think that they already know the things that are actually in your own mind.
Katy Milkman: Oh, that's such a great point. And it's really relevant to a lot of our listeners who are thinking about this in the context of financial decision-making, because you might have the same right kind of mistake you'd make with a financial planner or an accountant. You get to know them really well and assume that they understand your financial situation better than they do and leave out critical information. That's really interesting and important. How are you applying what you've learned from doing this research in your own life?
Anuj Shah: I'm definitely more aware of it when I teach, for example. The fact that I'm sharing these stories with my students, that they are going to have a level of familiarity with me that I don't necessarily have with them. And so I'm more intentional when I have interactions with my students to actually make sure I'm asking them about themselves. And that way we try and balance out some of that asymmetry, as one example. And I'm also more aware of when I know more about others because they're more public than I am, or because I spent time stalking them on social media, that they might not actually be as familiar with me, and I have to share more about myself when I'm actually talking to them.
Katy Milkman: That's so interesting. I love how you are incorporating at both levels. So when you are in a position of sort of power or sharing, in a workplace, say, or for any other reason, keep in mind that your subordinates may expect you to know more about them and may not disclose enough. And so you'll want to probe.
Anuj Shah: Right.
Katy Milkman: And then on the flip side, when you're talking to somebody who is more of a celebrity or who has disclosed a lot about themself, you may under-share, and so you need to override that. That's great. There's two levels that where you apply it. I love that. Awesome. Anuj, this work is so fascinating. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me about it today.
Anuj Shah: Awesome. Thank you, Katy. I really appreciate the chance to talk about it with you.
Katy Milkman: Anuj Shah is an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. You can find a link to the research paper we discussed in our interview, which Anuj's co-authored with Michael LaForest, in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
A common theme on the Financial Decoder podcast is the importance of financial planning. Host Mark Riepe and his guests often discuss how a personalized financial plan can help you overcome many of the biases we explore in this show, although maybe not your K-pop obsession. Personalized financial plans can also help you reach your goals. Check out our sister podcast at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you get your podcasts.
The way we assume symmetry in our relationships, which Anuj described, is a classic heuristic, a rule of thumb our minds use to make sense of the world quickly, which works well on average but can mislead us in certain situations. The situations where you'll want to be wary of your potentially faulty assumptions are in asymmetric relationships where information flow could really matter to ensure a good outcome. For example, assuming your financial advisor, doctor, or professor has all the information they need to guide you successfully, just because they're a big talker who shared a lot about their life, could put you on track for a messy result. Keep an eye out for relational asymmetries and consider whether you've disclosed enough to ensure everyone has the knowledge they need to succeed.
You've been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you've enjoyed the show, we'd be really grateful if you'd leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, a rating on Spotify, or feedback wherever you listen. You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my book, How to Change, or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at katymilkman.com/newsletter. In two weeks, we'll share the story of a woman who conquered her fear of surfing and changed her life along with the lives of many others. I'm Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 15: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.
After you listen
- To learn more, check out the Financial Decoder podcast, hosted by Mark Riepe. It's a great resource for digging into the financial implications of the phenomena explored on Choiceology.
Finding a new favorite celebrity feels a little bit like falling in love. Perhaps you find their smile endearing, or you relate to their sense of humor. Maybe you see things in your everyday routine that remind you of them. You feel like you know them so well. But whether it’s a star athlete or a Hollywood type, the reality is they likely have no idea who you are.
In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we explore how we can develop deep connections with complete strangers—and how that in turn makes us feel more known.
BTS is the biggest boy band in the world, but their popularity is not only thanks to their musical talents and highly choreographed performances. BTS has, like many other K-pop groups in South Korea, perfected the art of cultivating relationships with their fans. But when idols fail to meet fan expectations, there can be drastic consequences.
Hannah Sung is a journalist and co-founder of the Media Girlfriends podcast company.
Crystal Tai tells the story of another K-pop idol, Lee Sungmin, who went from being one of Super Junior’s most popular members to being boycotted for the last decade, due to what is known in the industry as a "dating scandal."
Next, Katy speaks with Anuj Shah about research that shows even small tidbits of information about a stranger can cause people to mistakenly think that stranger knows them, and how a neighborhood policing initiative tested this hypothesis with surprising results.
You can read more in a paper he co-authored called "Knowledge About Others Reduces One’s Own Sense of Anonymity."
Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.
If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.
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