Created By: KJMackley on March 6, 2013 Last Edited By: NightShade96 on May 23, 2017

The Science of Socializing

Breaking down social issues into scientific formulas

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Amy: And there you have it, pre-frontal cortex reasoning versus lymbic lust. If this were a boxing match it might be called 'The Thrilla Adjacent to the Amygdala.' (starts laughing hysterically) If you were a brain scientist you would be busting a gut right now!

All fiction is an attempt at some sort of commentary on the world. But sometimes it goes one step beyond that and a story starts to break down complex social interactions into formulas, theorems and thought experiments. It isn't just making observations about how social cliques work but that it is actually approached, described and experimented from a scientific angle.

This may happen with fields that are considered far outside what is considered to be relative to the topic (sociology, psychology). And so you get the interesting sight of a physicist using universe expansion models to help calculate the flow of a party, a physician comparing medical treatments to options in how to confront a friend or a computer programmer applying those skills in organizing a concert. Note that they don't even have to be scientists or highly educated to qualify.

If it gets far enough, there might even be some helpful graphics put up on the screen to visualize the concept. The use of The Big Board containing formulas, diagrams, flowcharts, footnotes and lots of Greek letters make tend to be popular for a screen capture.

Of course social science is a real thing, many experiments have been conducted on how people interact with the world and our attempts at understanding it. One thing to consider about the examples is that they usually exist within the mind of the scriptwriter and are not based on actual social science (or even reality). Like any science, that is frequently subject to modifications over time and typically done with careful experimentation. As such some examples may not hold up under close scrutiny.


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    Film — Live Action 
  • Parodied in Chasing Amy, where Banky illustrates a point to Holden with the image of a four way crossroad with a 100 dollar bill in the middle and on each side is a male friendly lesbian, man hating dyke, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
    Banky: "No which one gets the 100 dollar bill?"
    Holden: (annoyed) "I don't know, the man hating dyke."
    Banky: "Good, now why?"
    Holden: "I don't know."
    Banky: "Cause the other three are figments of your fucking imagination!"

    Live-Action TV 
  • Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide uses this as it's primary gimmick, where Ned spends most every episode revealing tips on how to deal with various social events from school to relationships. The actual guide was seen early on, as well as Ned trying to work out new theories, but both were downplayed later on as the tips became more incidental rather than inclusive to the stories.
  • The Big Bang Theory plays this for laughs a lot. The scientist characters often resort to making diagrams, formulas, flow-charts, and using thought experiments in order to help makes personal decisions.
    • This includes a psych-out where the group was contemplating what seemed to be a complex equation and it turned out to be a method of deciding the best restaurants adjacent to movie theaters with appropriate snack options.
    • One of the most popular and ingenious ones was a flowchart Sheldon created to help make new friends, the really funny thing is that (with the exception of a lack of an infinite loop escape Howard had to devise) it worked!
  • How I Met Your Mother often uses this both with the main characters and with the Framing Device narration. Most of the time it is Barney coming up with these things, such as the Hot/Crazy scale (your attractiveness has to match or exceed the level of crazy, on a graph the center line was called the "Vicki Mendoza Diagonal") or the 9 stages of Literally Loving Thy Neighbor.
  • Mythbusters has tackled some social myths over the years, one including the concept of Beer Goggles (alcohol makes you more attracted to someone than you would be normally).
  • In NUMB3RS, Charlie lives his entire life in math-land, but due to his genius grade-skipping childhood, he's rather uncomfortable with social problems. So he often tries to use mathematics to guide his personal life. Of course he's a mathematician, not a social scientist, and he's analyzing things like love and friendship, so it tends not to work well.

Community Feedback Replies: 34
  • March 6, 2013
    Would this count? From Square Pegs' Opening Narration (and also the first episode):
    Lauren: Listen, I've got this whole high school thing psyched out. It all breaks down into cliques.
    Patty: Cliques?
    Lauren: Yeah, you know, cliques; little in-groups of different kids. All we have to do is click with the right clique and we can finally have a social life that's worthy of us.
    Patty: No way! Not even with cleavage!
    Lauren: I tell ya. This year we're gonna be popular!
    Patty: Yeah?
    Lauren: Yeah. Even if it kills us!
  • March 10, 2013
    This needs a rename and a better description to emphasis how this is a trope and not just anything with Real Life Social Sciences in it.
  • March 10, 2013
    Um, yeah what Catbert said. The description needs to make it clear how this trope is different from just having actual, real Social Science in a work. The description here is really not helpful. Just what is this trope?
  • March 11, 2013
    I don't really understand how the description is confusing, unless you are simply skimming over it. It's fairly bare bones at the moment but it gets the point across. If you need it in other words it's the verbalization of a social concept that is described through any number of more scientific methods. For example Sheldon tries to figure out how to make friends by devising a flow-chart, Barney creates a graph on "Hot vs. Crazy."

    As a result I don't think the Square Pegs example really fits, as they are just commenting on social cliques (acknowledging that they exist) and not trying to analyze it scientifically.
  • March 11, 2013
    The description need to explain how this trope differs from actual, Real World social science, or at least disambiguate the two. Just mentioning that they're not the same isn't enough.

    Also, the examples section is formatted all wrong.
  • March 11, 2013
    Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is all about this, what with "psychohistory" using mathematical models to predict the behavior of societies.
  • March 29, 2013
    ^^ I still don't get the confusion. This is about using scientific methods to explain social ideas in a story, real world social sciences is researching social ideas using scientific methods. The difference is simply that one is not being used in a story. And formatting is a lesser issue so long as it is legible.

    • The title character of Hitch makes his living off of teaching clients who have difficulty in dating. This has, for the most part, been a result of experience with trial and error. He has it all broken down quite efficiently, including statistics.
  • March 29, 2013
    ^ To start with, there's a difference between actual scientific research vs. technobabble.

    There's a widespread misconception that social science is not "real" science. I don't think this page should encourage that misconception.

    I think the current description is a step in the right direction, though. It's improved. I would add right before the last sentence: "In fictionland, social science can be as simple as reducing complex relationships to a simplistic equation, or even just spouting technobabble." And I would add to the previous sentence "and observation."
  • March 29, 2013
    • An xkcd comic here tries to solve for love with various mathematical formulas. It doesn't work.
  • March 29, 2013
    ^^ The description has not been touched from the beginning and there is nothing there that is suggesting social sciences aren't real science, only that examples may not be based on actual "published-in-a-journal" social science. In other words its just the writers making their own observations. I guess in that way the point could be made clearer but I still don't get your angle.

    The kicker is that if an example actually does reference legitimate social research then it probably fits the trope.
  • March 29, 2013
    The thing is that examples of this trope in fiction are almost always not examples of actual science. "just the writers making their own observations" is not actual social science. The idea that social science consists of merely stating opinions is a very common misconception.

    But the trope is named Social Science. Using the name Social Science for this trope is going to unintentionally encourage that misconception, unfortunately. The name directly and explicitly equates the trope with real-life social science. It is a name that belongs on a Useful Note, not a trope. It's misleading.

    As an analogy: It's almost as if Somewhere A Paleontologist Is Crying was named Paleontology, and most of the examples were writers getting the science wrong, or Played For Laughs.

    (The reason this bugs me is that I am a (budding) social scientist, and I find it bothersome, not to mention an impediment to making a career, that the widespread notion of social science is so overwhelmingly dismissive.)

    What about Social Science Formula? Or Social Formula? Or Social Problem Formula? Or Social Math? Social Formula Demonstration? A clearer name would also help in understanding what the trope is. For example, I'm not sure the Mythbusters example fits with the rest here.
  • March 29, 2013
    I understand that social science is its own, legitimate scientific field (and now that it is a personal topic for you) but that is an issue that has nothing to do with the proposal. This isn't about writers making mistakes with social sciences, it would be like Technology Porn having an alternate name of "Somewhere a Gearhead is Crying." The line that has probably thrown you off is actually stating that these examples may or may not be supported by real life social science, it's just trying to approximate social science.

    I'm open to a different name, certainly. But the trope is really quite simple, it isn't just observations about social patterns but actually approaching it from a science perspective like using The Big Board to collect their data.

    Mythbusters, for all their faults, still approach everything from a scientific angle (use of control, placebos, variables, etc). If it's just vague commentary on cliques without any science behind it then it isn't this trope.
  • March 29, 2013
    I may still be misunderstanding what the trope is supposed to be, then. My impression is of something like in Big Bang Theory (an example somebody else added) or Numb3rs (the example I added) where the numbers are clearly inadequate to the task of dealing with socializing, and it's either Played For Laughs (this is all the time in Big Bang) or underscores how socially awkward the character is (as in Numb3rs). Or just parodied (like in Chasing Amy). My impression is that the trope doesn't actually depict characters doing the science.

    Which is why the Mythbusters example doesn't seem to fit. The others all seem to be a pattern: nerdy characters want to solve social problem (they can't get a date, or their friend is shy, or something) and try to break it down into numbers and drawing elaborate flowcharts. Or using this to try to explain a social concept to another (less nerdy?) character.

    The Mythbusters, to my understanding, take a concept and run experiments to test it. That is scientific, yes. Is the example trying to get at their presentation? Do they do the flowcharts and such for the audience?

    Social Science is also a very broad name, in the same way that Chocolate Candy is a broad name. Broad enough to catch an example like the Mythbusters one that just doesn't fit the pattern established with the rest of the page.
  • March 30, 2013
    That's overcomplicating it. All the trope is supposed to be is that the story and/or characters use scientific methods of any kind and applying it to what we consider to be common social situations. They have a wide range of how they can use it but the key is that they are either "experimenting" on it or present their "theories" in a scientific manner. This runs the gauntlet of math, physics, biology, psychology, engineering, flowcharts, thought experiments and may use actual social science itself. Sometimes it is inaccurate (or fails to account for all variables) but other times it might end up spot on. That's why it is such a broad name because "nerd is at a lost without formulas" is much more narrow than the trope.

    Thus Mythbusters fits the trope. And in The Big Bang Theory Sheldon created the frienship flowchart out of research and implemented it as part of an experiment, another episode he tried conditioning Penny using positive reinforcement. Using these theories is another form of experimentation.

    Maybe The Science Of Socializing? Social Proofs? Social Theorems?
  • March 30, 2013
    Alright, I get it better now. Maybe some of what you just said could go into the description?

    How about Socializing Science? That gets at the "common social situations" and is still fairly simple and broad, too.
  • March 31, 2013
    Okay, I fleshed out the description.
  • April 2, 2013
    Spoofed in GURPS IOU. The setting book describes political science students of the titular university, whose experimentations and projects result in civil disorders and revolutions in the neighboring town.
  • April 3, 2013
    @Arcades Sabboth: If you want to help the cause of social sciences, it'd help more if you would tell people in which ways social sciences have made the world a better place. Medicine helps sick people getting cured and live longer, agronomy helps feeding hungry people, mathematics is used in all other sciences - so, what about social science?
  • April 3, 2013
    Well, social sciences can teach us about human nature, which all things considered, is more important for the future of the human condition than all the stuff you mentioned. Nothing against the sick and hungry, but knowing why there are so many sick and hungry people as a few live in such obscene luxury, figuring out how to feed and cure them in a way that works without producing unintended consequences, and making sure your agronomy doesn't end up enriching a few at the expense of the environment would seem to be a better way to make real progress.
  • April 3, 2013
    Concerning the Numb3rs example: later on in the series (last season or two, actually), Charlie manages to write a best-selling book on using game theory to find your better chances at romance. (Bear in mind, though, that this came after a long-ish path in Character Development and Charlie understanding how things work best out on 'the field').

    I don't know if A Beautiful Mind would fit here or not, but still, John Nash gets his Eureka Moment on some important mathematical theorem by comparing it to a situation where several men on a bar try to woo a blonde girl and how it would go best.
  • April 3, 2013
    Newspaper Comics:
    • Dilbert uses this on occasion, mostly in regards to Dilbert's "single geek" status. At one point he proved via a computer model that attractive single women only were solely found in (I think it was) upscale bars and gyms.
      Dogbert: How do you explain Vanna White?[[note]]At the time, she was single.[[/note]]
      Dilbert: (stalks off, angrily crumpling the printout from his computer model)
  • April 3, 2013
    ^^ The punchline to the A Beautiful Mind example is that Nash, implied to have just worked out a foolproof mathematical formula for picking up women, stands up, strides confidently over to the women... and past them, and back to his room to write up the math.
  • April 3, 2013
    Our own Law Of Fan Jackassery would be an example of this.

    There's probably more in the Laws And Formulas index.
  • April 4, 2013
    @Morgan Wick: That was a pretty arrogant remark.
  • April 4, 2013
    Haha, Frank75 your comment that he was responding to was way more arrogant. What are you even on about?
  • April 4, 2013
    I was asking a perfectly legit question: What exactly have social "sciences" done for us? Not "writing texts", not "holding speeches", not "making promises", not "cry about evil stuff happening", but solving actual problems. It shouldn't be that hard to answer the question - at least in case there is an answer, which could be after all. But decrying that there are many poor and few rich people in the world, And Thats Terrible, isn't really a great intellectual achievement, and neither is it new. Religions have preached that for millennia.

    Again: If someone claims about how great social "sciences" are, I want more details. Show Dont Tell. It makes me suspicious when e.g. sociologists hide behind an impenetrable jargon. And if someone states something to the effect "Our achievements are worth even more than those of people who actually did something, but we aren't telling you what exactly", I will call out his arrogance.
  • April 4, 2013
    ^That's a discussion for another time. Let's get back to the topic at hand.
  • April 4, 2013
    Mod hat on: This trope is to social sciences what E Equals MC Hammer is to mathematics. So the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of Real Life social sciences is not relevant to this trope. So stop arguing about it.
  • April 6, 2013
    Especially after having to fight for this trope, I am bumping for hats. I think the premise and examples are fairly well fleshed out and it takes a neutral stance on its relationship with real social science and the viability of social science itself.
  • May 12, 2017
  • May 14, 2017
    Web Video:
    • Subverted in My Little Pony Totally Legit Recap, "Equestria Girls Part 1".
      Twilight: Alright, Spike, all I need to do is find a book on how to become popular in high school.
      [Six and a half hours later...]
      Twilight: I don't get it, Spike. I couldn't find a single textbook or published study. You'd think there'd be tons of material on high school social structure! It's obviously really important!
  • May 14, 2017
    • Quotes don't need double apostrophes after stating the speaking character's name. I removed them.
    • Misuse of No Except Yes in the page quote. It's By No I Mean Yes.
  • May 14, 2017
    ^ You could take this over, as it's now Up For Grabs. The OP hasn't edited it for years now.
  • May 23, 2017
    • In Questionable Content, Hannelore had a very isolated childhood and has No Social Skills, so she sometimes tries to fill the gap with elaborate mathematical models of social behaviour. If her father's queries about Fournier-Goldman Happiness Units are anything to go by, it's an inherited trait.
      Sven: Uh... are we gonna go [on our date]?
      Hannelore: [At a blackboard] As soon as I finish calculating the proper Blush Quotient for a given compliment.