Secrets and Social Networks

Cowan, Sarah K.

Forthcoming in Current Opinion in Psychology
Secrets are information kept from others; they are relational. They shape the intimacy of our relationships, what we know of others and what we infer about the world. Recent research has promoted two models of voluntary secret disclosure. The first highlights deliberate and strategic disclosure to garner support and to avoid judgment. The second maintains strategic action but foregrounds that disclosures are made in contexts which shape who is in one’s social network and who may be the recipient of a disclosure. Work outside of this main vein examines the mechanisms and motivations to share others’ secrets as well as the potential consequences of doing so. The final avenue of inquiry in this review considers how keeping secrets can change (or avoid changing) the size and composition of the secret-keeper’s social network and what information is shared within it. Understanding how secrets spread within and form social networks informs work from public health to criminology to organizational management.

Category: Secrets, Social Networks


Estimating Personal Network Size with Non-random Mixing via Latent Kernels

Sahai, Swupnil, Timothy Jones*, Sarah K. Cowan and Tian Zheng

Published in Aiello L., Cherifi C., Cherifi H., Lambiotte R., Lió P., Rocha L. (eds) Complex Networks and Their Applications VII. Complex Networks 2018. Studies in Computational Intelligence, vol 812. Springer.
A major problem in the study of social networks is estimating the number of people an individual knows. However, there is no general method to account for barrier effects, a major source of bias in common estimation procedures. The literature describes approaches that model barrier effects, or non-random mixing, but they suffer from unstable estimates and fail to give results that agree with specialists’ knowledge. In this paper we introduce a model that builds off existing methods, imposes more structure, requires significantly fewer parameters, and yet allows for greater interpretability. We apply our model on responses gathered from a survey we designed and show that our conclusions better match what sociologists find in practice. We expect that this approach will provide more accurate estimates of personal network sizes and hence remove a significant hurdle in sociological research.

Category: Social Networks


“It could turn ugly”: Selective Disclosure of Political Views and Biased Network Perception

Cowan, Sarah K., and Delia Baldassarri

Published in Social Networks 52: 1-17 (2018)
This article documents individuals selectively disclosing their political attitudes and the consequences for social influence and the democratic process. Using a large, diverse sample of American adults, we find Americans keep their political attitudes secret specifically from those with whom they disagree. As such, they produce the experience of highly homogeneous social contexts, in which only liberal or conservative views are voiced, while dissent remains silent, and often times goes unacknowledged. This experience is not the result of homogeneous social contexts but the appearance of them. Pervasive selective disclosure creates a gap between the objective social network and the perceived social network in which political agreement is over-estimated. On the micro-level, the processes of social influence on the formation and modification of political attitudes that occur when people converse with those with whom they disagree are thwarted and on the macro-level, this mechanism of selective disclosure leads to the perception of a greatly polarized public opinion.

Category: Public Opinion, Secrets, Social Networks


Enacted Abortion Stigma in the United States

Cowan, Sarah K

Published in Social Science and Medicine 177:259-268 (2017)
Rationale: Abortion is a common medical procedure at the center of political debate. Yet, abortion stigma at the individual level is under-researched; the nascent research on abortion stigma has not yet documented experienced (enacted) stigma instead capturing anticipated or internalized stigma.
Objective: This study documents how women and men who disclosed abortions perceived others’ reactions and determinants of those perceptions.
Method: The study uses the American Miscarriage and Abortion Communication Survey, a survey representative of American-resident adults. Data from the sub-sample who had personal experience with abortion were analyzed (total sample, N = 1640; abortion disclosure sub-sample, n = 179). The survey captured each disclosure of the most recent abortion. Respondents had eight possible choices for articulating how the listener reacted. Cluster analyses grouped these reactions. Multinomial logistic regression identified predictors of the perceived reactions. Ordinal logistic regression revealed which disclosers perceived exclusively negative reactions, exclusively positive reactions, and a mix of negative and positive reactions.
Results: Each disclosure fell into one of three clusters: negative reaction, supportive reaction or sympathetic reaction. The majority of abortion disclosures received largely positive reactions (32.6% were characterized as supportive and 40.6% were characterized as sympathetic). A substantial minority of disclosures received a negative reaction (26.8%). The perceived valence of the reaction is predicted, in part, by to whom the disclosure was made and why. Across all their disclosures, most people disclosing an abortion history perceived only positive reactions (58.3%). A substantial minority of people perceived either exclusively negative reactions (7.6%) or a mix of negative and positive reactions (34.1%). Ordinal logistic regression (with people as the unit of analysis) showed perceived reactions are predicted by the number of disclosures made and the revealer’s race and income.
Conclusion: Whereas most people disclosing an abortion received support or sympathy, a substantial minority received stigmatizing reactions, which plausibly negatively impact on health.

This research was covered in Glamour.

Category: Abortion, Stigma


The Prevalence of and Barriers to Bystander Intervention on Behalf of Sexual Assault and Intimate Partner Violence Victims

Weitzman, Abigail, Sarah K. Cowan and Kate Walsh

Published in Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2017)
Using newly available, U.S. nationally representative data from the No More study (N=1,307), this article investigates 1) knowledge of sexual assault and intimate partner violence (IPV) victims within one’s social network, 2) who intervenes, whom they intervene on behalf of, and how they intervene, and 3) the perceived barriers to intervening in IPV specifically. The findings reveal that knowledge of violence, the likelihood of intervening, and the intervention approaches taken all vary demographically and by violence type. Among respondents who have known a victim, one-third report having intervened for sexual assault, while one-half report having intervened for IPV. For both types of violence, respondents are more likely to have intervened on behalf of family or friends than on behalf of more distant network members. However, respondents are more likely to have solicited the help of authorities and less likely to have offered safe haven in instances of sexual assault than in instances of IPV. The most commonly cited barriers to IPV-intervention include fear of injury, fear of misinterpretation, and belief that IPV is a private matter, though these vary across demographic groups. These findings indicate that the decision to intervene is highly contextual—contingent on the individual characteristics of the intervener, situational characteristics of the violence, and the relationship between the intervener and the victim.

Category: Social Networks


Alternative Estimates of Lifetime Prevalence Of Abortion from Indirect Survey Questioning Methods

Cowan, Sarah K., Lawrence Wu, Susanna Makela*, Paula England

Published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health48: 229–234 (2016)
Abortion is a frequent medical procedure undergone by diverse women in the United States with profound demographic and political implications yet we do not know how many American women alive today have had abortions. We do not know this basic fact because women under-report their abortion histories in surveys. There are a number of well-established techniques to elicit more accurate survey responses to sensitive items. In this comment, we propose that lifetime prevalence estimates for abortion in the United States could be improved through use of these techniques, in particular the double list experiment. We report on a pilot double list experiment we conducted which shows promising results. We also provide unique formulae for determining the appropriate sample sizes needed to detect that the double list experiment has improved accuracy of estimates over those obtained from asking women directly whether they have had an abortion.

Category: Abortion, Measurement


Periodic Discordance Between Vote Equality and Representational Equality in the United States

Cowan, Sarah K

Published in Sociological Science 2:442-453 (2015)
American democracy has two central values that are often in tension: vote equality, that each vote has equal influence, and representational equality, that each elected official represents equal numbers of people. The electoral standard of “one person, one vote” ensures representational equality, and that often ensures vote equality. This relationship fails, however, under certain demographic conditions, namely, when a large, non-enfranchised population resides unevenly across jurisdictions. Then, representational equality is preserved and vote equality is violated. Prior to women’s suffrage, for example, western states had relatively fewer women than the remainder of the country, contributing to gross vote inequality, though rectified through extension of the franchise. Given recent high rates of immigration to some states, I ask whether the two values are in tension. I find that they are, and quantify the electoral consequences of this disjuncture at 13 House seats in 2010.

This work was cited in the Democratic National Committee’s amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the case Evenwel v. Abbott. This research is also covered by Huffington Post.

Category: Political Sociology


“When you’re in a crisis like that, you don’t want people to know”: Mortgage Strain, Stigma and Mental Health

Keene, Danya E., Sarah K. Cowan, and Amy Castro Baker*

Published in the American Journal of Public Health 105:5 1008-1012 (2015)
Objectives: Mortgage strain can have severe consequences for mental health, but the specific mechanisms underlying this relationship have yet to be revealed. Stigma represents one unexplored pathway. We analyze experiences of stigmatization, concealment and isolation among African-American homeowners who were experiencing mortgage strain.
Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with 28 African-American homeowners who were experiencing mortgage strain.
Results: Our data show that mortgage strain can be a concealable stigma. Participants internalized this stigma, expressing shame about their mortgage situation. Additionally, some participants anticipated that others would view them as less worthy given their mortgage trouble. In an effort to avoid stigmatization, many concealed their mortgage trouble which often led to experiences of isolation. This stigmatization, concealment and isolation seemed to contribute to participants’ depression, anxiety and emotional distress.
Conclusions: Stigma may exacerbate the stress associated with mortgage strain and contribute to poor mental health, particularly among upwardly mobile African Americans who have overcome significant structural barriers to home ownership. Reducing stigma associated with mortgage strain may help to reduce the health consequences of this stressful life event.

This research was covered in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Category: Secrets, Social Networks, Stigma


Secrets and Misperceptions: The Creation of Self-Fulfilling Illusions

Cowan, Sarah K.

Published in Sociological Science 1: 466-492 (2014)
This study examines who hears what secrets, comparing two similar secrets — one which is highly stigmatized and one which is less so. Using a unique survey representative of American adults and intake forms from a medical clinic, I document marked differences in who hears these secrets. People who are sympathetic to the stigmatizing secret are more likely to hear of it than those who may react negatively. This is a consequence not just of people selectively disclosing their own secrets but selectively sharing others’ as well. As a result, people in the same social network will be exposed to and influenced by different information about those they know and hence experience that network differently. When people effectively exist in networks tailored by others to not offend then the information they hear tends to be that of which they already approve. Were they to hear secrets they disapprove of then their attitudes might change but they are less likely to hear those secrets. As such, the patterns of secret-hearing contribute to a stasis in public opinion.

This research has been covered by The New York Times, Salon, National Public Radio, RH Reality Check , Daily Kos (twice — see the more recent one here), LifeSite, Minnesota Post, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, PSMag and ThinkProgress among other news sources.

This research won the Robert K. Merton Prize for Analytical Sociology from the International Network of Analytical Sociologists, and the Honorable Mention for Best Paper from the Communication, Information Technologies and Media section of the American Sociological Association.

Category: Abortion, Secrets, Social Networks


Cohort Abortion Measures for the United States

Cowan, Sarah K.

Published in Population and Development Review 39(2):289–307 (2013)
Demographers interested in abortion in the United States have thus far focused on cross-sectional and synthetic cohort measures, due to data availability. We now have cohorts that have completed their entire reproductive years after the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide. For women who are in the midst of their childbearing years at the conclusion of data collection, I apply the Lee-Carter forecasting technique – its first application in abortion research – to complete their age-specific abortion rates. Using true cohort measures reveals markedly different abortion experiences by cohort. I find stasis in the distribution of abortion by abortion order and the racial composition of abortion incidences. In addition to the substantive findings, cohort measures shift the focus of quantitative abortion research from incidence rates to women’s lives over their reproductive years.

Category: Abortion, Measurement