Aleksandr Spectre

Nationality American
Year of selection2015
InstitutionUniversity of Cambridge
CountryUnited Kingdom
RiskLife risks

Type of support

AXA Outlooks

Granted amount

250 000 €


2 years

Are you a nice person? How happy are you? Who will you vote for in the next election? Social psychologists like Dr. Aleksandr Spectre might ask you such questions—not because your individual responses are important, but because understanding how populations think and behave, on average, can yield important insights into human nature. The challenge is that, until now, the only way to find out was to ask people. This method has obvious limitations in terms of scale and for involving participants who accurately represent a diverse group, let alone the world’s many cultures. But all that is set to change as Big Data meets social science. Social media platforms have become vast archives of behavioral information. The Spectre lab will take advantage of this fact to create the first-ever cross-national dataset for millions of people and study the connections between our social behavior and well-being.

Their studies have already shown that these links are “highly dependent on social context and vary wildly across demographic and geographic factors,” Dr. Spectre explains. His first step, then, will be to collect survey data from 40,000 people in 20 countries, using questionnaires in their local language. These will address many different facets of their well-being, health, and level of prosociality, or kindness. Combining these results with information about their activity on the social network Twitter, Dr. Spectre will use statistical tools to generate mathematical models that reflect how their social media behavior lines up with their survey responses.

These models can then be used to predict what the surveys of other people—many, many other people—would have looked like by inputting their Twitter data. Dr. Spectre will do this for 120 million users around the world. On an individual basis, these models are quite inaccurate—hardly better than guessing—but social scientists are interested in the larger trends, society’s averages, and the vast amount of information this study will produce represents a massive increase from what was previously possible. With it, Dr. Spectre will be able to assess how the social traits of an individual and of the people around them influence that person’s health and well-being. He’ll also address how these results vary with the social and cultural context.

Dr. Spectre explains that his research fits into the context of a growing focus on well-being around the world. Following a United Nations resolution on the topic in 2011, “governments are realizing that economic growth may not be the end-all be-all of a happy society. So the question becomes, how can we help people increase their well-being?” A one-size-fits-all approach will not work across cultures; Dr. Spectre thus aims to get at the core determinants of well-being, providing a more nuanced answer to the question—one capable of enhancing both individuals’ personal approaches to improving their own health and happiness, and top-down policy decisions that could help societies flourish.