When news broke this January that New York magazine was expanding its trademark brand of psychology-backed cultural analysis—played out in features about dating, parenting and popularity—into a vertical covering social science, the news was a hiccup in the splashier announcement that the mag was reducing its print edition.
The vertical, ‘Science of Us,’ launched quietly earlier this week, with an array of pieces tying psychology and behavioral economics to the way we live. Louis C.K.’s exploration of dating while a fat woman was explored in a newsy piece on why overweight men find it easier to attract partners than their overweight female counterparts and an explanatory piece, perfectly designed for Facebook swapping, gave scientifically-informed tips on winning political arguments. (In the first four hours it was posted, it was shared 61 times.) There’s also the usual quick coverage of takeaways from psychology studies and a more substantial piece by Lisa Miller, exploring whether anxious people make more moral decisions.
‘Science of Us’ aspires to explain human experience through social science—a task which, at its best, is fascinating and illuminating and at its worst is incredibly problematic and fear-mongering. CJR caught up with editor Jesse Singal a few weeks before launch, to talk about how New York is championing social science, and how the magazine’s breezy tone can translate into rigorous coverage.
Why did New York decide to dedicate a space to social science?
I think that their thought was that you can get people in by asking universal questions about anything. And they’ve had some very successful magazine features in that space. Like Jennifer Senior’s high school parenting piece [“The Collateral Damage of a Teenager.] Her stuff in general, I think it did well. The pieces, which on the one hand dealt with universal themes and, on the other hand, when you read them—she actually gets pretty wonky. Like, in this very lively New York Magazine friendly kind of way. There’s a lot of good social science in there and people want to read this stuff. And once they’re in the door you can sort of bring them a lot of social science if you do it in the right way. This is sort of my line, not New York magazine’s line, but I think everyone is interested in social science—they just don’t know it. Like a Jehovah’s witness, if you show up at their door and say, “Can I interest you in some behavioral economics,” they’ll say no.
So how does this kind of story change when you’re shifting from print to digital?
In some ways, it’s the same. Like, we want to occasionally run those bigger feature stories that hopefully generate a lot of discussion and controversy. But we also need to figure out a way to tackle the news on a daily basis. So one of the big questions we’re struggling with is: When is it time to jump on a news story?