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I know very little about physics compared to most users of physics StackExchange. Even so, if I knew a grain more than what I know now, I wouldn't care to answer the questions of others. I'd rather focus on answering my questions. What motivates users of this site to answer questions?

Do most of you recognize that for your questions to be answered, you'll need others to want to use the site. To want others to use the site, you'll have to answer their questions. Is this the goodwill that motivates all of you?

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    $\begingroup$ And here's the same question asked on the mother meta: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/17831/… It's an old question (2008) so it was asked in regards to StackOverflow but the ideas are probably consistent with what people will say on here also. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 27 '15 at 3:46
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We have discussed this before although that question is only tangentially related to this one. Based on that question though, you should find that the most active people who answer questions have some of the fewest questions asked. For the most part, the community is split into two broad groups -- those who ask questions and rarely answer (which seems to be where you would place yourself) and those who answer questions and rarely ask (which is where many of the people who will likely respond to this meta post would place themselves).

I can't speak for everybody so I'm sure I will miss individual motivations. But I know for some, they answer questions because they like to teach others. These folks tend to be current or retired academics. Which makes sense, they are making/have made a career out of educating others. And of course, there are those who plan on going into academics and would like to make a career out of teaching others so they could be in that group.

There are those who see answering others' questions as a way to learn more themselves. I know I have learned quite a bit by answering questions I am not an expert per se in but my knowledge of my field has allowed me to bring a particular perspective. And in those cases, I answer something but I also learn from the resulting votes/comments (was I right? did I miss something?) and in some cases has actually led me to ask questions of my own. I also get to see how others reach a conclusion/answer and I almost always learn something from the other answers even if I "knew" it. Turns out, there's usually more than one way to think about something and I wouldn't know how my thought process is different than somebody elses' without having first outlined mine.

I could also say that I fit into a category where I want to encourage others to ask questions and understand how the universe works. It's just a nice thing to do, and maybe that's the goodwill/altruism you mentioned.

There's also the game aspect of it. You ask good questions, you get rep; you post good answers, you get rep. You get badges. You "level up" and get new permissions. It's sometimes fun to play the game for some people. Answers get more rep than questions so that's a good way to advance faster if you're good at it. Plus there's always that "Yay, somebody liked my post!" when you get an upvote.

On the flip side of the coin, like you said about yourself, I spend a lot of time answering my own questions. But that's because I'm in grad school and I need to develop the skills to both develop my own questions and then answer them. Things that I have questions about, I can't openly ask questions about -- they are things I am being paid to research and I could get scooped if I start revealing what I'm doing to the world before it's done. My field is specific enough that what seems to be relatively general/generic questions would turn up in a search engine and it would be easy to piece together things. Of course, by the time I finish working on it enough that it could be public, that's because I've already answered a bunch of my own questions and have new ones that are my next paper! So it's not easy, nor appropriate, for me to be asking questions that directly benefit my work.

So my questions tend to be curiosity about things. And I ask them here and not somewhere else because I have gotten to know the users here through my interactions (either in the chat room, here on meta, or through the Q&A themselves) and I like them. I know that I can ask something and I usually have a pretty good idea who will attempt to answer it based on what the question is about. And I know I can trust the resulting answers or trust the comments that point out my misconceptions or point me to the right answer.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 because I like you too <3 $\endgroup$ – Jim Feb 27 '15 at 14:29
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What motivates users of this site to answer questions?

I can only speak for myself. My motivation for answering questions is purely selfish - answering questions here benefits me. As soon as that is not the case, I will no longer participate.

The fact that others may find value in some of the answers I compose is not the primary reason I participate but it is nonetheless a value to me too.

Simply put, focusing one's mind to write a good answer to an interesting question almost always improves one's own understanding of the material. In some cases, it simply reinforces or refreshes your understanding.

Finally, answering a question wrongly can be valuable. Indeed, identifying and correcting an error in your understanding might be the most valuable reward of all.

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The answer by tpg2114 is general enough to make up a questioner for ticking :)

In addition, my broad reasons as a retired experimentalist for answering, more or less in order of importance, are

1) Physics is fun ( a professor of mine used to say that with a big grin)

2)little white ( women are supposed to have more white brain cells than grey) cells have to be exercised

3) Whenever I start to think , "maybe it is getting boring", due to the appearance of repetitive questions, or too engineering like, or not enough in my field (experimental particle physics) and the lowering of physics level, I stay keeping up the feminist flag. If you notice there are very few women ( explicitly stating gender) that appear here.

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    $\begingroup$ I think it's spelled "Physics is PHun!" But part of point 3 is funny because I sit around and think "Man, there's way too many questions about X and not enough that are close to engineering for me to answer." I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder, and that's why it's good to have a diverse community to pick up where others can't/won't. Of course, my interest has to walk a fine line because engineering and computational questions have to walk a fine line to stay on topic. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 27 '15 at 5:26
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 , well, even stronger than fun, a passion. During my productive years it was a total immersion/focus to be compared with that of having a new baby ( I have had two :) ). $\endgroup$ – anna v Feb 27 '15 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ There are, perhaps, a few more women starting physics careers than there were when I was a student, but---to use the same old tired language---the pipeline continues to leak ferociously. A senior role model is endlessly helpful for simply saying this isn't just a boys club. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Mar 2 '15 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ I don't get why gender matters here and why you mention it repeatedly. Is there a rationality for diversity, other than personal interest (the feeling of being among people which are not like oneself)? $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Mar 2 '15 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ @NikolajK Well, as an experimentalist I observe. My observations tell me that women are a small percentage in active physicists, although, for example, at my time in the 1970's+ at CERN about half of the Italian physicists were women. This observation leads me to the inference that education has a great role to play ( different in Italy than other countries). When I started interacting here I found very few women interested in this type of give and take. This infers further for me further social inhibiting factors. 50% of the potential physicists are women and it seems to me that $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 3 '15 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ one should not make physics a boys playground ( like football) , for the good of girls and of science and of societies in general. $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 3 '15 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ "it seems to me that" ... You didn't answer the question. There is no scarcity of physicists students. Achieving diversity is a modern mantra, but why is it relevant here? You don't give arguments why it would be "for the good of girls and of science and of societies in general." For all we know, it could make things worse. Note that I'm not arguing against diversity here! But to me it feels like someone is making a big point of making everybody wear bright differently colored shirts in the lab. Why? You're a physicist like all...unless you repeatedly dwell on it that you're a woman/different! $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Mar 3 '15 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ @NikolajK It is the same reasoning in my mind of why there should be scholarships for all deserving students. One should not belong to an upper class to be able to contribute to the progress of science. If 50% of the human brains are repressed that makes for 50% less Neutons and Noethers for the pool of human progress in science ( whether women or the poor) $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 3 '15 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ Mhm, I don't really understand this as an argument now. The one-gender-only scholarships I know of are for women, and there are academic job positions which are withdrawn unless a woman applies. Are there examples where this is the other way around, things made easier only for men? My pool of knowledge is for Germany and Austria. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Mar 3 '15 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ And again, I'm not at all arguing against 50%/50%. In fact for the longest time I thought that would be inherently good, as then even the cliche-physicists would interact with the other sex. (But then I realized that making physics more social in this way maybe actually drive Newton/Dirac-like loners away from science, and possibly progress is enhanced by having people who devote themselves and don't seek a family life.) What I'm saying is that it's not rationally clear that it's a good thing. It's fair if everybody can choose their career, but I fail to see why women are repressed at all. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Mar 3 '15 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ One gender scholarships were established to give a push towards equal opportunity. Boys will meet girls and men women anyway, and if they meet them as colleagues or as secretaries and librarians it is the same thing as far as the propagation of the species goes. In my opinion of observations over several decades women in science are at a disadvantage by biology but not only, social conventions/situations also are responsible. Biology channels interests towards building a family and the propagation of the species, and it is very strong in the highschool and university years. Social forces $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 3 '15 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ @NikolajK enhance this tendency, because society is also geared towards reproducing itself. When my son was five he had all the usual lego and cars and construction stuff, and my daughter at three had Barbies and doll houses. A girl cousin of 4 yrs old when visiting made a bee line for the construction toys. Her mother would gently take her to the Barbies and doll houses. That is what I mean by societal pressure. If it were a boy, it would be encouraged to go to the lego and taken away from Barbies. This type of bias and role modeling continues all thru life, not so open, but still there. $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 3 '15 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ btw my daughter had no interest in construction toys :), that is what I mean by biological programming coming out. $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 3 '15 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ You say girls are made to unlearn the interest. But where are the unequal opportunities? If young blonde people are taught that blondes should to put gel in their hair and in turn blonde people are likely to develop an interest in fashion, and then 80% of hair dressers are blonde, does it repress anyone? And why does it matter what hair your hairdresser has? Society is structured so that boys tend to go into physics, but artificially induced interests don't equal repression or inequality in opportunity. One-gender-scholarships were established to get girls into science, not to fix unfairness. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Mar 3 '15 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ Well okay, we don't need to discuss this much further I guess. I'd just appeal to reflect upon if you're actually "keeping up the feminist flag" because there is some injustice towards women going on, or if you just feel that in the time as a scientists you would have liked it if there would have been more people of your gender around. If you're actually morally inclined, then you should consider that in actuality, post doc applications etc. seek amongst the few women physicists now, because of quota or an "we need 50%/50%" mindset, i.e. people are actually discriminated by their gender. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Mar 3 '15 at 19:15
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There used to be a time (i.e. August) when I asked a lot more than I answered. Looking at my earliest questions (wince), I was extremely inexperienced (and I still am). I mean, there's naïveté and then there are the kind of questions I was asking. At least the first few. They got a bit better as time went on.

Is this the goodwill that motivates all of you?

Goodwill, schmoodwill. Not to sound a bit like Scrooge, but I'm not motivated by goodwill. I mean, I enjoy helping people - I really do - but if I decide to answer a question, it's not because I want to help the person asking it. In most cases, it's because I want to know the answer, and I don't want to wait around for someone else to do so.

Like tpg2114, I often learn when I answer questions. But for me, it's surprisingly often. Perhaps this is true more on other SEs, since I generally answer only basic questions on Physics, but many times I have no idea what the heck my answer will be when I sit down to write it - or even if I'll be able to learn enough to write an answer. Take this one. Before doing the research (yes, beyond Wikipedia), I couldn't even pronounce "Prandtl–Glauert singularity", let alone understand what it's about. But that question was bugging me, so I upvoted, did the research, and explained it to someone else.

Another reason I answer questions is because of those questions in August (and beyond). When I was wrong about something, I was corrected by the more experienced users. They were pretty nice about my mistakes, too, which I valued quite a bit. I'm not nearly as experienced as them, but I do my best to try to help the people who are like I was in August - trying to understand something cool but hard to explain. I like to give back answers for the answers I received.

On a more mundane note, I also answer questions when I'm bored. I can assure you that taking a break to research sound waves is infinitely more interesting than doing some vocabulary questions for English.

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    $\begingroup$ My cynical world view? People's "goodwill" for others is really just a desire to feel good themselves at best, and appear to be good to others at worst. But does it matter what the inner motivations are so long as the end result is helpful? Probably not... Expanding on that would be too philosophical for here (and for a comment) but I think we are all selfishly motivated to contribute. If we didn't get anything out of it, even if all we got is the warm-fuzzies, would anybody really do it? I doubt it. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Mar 3 '15 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 I wouldn't be surprised if selfishness is at the root of it all. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Mar 3 '15 at 19:10

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