Last week I criticized pop social psychology while maintaining that social psychology itself was a pretty interesting window into human thought processes.
I was then handed a link to someone who apparently likes social psychology a lot less than I do.
You should read the whole thing, but here are the parts I’ll be talking about. As you can see, it’s kind of a conservative perspective saying social psychology is a liberal enterprise to deny human nature in favor of people being infinitely malleable based on their situation:
Personally, I find it very hard to fathom the idiocy of Mischel’s conclusion. It would mean that a person who others think of as for instance shy is really nothing of the kind. It just looks that way because we have only had chance to observe him or her in situations that elicits shyness. And if you think of yourself as shy you must be either plain wrong or stuck in a series of situations that by coincidence predisposes you to acting shy. This idea may sound like a joke, but the zeitgeist of the 1960s was left of sanity and lots of “intellectuals” believed Mischel the way they believed in Marx, Lenin and Mao.
For that reason, social psychology became a major branch of psychology. After all, if it was all in the situation then this was the important field of research. Personality barely survived and its proponents, like Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen, were often dismissed as racists and right-wing lobbyists.
Unsurprisingly, it soon became evident that Mischel was wrong – there really was such a thing as a shy person. As traits became real again, personality psychology grew but at the same time social psychologists kept a grip on their dominant position by introducing interactionism, the study of both situations and personality. This way they blurred the line between the fields and managed to claim a lot of the newly available positions in personality research. But at heart they were never interactionists; they started out as situationists because of their political views and they have stayed that way ever since. To this day they rarely perform experiments in which personality measures are used. Their focus is very much on the situation. Look at the collective social psychology blog in the links to the right of this post – it’s even called The Situationist, not The Interactionist. For most of these psychologists, interactionism was just a word with which to neutralize the enemy.
And today? Well, it’s like the French say, the more something changes, the more it stays the same. This can be seen in a recent post in the above mentioned The Situationist (which is still interesting to follow because not all social psychology is crap) about Harvard Professor Francesca Gino’s book Sidetracked, in which she describes how small things or situations derail our plans, intentions and even our morals. As an example she mentions an experiment in which she and psychologist Dan Ariely equipped participants with high-end sunglasses. Half of the participants were told that they were actually counterfeits, while the other half were told they were the real deal. The participants were then instructed to perform a mathematical task which left room for cheating. It turned out that 70 percent of those who thought they wore knock-off sunglasses cheated compared to 30 percent in the other group.
This may sound like compelling evidence for the power of the situation, but is it really? The participants were all young women rather than a representative sample. But more importantly, they were informed that they were participating in a psychological experiment and then told to wear counterfeit sunglasses. That’s pretty far from any kind of real life situation. It’s more like saying, “let’s play a game – you will be the bad guy.” It supports the idea that social psychology is, as someone put it, a list of how people behave in weird situations. Needless to say, Gino and Ariely didn’t use any personality measure since that would only distract attention from the power of the almighty Situation.
So if wearing fake sunglasses can make a person dishonest, how about the situation of being brought up by criminal parents? Now that should be a way more powerful situation. Psychologist Sarnoff Mednick and colleagues investigated this in the mid 1980s using data from over 14 thousand nonfamilial adoptions (in which the adoptive parents are unrelated to the child). They found that when both biological and adoptive parents had no criminal convictions the adopted child was eventually convicted in 13.5 percent of the cases, so that’s our baseline. When adoptive parents had convictions but biological parents had not, the number of convicted adoptees only rose very slightly to 14.7 percent. So fake sunglasses will have a profound effect on your honesty, but being brought up by criminals will only marginally elevate your risk of being convicted of a crime. That must be some sunglasses.
[Social psychologists] just need to construct some even more artificial situations in order to deliver those results that will prove that Marx was right all along. And no outsiders need to concern themselves with exactly how they go about doing that.
Where to start, where to start?
First of all, it is too bad that Staffan finds the importance of situation hard to believe, but at least he is in good company. They do not call this problem the Fundamental Attribution Error because it is rare (or for that matter because it is a correct and tenable position). In experiments, people consistently overestimate the effect of personality and underestimate the effect of situation. Insofar as social psychologists are the people trying to correct that, they are doing God’s work.
On the other hand, there are also personality psychologists, who study personality. They, too, are doing good work. Contrary to Staffan’s assertions, they are an integral and well-beloved part of the field of psychology. Of the two personality psychologists Staffan claims were villainized and dismissed, both made the list of the fifty most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Eysenck is the third most-cited psychologist of all time.
Jensen was indeed “dismissed as a racist and right-wing lobbyist”, but this was less because he dared to study personality and more because he spent much of his time trying to prove black people were genetically less intelligent and because he took large amounts of money from right-wing organizations. This seems like the sort of case where “racist and right-wing lobbyist” might be a perfectly acceptable value-neutral description – although I agree Jensen’s work, much of which was completely unrelated and brilliant, hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves.
Because of the success of personality psychology, some of Staffan’s claims about social psych are a No True Scotsman argument. Personality psychology is considered a different field than social psychology. When Staffan notes that social psychologists accept the importance of personality but don’t study it, this is exactly symmetrical to personality psychologists accepting the importance of situation but not studying it. So getting upset at social psychologists for not studying personality is a lot like getting upset at cardiologists for not studying the liver.
The sunglasses experiment? Staffan correctly points out (as I did last week) that several similar experiments are under challenge, but those were on unconscious priming whereas the sunglasses experiment (from the little I read on it) seems to be about conscious priming, which is on firmer ground. To me it seems like exactly the sort of thing that might be true – in the extremely artificial conditions of the laboratory. This meshes with the point I made last week – that social psychology does a great job illuminating certain processes the brain goes through, but that we should be wary about assuming they have what doctors call “clinical significance”.
The criminal adoption experiment? Probably 100% correct. As anyone who’s read The Nurture Assumption (or my review thereof) knows, psychologists are constantly unable to find any effect of parents on their childrens’ personalities or actions. This is sufficiently distressing that most people refuse to believe it, but it keeps being confirmed again and again. Personality is 50% genetic and 50% some other factor which people have yet to illuminate but which definitely doesn’t involve upbringing (I hear Judith Rich Harris’ book No Two Alike purports to explain what this factor is, but I’m only halfway through it and can’t comment).
(seriously, why do I have to spend so much time insisting to racists and eugenicists that genes are seriously really important? This should not be as big a niche in the blogosphere as it is!)
But basically, social psychology has discovered the correct fact that situation is more important than people think it is and personality is less important than people think it is in determining behavior, while not denying that both are pretty important. It correctly claims that priming can have very large short-term effects on unimportant decisions, and correctly notes that being raised by criminals has no effect on anyone’s personality. So far I think it’s doing pretty well, as long as, once again, you are skeptical about trying to do social engineering with its results outside the laboratory.
Now let’s get to the part about Marx. For this we go to those experts on all things Marxist, More Right. In their latest post, Drew Summitt draws a distinction between what he considers a conservative view – that there is such a thing as human nature and that political systems need to take that into account – and a progressive view – that there is no such thing as human nature, people are infinitely malleable, and once we create some kind of utopia we can perfect mankind. The quote is his, the emphasis is mine:
“He defends this proposition with the assertion that “the conservative realist view of human imperfectability and their commitment to ordered liberty as rooted in nature, custom, and prudence“ can see great support in modern evolutionary theory because modern evolutionary theory contradicts what Thomas Sowell calls the “unconstrained vision” that liberal intellectuals and theorists are tempted to hold. In contrast to this Sowell sets up a “constrained vision” of human anthropology that is limited in its capabilities by an intellect being the servant of the passions, the reality of sin, or boring genes telling our memes what they can and can’t do. In order to support the idea that evolutionary theory supports a conservative political vision Arnhart traces the foundations of human capability to nature, custom and prudence. The conservative hierarchy of nature, custom and prudence is what constrains the idealist impulse for reason to govern and judge, and indeed seek to overthrow, custom and nature
But the Liberal Egalitarian Free-trade Technocrats also recognize human nature as being essential to political order. If you agree with Steven Pinker on the Humean Is in regard to human nature, that is, if you think he’s got his facts right, you must have an independent account of the Humean Ought, because Pinker is a Liberal, though one of the deflated, Clintonian Liberals. This is a form of Liberalism not touched enough reactionary circles. Why is it the Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and many other experts in contemporary studies in human nature self described liberals? They may reject modern queer theory, as Dawkins does, or they may think that the brain is not a Blank Slate, as Pinker does, but they don’t consider these positions to be dangerous to Liberalism writ large or if they do they are terribly good at hiding it.
So he is wondering why, if liberalism is founded on the idea that human nature is an infinitely malleable blank slate, are the world’s greatest scientific experts in evolved human nature liberals?
To steal a delightful turn of phrase from Terry Eagleton, this is like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.
Let me make an analogy to medicine. Unlike the brain, there is no debate on the “nature” of the heart – the literal blood-pumping heart, not the fuzzy emotional version. We know the heart is fully one hundred percent genetically programmed (minus a little morphogenetic variation), that it’s not malleable by schooling or brainwashing or being raised in a commune. It is a social engineer’s nightmare, a system founded entirely on human nature without the slightest wiggle room.
And yet doctors routinely make the heart do what they want. If they want to raise heart rate, they give a dose of epinephrine. If they want to lower heart rate, they give a dose of propranolol. If social planners could control the brain as easily as doctors control the heart, we’d already be living in a communist utopia.
The heart has an immutable nature, and that immutable nature is to respond to different situations in highly predictable ways.
The heart is neither a blank slate nor a fully inscribed slate. It’s not a slate at all. The heart is a series of levers. If you pull one lever, it will do one thing. If you pull another lever, it will do another thing. It is, paradoxically, hard-coded for malleability. It’s not infinitely malleable – there’s no drug you can inject to make the patient’s heart beat out the drum parts to Beatles songs – but you can shift it a little bit this way or that.
We have reason to believe the brain works the same way. Not everything is a lever – if you send a kid off to be raised by criminals, it won’t activate any of the hard-coded IF-THEN statements, and nothing will happen. But if you surround someone by stimuli that prime the idea of criminality – whether sunglasses or a broken window, that will pull on a lever that will make criminal behavior a little bit more likely.
(except for “levers”, read “extremely complicated things that run through chaos theory at some point and so are inherently unpredictable except in the broadest and most statistical sense”)
All of this reminds me of a video I saw this afternoon on the second day of The Hospital Orientation. Please excuse me if I change it around just a little to turn it from a quality improvement case study to a morality tale.
There were two hospitals, Hospital A and Hospital B. Both, like all hospitals, were fighting a constant battle against medical errors – surgeons removing the wrong leg, doctors giving the wrong dose of medication, sleepy interns reading x-rays backwards, that kind of thing. These are deadly – they kill up to a hundred thousand people a year – and terrifyingly common.
Hospital A took a very right-wing approach to the issue. They got all their doctors together and told them that any doctor who made a minor medical error would get written up and any doctor who made a major medical error would be fired. Rah personal responsibility!
Unfortunately, when they evaluated the results of their policy they found they had exactly as many medical errors as before, except now people were trying to cover them up and they weren’t being discovered until way too late.
Hospital B took a very progressive approach. They too got all their doctors together, but this time the hospital administrators announced: “You are not to blame for any medical errors. If medical errors occur, it means we, the administrators, have failed you by not creating a sufficiently good system. Please tell us if you commit any medical errors, and you won’t be punished, but we will scrutinize what we’re doing to see if we can make improvements.”
Then they made sweeping changes to what you might call the “society” of the hospital. They decreased doctor workload so physicians weren’t as harried. They shortened shifts to make sure everyone got at least eight hours of sleep a night. They switched from paper charts (where doctors write orders in notoriously hard-to-read handwriting) to electronic charts (where everything is typed up). They required everyone to draw up and use checklists. They even put propaganda posters over every sink reading “DID YOU WASH YOUR HANDS LONG ENOUGH??!” with a picture of a big eye on them. You can’t get more Orwellian than that.
And yet, mirabile dictu, this was the hospital that saw their medical error rates plummet.
The administrators of this second hospital didn’t ignore human nature. Instead, they exploited their knowledge of human nature to the fullest. They know it’s in human nature to do a bad job when you’re working on no sleep. They know it’s human nature to try to cut corners, but that people will run through checklists honestly and effectively. They even know that studies show that pictures of eyes make people behave more prosocially because they feel like they’re being watched.
You don’t have to tell me all the reasons this doesn’t directly apply to an entire country. I can think of most of them. But my point is that if I’m progressive – a label I am not entirely comfortable with but which people keep trying to pin on me – this is my progressivism. The idea of using knowledge of human nature to create a structure with a few clever little lever taps that encourage people to perform in effective and prosocial ways. It’s a lot less ambitious than “LET’S TOTALLY REMAKE EVERY ASPECT OF SOCIETY AS A UTOPIA”, but it’s a lot more practical.
(Although I’m also kinda okay with making every aspect of society a utopia, as long as we do it right.)