Psychology’s Greatest Spokesperson Can’t Save Us: Why We’re Unpopular
David Brooks, a conservative New York Times political columnist, is psychology’s greatest spokesperson :
Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications.
Unfortunately, he is writing these words because, as the sun sets on the American empire, there is unlikely to be much funding for psychological research:
Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.
Why is that?
In an era of simplistic sloganeering: “Taxes halt economic growth” versus “Failure to spend stunts growth,” psychological research is complex, and often counterintuitive.
The example Brooks picks to illustrate the value of psychological research involves comprehending why poor people — in addition to being disadvantaged — are less able to follow the routes that advance people in our society.
The PC answer (note this is the one liberals favor) is that poor people simply have less access to the gears of power, and therefore can’t move ahead.
But psychology knows that there are ways in which the absence of such access impacts people’s actual thinking. Brooks takes this as his main example of how psychological research illuminates human functioning in ways that offer road maps for improving people’s lives.
Brooks refers to the work of Eldar Shafir of Princeton and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard, who “have recently, with federal help, been exploring a third theory, that scarcity produces its own cognitive traits.” That is, when operating under the pressures of scarcity, all people — even well-heeled hypersuccessful Princeton undergraduates — operate in sub-optimal ways.
Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.s.
Of course, this situational complexity belies the trend in much of psychology to locate traits — presumably genetically linked — for everything, including intelligence, but also much more subtle personality factors and individual outlooks.
So psychological researchers are fighting more than withdrawal of federal funding. They are fighting the zeitgeist. Like farmers under stress, Americans aren’t inclined to look around for complex psychological associations to explain individual and group behavior.
Meanwhile, Shafir and Mullainathan “are also studying how poor people’s self-perceptions shape behavior. Many people don’t sign up for the welfare benefits because they are intimidated by the forms. Shafir and Mullainathan asked some people at a Trenton soup kitchen to relive a moment when they felt competent and others to recount a neutral experience. Nearly half of the self-affirming group picked up an available benefits package afterward. Only 16 percent of the neutral group did.”
Indeed, my colleague Ilse Thompson and I recommend just such techniques for boosting people’s resistance to — and ability to overcome — addiction.
But we, as a society, are not inclined to examine how situational factors impact our basic self-conceptions and therefore our behaviors, up to and including addiction. Thus, the National Institute on Drug Abuse eschews examination of exogenous factors in addiction. Why, they’re not scientific! Drugs directly affect neurochemicals through the mediation of genes — presto!
Which is why psychology, for all the brilliance of its researchers and the proven accuracy of its conceptions of the balance of factors in human functioning, is not the wave of the future. Psychology is like Talmudic studies that require careful thought, testing of ideas, and drawing conclusions involving many layers of the world around us.
As America becomes a land of scarcity, we just don’t have the time for that kind of thinking.