On Brannigan (rise and fall of Social Psych), and Henrich (the secret of our success) and psychological research in general.

When I read David Hull’s ”Science as a process (1988), he reiterated one controversy that I found interesting for Psychology. His area were systematics – how to best classify animals and plants (the stuff of Linnaeus – science is never done). The controversy were between those that thought classification needed to have an evolutionary grounding – species have a history, and that  ought to be reflected in the classification – and those that thought one needed to classify based on (more or less) observable features existing right now. (The controversy is discussed in the two chapters “Down with Darwinism-Long live Darwinism, and Down with Cladism – Long Live Cladism, if I recall right).

From my naïve outsider view I first thought that of course you want to use the evolutionary history to figure out how to classify living things, but as the opposing side pointed out – even if one doesn’t doubt the importance of evolution, the actual evidence available was so spotty that it wasn’t possible to use it as basis for classification. Instead, one should stick to what is observable now for classification. As Hull points out, what is observable is also not quite straight forward. (Visible traits? Genetic markers – which requires a whole lot of apparatus to detect?  Also, what a particular trait is had at one point been hotly debated – his example is what is the dorsal and ventral part of an animal. Observation of current traits is theory-laden, which perhaps we as scientists forget).

My mind went to social psychology/evolutionary psychology. Of course humans, and their psychology are a product of evolution, but, as many critics have pointed out, minds and behaviors don’t fossilize well, so much of the work has to be done by careful (but still in part speculative) theory applied to present day humans. Perhaps there is a real point in cataloging current humans and their traits and behaviors, before considering evolution. Or some iterative work combining the two.

This weekend I read two books (well, I’m not finished with one of them yet): August Brannigan’s “The rise & fall of Social Psychology (subtitle the Use and Misuse of the Experimental Method) published 2004, and Joseph Herich’s “The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, published 2015.

I got the tip for Brannigan’s book in a Facebook discussion (from a European student). I think it is a must read. Of course, Social Psychology doesn’t seem to be in any kind of post-experimental wasteland, although it has been in the focus the current so called crisis following the refusal to publish a non-replication of Bem’s ESP work, and the vast fraud of Diederik Stapel.

I think it is a must read for anyone interested in social psychology, and anyone interested in psychology as a science. Did you know that Festinger left Social psychology to take up work on perception, and then eventually “exploring prehistoric and archaeological data” (as per the Wikipedia page here) , evidently being disappointed in psychology.

Did you know that there have, time and again, been accomplished researchers that critiqued Social Psychology scathingly? Decades ago? I recognized none of the names, possibly, as Hull also points out, that they were alone in the wilderness with no Deme advancing their position.

As a grad student, I felt frustrated that there seemed to be no larger theoretical framework from which to reason about psychology, and my adviser pointed out that, yes that is the case. The field is filled with mini-theories, but nothing over-arching. Evidently, from this book, far better scientists than I have noted this, complained about it (for example – chapters in a social psychology book could be shuffled, with no ill effect) thus, there is no cumulative understanding, no placing effects in a larger frame (e.g what can be attributed to situation, what to traits, what to larger social circumstances etc – Brannigan is a sociologist, and works in criminology).

He is especially critical about the sine qua non of the experiment in social psychology (at the exclusion of field work and other methods). This, he claims, has in part lent social psychology an air of proper hard science which has allowed it a great deal more influence in the actual world than he thinks is warranted (e.g. work on violence in movies). But, the experiments seem more to be performances and demonstrations rather than actual tests of theories. There are few falsifications (as we know). Positive supportive results are the only thing presented. In effect, the experiments are de facto anecdotes that support a narrative that is already decided.

As his cases in point he uses Festingers dissonance theory (there are aspects of it that are absurd – like the enormous payments some of the students get. 20 dollars then was quite a bit more than it is now – sometimes I first saw Tom Stafford point out); Muzafer Sherif’s work on the autokinetic effect, which was claimed as evidence for norms and and who one conforms to – but which is (per Brannigan) very much removed from actual social situations, and a rather minute piece of evidence for building a larger piece a theoretical narrative: Zimbardo’s Prison experiment – with the ethics problems; Milgrams work on obedience which perhaps is not so much about obedience to authority as it has to do with the expectations of an experiment (e.g. it is an experiment, they will not allow anything bad to happen, so it is OK to comply – this is not what happened in Nazi Germany); Asch’s work on group pressure, and all the work on the horrors of TV imparting violent behavior to our children/making guys watching Porn being more OK with rape – which he deems rather shallow (so many more interesting questions), an expression of class (we don’t belong to those nasty unwashed TV watchers) unduly influential (bans on violence on TV, bans on Porn), and neglecting truly interesting questions such as immersion, narrative, separation of story from reality (although I do think there is work on this – albeit maybe not so splashy in the news).

Yes, there is more to Social Psychology, but, no, we are much too enamored of the experiment, see earlier critiques by Paul Rozin (2001) Social Psychology and Science. Some Lessons from Solomon Asch, Robert Cialdini (2009) We have to break up, Martin Orne (1962) On the social psychology of the psychological experiment. We may not know enough about a phenomenon to actually do an experiment (difficulty falsifying, because we are making too long chains of assumptions between how we do it, and what we actually want an answer to), we do it on populations that already have an idea about how to be good subjects, and will thus behave in a manner that has to do with the experimental situation and not give us any answer to what we want to test, etc.

But, go read. Even if you don’t agree. As scientists, we need to have statements that we can use as foundation of our critique.

Which brings me to the Henrich book.  His thesis (in my interpretation) is that our special feature is our capacity for cumulative cultural learning. More-over, that capacity is something that feeds back on genetic evolution. One example is lactose tolerance (which is fairly standard). If you have animals that give milk, there may be an advantage to those individuals that don’t shut down the lactase digesting hormone once weaning is done to get better nutrition and hydration from unprocessed milk (cheese and yoghurt chews up the lactose so you don’t have to be a lactase mutant).

Another example is the human as long-distance runner – in order to track down and kill large animals. He suggests a number of adaptations – one of particular interest is how to keep cool while running long distance in a hot climate – hairlessness and sweating. But, sweating means that there must be a good supply of water that can be sweated out to cool us. Now, that is not something we are born with, unlike, for example, camels. We can only store so much water. His point is that this adaptation must have occurred after humans figured out how to externally access water: Water pouches, straws to access pools in tree-trunks, recognition of plants and other signs that indicate where water or watery plants may be, lore to keep track of water-holes, etc.

By now, I’m reading about kinship, sharing rules, food preparation rules, imitation and faith. All of these abilities must hinge on some psychological capacity, some bred in bias on where it is best to look: who to imitate, who to listen to, how to police others to do the “right thing”, and all without us necessarily understanding the why. He claims cumulative cultural evolution is smarter than us.

Many of these “biases” do show up in Cialdini’s six ways to yes in persuasion (and I’m sure Cialdini is quite aware that there is an evolutionary quality to those). We reciprocate, we look to authority (possibly more the prestige type than the dominant type), we look to the crowd, tough rituals make us more committed, we look to those we like and like us and are like us. These little biased hooks are what allows us to accumulate culture over long times.

I’m thinking, here is a more overarching theoretical framework from which to reason about psychological phenomena. It may not be right, but it is useful, and it is something one could test. There will be cultural differences – where is the underlying invariant?

I’m a big fan of ecological psychology also – but it seems like it is still best applied to perception/action (although I have seen attempts at ecological social psychology). This is also, in many ways, grounded in an evolved thinking – minds and bodies have evolved to capitalize on our surroundings. Perhaps eventually these can be brought together (or not).

There is a point in doing research on contemporary beings (because, who else?), without necessarily using a deeper evolutionary thought. But, perhaps a though on what brought this part out could help guide where to look and what to attempt to falsify. I’m a little bit tired of the narratives in social psychology textbooks. The effects must be placed in the context of effects of traits/personality, class, social systems, cultural systems, etc., and I rarely see that. (Nazar Akrami has looked at the relative contribution of personality factors and more social psychological factors and found that personality dominates – but more like this is needed  ).

Cialdini, Influence.

Cialdini (2009). We have to break up. Perspectives on psychological science, 4, 5-6.

Orne, Martin (1962) On the social psychology of the psychological experiment. With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American psychologist, 17 776-786.

Rozin, Paul (2001) Social psychology and science: Some lessons from Solomon Asch. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 12-14.

Brannigan, Augustine (2004) The rise and fall of social psychology.

Henrich, Joseph (2015). The secret of our success.


About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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