The importance of wisdom in social science research

Almost all social psychologists are smart, but few are wise.  I would argue that you can’t advance our collective understanding of the human condition by being smart, without also adding some wisdom to give context to what you study.

For example, the most essential paradigm in social psychology is the experiment and the more controlled the experiment is, with fewer extraneous variables, generally the more prestigious the article.  However, as these experiments become more and more specific, isolating psychological mechanisms and ruling out alternative hypotheses, they also largely become more divorced from reality.  After all, reality is usually uncontrolled and contains more, not fewer variables.  Further, most experimenters have an initial hypothesis and will keep working to create the conditions that show their hypothesis to be true.  As such, if I show that X causes Y in a lab, it doesn’t necessarily follow that X causes Y in society.  Often, another researcher will confirm that X does not cause Y using a different paradigm.  Since you get to construct the paradigm to show what you want to show in an experiment on humans, what does such a study actually prove? Perhaps a better characterization of the findings of such research is that X can cause Y, rather than the more simplistic X causes Y.

There is something very valuable in showing that X can cause Y.  Good social science research performs the same function as a good parable or a good memoir, often illustrating a truth that we know deep down, but often forget.  Thinking fast can make you take unwise risks.  Being grateful can make you happier.  Crying wolf can make people ignore real requests for help. Whether through story or statistics, these examples examples of what can happen are often helpful in considering our daily life.

However, the average person often knows many of these truths already and it takes wisdom to move these examples beyond the realm of the self-evident and into the realm of useful knowledge.  This recent New York Times op-ed, by Barry Schwartz, illustrates how one can take parables generated by research (e.g. on how too much of something can be bad) and create something wise.  In it he argues that efficiency can make us better off, yet can cause hardship too.  I excerpt a bit of it below, but it doesn’t do the original article justice, so I hope you read it.

So whereas some efficiency is good, more efficiency may not be better. The psychologist Adam Grant and I published an article last year suggesting that the “too much of a good thing” phenomenon may be more general than commonly thought. Some choice is liberating; too much choice is paralyzing. Some motivation produces excellent performance; too much motivation leads to folding under pressure.

Perhaps we can use the criticism of Bain Capital as an opportunity to bring a little friction [the opposite of efficiency] back into our lives. One way to do this is to use regulation to rekindle certain social norms that serve to slow us down. For example, if people thought about their homes less as investments and more as places to live, full of the friction of kids, dogs, friends, neighbors and community organizations attached, there might be less speculation with an eye toward house-flipping. And if companies thought of themselves, at least partly, as caretakers of their communities, they might look differently at streamlining their operations.

We’d all like a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. The forces of friction that slow us down are an expensive annoyance. But when we’re driving a car, we know where we’re going and we’re in control. Fast is good, though even here, a little bit of friction can forestall disaster when you encounter an icy road.

Some social scientists think studying human behavior and thought is like physics.  If intelligent people spend enough time on it and collect enough data, we experts can figure out all the rules.  But research on human beings is inherently messy, especially for those of us who believe in free will.  Just imagine how much trouble physicists would have if atoms could decide whether or not to split.

Another view of social science is that it is but one form of evidence, in a conversation about the human condition that has gone on for millions of years and a marketplace of ideas that is far broader than our parochial disciplines and methods.  Social scientists provide a unique and important way of thinking about the world, and I’m hopeful the gap between data and knowledge will decrease as data on human behavior is increasingly collected and shared by all sorts of organizations and the wisdom of crowds replaces the intelligence of a very smart few.

- Ravi Iyer

ps.  This is part of a series of posts I’m writing to help crystallize my thoughts for a presentation I’m doing at South by Southwest on how moral psychology and big data are converging.  Comments that help sharpen my thinking are welcome and please attend my presentation if you will be at SXSW.  I’ll certainly upload slides/video afterwards.

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