Back to school briefing: 7 myths of social psychology

Many lecture room icons from decades past are looking tarnished now.
Denyse O'Leary | Sep 5 2014 | comment  



trolley dilemma
Prospect magazine

 

 

Social psychology students returning to school, and others interested in the field, should be aware that much of what they may encounter in older textbooks and oft-repeated lectures is shrinking under the weight of new evidence.

Take the famous Milgram obedience experiment, widely reported as demonstrating that two out of three people in North America would torture someone if ordered to do so.

The finding never sat quite right with me because most people I knew would have just quietly exited the situation and called the police. And sure enough, the data had been cherry-picked to emphasize the widely reported result. It suited the anxiety needs of a culture where academics worried that others would easily conform to an authoritarian government.

Here are some other results that, after the shouting died down, didn’t turn out to be what you may read in textbooks:

Kitty Genovese

It is not true that no one tried to help Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death in New York City in 1964, proving that big cities are soulless. Neighbours did try to help but their efforts were disorganized and ineffectual. According to the New York Post earlier this year:

Word of the attack spread though the building. A woman named Sophie Farrar, all of 4-foot-11, rushed to the vestibule, risking her life in the process. For all she knew, the attacker might have still been there. As luck would have it, he was not, and Farrar hugged and cradled the bloodied Genovese, who was struggling for breath.
Despite the attempts of various neighbours to help, Moseley’s final stab wounds proved fatal, and Farrar did her best to comfort Genovese in the nightmarish final minutes of her life.
The murder of Kitty Genovese shifted from crime to legend a few weeks later, when The New York Times erroneously reported that 38 of her neighbours had seen the attack and watched it unfold without calling for help.

Hand washing and moral judgements

The claim of a widely circulated 2008 study that perceptions of cleanliness affect moral judgements has not been replicated. Efforts by David Johnson, Felix Cheung and Brent Donnellan (two graduate students and their adviser) of Michigan State University to replicate it found no such difference, despite testing about four times more subjects than the original studies, Slate reports.

One obvious problem with the study is that people may have radically different ideas about what the standards of cleanliness even require. (Students often discover this when they share quarters with roommates.)

The careening trolley dilemma

The oft-studied ethics question, “Who should you save from the careening trolley?” (One worker or five? Would you push a fat man onto the track to stop it?) now takes serious heat academically, notes The Atlantic:

In a paper that will be published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Christopher Bauman of the University of California, Irvine, Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and others argue that the dilemma is too silly and unrealistic to be applicable to real-life moral problems. … Most real-life moral dilemmas, McGraw points out, are not of the sacrificial variety. We don't go through life shoving people in front of locomotives in order to rescue other people. More likely, you'd face something like, "should I lay off this department, or this other one?"

Did Phineas Gage (1823 – 1960) suffer a personality change after brain injury?

Probably not. Not to any great extent, anyway. In 1848, young Gage sustained a very serious brain injury when a tamping rod for explosives powder tore through his skull. Unexpectedly, he survived, and unwittingly launched generations of myths about his supposed radical change. Slate again:

To judge whether a person changed after an accident, you have to have known him beforehand. Unfortunately, no one who knew Gage intimately left any sort of statement. And with so few hard facts to constrain people’s imaginations in later years, rumors began to swirl about Gage’s life, until a wholly new Phineas emerged.

The big thing that changed in his life was that he looked strange. He drove a coach for some years in Chile, but later returned to his native United States where he died in an epileptic seizure in 1860, twelve years after the accident. That outcome probably was an effect of his injuries. While his alleged personality change is often taken as evidence that the mind is just what the brain does, there is no reliable evidence of any such massive change in his case.

Helpless drug addicts

Drug addicts are not helpless but can change without massive assistance. As Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld show in Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience, they typically make rational choices (which may include remaining addicted under certain circumstances). And many later quit without help. For example, the vast majority of heroin-addicted soldiers returning from the Vietnam war just stopped using the substance after they returned home and resumed their normal lives (pp 49–50). In an age when it is fashionable to turn to neuroscience for answers to addiction, the role that environment plays is bound to be overlooked.

Untidy waiting rooms do not foster racism, after all

Star Dutch researcher Diedrik Stapel’s claim to show that untidy waiting rooms spur racism are now considered fraudulent. From a New York Times piece:

On his return trip to Tilburg, Stapel stopped at the train station in Utrecht. This was the site of his study linking racism to environmental untidiness, supposedly conducted during a strike by sanitation workers. In the experiment described in the Science paper, white volunteers were invited to fill out a questionnaire in a seat among a row of six chairs; the row was empty except for the first chair, which was taken by a black occupant or a white one. Stapel and his co-author claimed that white volunteers tended to sit farther away from the black person when the surrounding area was strewn with garbage. Now, looking around during rush hour, as people streamed on and off the platforms, Stapel could not find a location that matched the conditions described in his experiment.

“No, Diederik, this is ridiculous,” he told himself at last. “You really need to give it up.”

Actually, with fashionably hot-button topics like racism, “edgy” explanations should always be treated with caution.

The old “Mars invades” broadcast panic

Lastly (for now), the classic “Mars invades” panic also turned out to be largely a myth: Many psych students have learned over the decades that large numbers of Americans nationwide had panicked during a radio broadcast of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds, thinking a Martian invasion was occurring. That claim, ginned up by media, is probably false. Ironically, the reality is that not enough people flee an actual emergency, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated. A far more common human “attribution error,” unfortunately, is to doubt that a genuine reported catastrophe is really happening and thus fail to get out in time.

Now, students, if you encounter these or any similar stories that life experience may lead you to doubt, never argue with a tenured professor. You need the credit. He holds your future in his hands.

But later, after you have got your credit, join the ranks of people who are starting to shift the sludge to one side and learn more about the human reality—sin and sorrow, yes, but not social psych’s robots. Much more interesting.

Someone could usefully do a study on the root causes of how these ideas get started so readily in a scientific discipline anyway.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She edits MercatorNet’s Connecting blog.



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