social psychology

“In psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion … the existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1949)

Social psychology is that sub-discipline of the broader field of psychology that investigates how the thoughts, emotions, and actions of individuals are conditioned by situations. It is a staple of undergraduate education in psychology, has one of the largest memberships in the American Psychological Association, and not infrequently is the recipient of federal grants for research that could inform policy on pressing social problems. Few phenomenon outside cases of clinical disorders fall beyond its purview, and since the late 19th century when Norman Triplett experimentally investigated the ability of co-actors to enhance children’s performance on a simple laboratory task, it has accumulated a veritable mountain of facts concerning the human condition that fills textbooks and often garners public attention. Despite its successes, however, recent events raise questions about its health.

A treatise published last year in Behavioral and Brain Science built upon a controversial presentation made by Jonathan Haidt in 2011 before the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In it, the question of a liberal bias among social psychologists was raised, and a firestorm of dispute and disbelief erupted as a result. This publication is the most recent addition to the conversation on the subject, and it attempts to drive Prof. Haidt’s point home further with evidence and admonitions that ideological diversity will improve the state of the field.

Also, in August 2015 Science published a project by the Open Science Collaboration—an organization that evolved in response to questions of fraud and poor publication practices in psychology. The researchers attempted something extraordinary in it: to replicate 100 published studies in the domains of cognitive and social psychology following as closely as possible the methods of the original research. The project was a success, but the replications less so. Although replication rates were low overall, they were devastatingly so in social psychology (near 25%).

The going answer to both of these problems seem to be: 1) “There’s nothing actually wrong” (e.g., the OSC’s findings have recently been argued in Science to point in a favorable direction once methodological corrections are made), and 2) “Dig in deeper and try harder.” That is, by increasing the transparency of researchers’ practices in the laboratory and tightening the reins on publication standards, it is expected that the self-correcting methods of science will be realized, elevating social psychology to a new level of respectability. And by laboring after political diversity, it is hoped that the blinders of ideological homogeneity will be cast off, thus attenuating bias in the field and opening up new areas of inquiry not previously known.


These answers to the problems in social psychology—including empirical showings that things may not so bad—square well with the natural science model the field has patterned itself after. But taking the problems to be real and nontrivial, as I do, other answers become attractive when a pervasive obsession common to both difficulties is seriously considered.

In 1974, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman addressed graduates of Caltech with a story about a tribe in the South Seas who so longed for the material goods they saw delivered by planes during wartime that they fashioned for themselves a runway lined with torches and a wooden hut for a tribesman to sit in with coconut headphones. They had the form right, Feynman said, but they lacked the one thing necessary to get planes to land: “utter honesty,” the “kind of leaning over backwards” honesty that is the defining attribute of the best practitioners of science.

This tribe Feynman called a Cargo Cult, and the sciences of, for instance, persons and societies that aspire towards the predictive power and control enjoyed by physics, Cargo Cult Sciences.

“A great deal of [these sciences’] difficulty,” Feynman said, “is the difficulty of the subject and the inapplicability of the scientific method to the subject [emphasis added].” This, of course, is a shocking claim to true believers, but given Feynman’s achievements, it seems gratuitous to dismiss him on the grounds that he simply does not understand what psychologists do or are about. Might the kind of “leaning over backwards” honesty demanded of scientists require social psychologists to make an acknowledgment that approaches this kind of severity?

The question of method has always been alive in psychology. Wundt, and Titchner after him, advocated a particular kind of introspective analysis as the key to psychological inquiry, and Freud celebrated the technique of free association in evaluating dream contents as a window into the apparatus of the unconscious. In social psychology it is well known that the research cited as the earliest work in the field was laboratory-based and experimental: viz. Triplett’s work referenced above, Floyd Allport’s studies of social facilitation, and Kurt Lewin’s work on leadership styles and cooperation among boys.

But it is my hunch that with the publication of John B. Watson’s Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It in 1913, a particularly heavy and expansive shadow was cast upon all psychology that persists today despite the fact that behaviorism failed to synthesize all of the discipline under its authority.

psychologyBehaviorists quickly ascended the ladder of rigor leading up to the natural sciences, and it used this achievement along with the vision-casting power of B.F. Skinner, to play upon the sentiment of physics envy already lurking in the hearts of psychologists. Its seat of judgment was hard won from those convinced of the irrelevance of animal behavior to human consciousness, but once there, it modeled for onlookers a spirit of severity in choice of method that aspired towards the strictest objectivity.

I know colleagues who would say that social psychology demonstrated itself immune to the behaviorist’s disapproving glare by its persistent interest in the inner-state of individuals (e.g., their motives and attitudes). But just because a difference in subject matter always stood clear, this does not mean that the behaviorists’ insistence on irreproachable methods did not carry over and breed insecurity. And when behaviorism faded from prominence, the work was already done: its posture of “model science” was translated into a pecking order of psychology’s subfields in which biological and cognitive psychologies stood at the top and social-personality psychology at the near bottom. In this position, the envy calcified, leaving us where we are today, with an inability to think beyond the pale of our methods, and no desire to do so.

Whether my hunch is right is almost beside the point. Even if different and multiple causes of method obsession are imaginable, as surely they are, I believe that it is a woefully inadequate education in the history of psychology that vitiates knowledge of the trends that have shaped our contemporary modes of conduct. I hold also that insufficient appreciation for the philosophical commitments that motivate experimental work with human participants furthers our intellectual myopia. For these reasons, I cannot help but draw a connection between this state of affairs and the wish voiced by Watson in 1913 to raise up future psychologists “ignorant” of philosophical problems.

Few students of social psychology pause to ask the question “Why?” They stand “on the cutting edge,” but when asked “of what,” or “why” that is where they stand, they are capable of giving only the shallowest answers. This is because they have been educated as specialists and technicians and thus have no language to speak otherwise. I think Watson got his wish.

All of this contributed to a risky move I made in the final meeting of my undergraduate social psychology class last fall: I announced to my students that in response to the extant problems in social psychology, I would be forsaking my old line of research, and embarking instead on an inquiry of recovery.

What if the measurements and experiments, which are presently so precious to social psychologists as the sine qua non of their work, were called into question and compared to the strategies assumed by individuals who wrote the earliest books bearing the name of the field? Of course Allport and William McDougall held affinities for the lab, but was this all or the best that they had to offer? It is true that Allport devoted a chapter to measuring personality, but it is one of the shortest he wrote, and neither he nor McDougall wrote chapters dealing solely with methods—what is inevitably and vitally treated in the first hundred pages of all modern social psychology textbooks.

More courageous still would be considering texts that reach outside the strict bounds of social psychology for inspiration: Donald Snygg and Arthur Comb’s Individual Behavior, for instance, or Wilhelm Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie. Although approaching the problem from a sociological framework, Edward Ross’ Social Psychology also surely holds something to offer. And dare I add to this list, Freud’s Group Processes and the Analysis of the Ego?

psychologyI sadly confess that I am unsure what these texts hold. Despite receiving the terminal degree in my field, I, along with most of my colleagues, was never asked to read these thinkers who all agree are pioneers—and recent ones at that; some wrote less than a century ago. Instead, I can only say what I intuit to be the case from reading excerpts from pieces written in the same era (e.g., Kurt Lewin’s Principles of Topological Psychology): that the answer must be, “No.” I sense that the approaches taken by our forebears were broader, more nuanced, and yet not lacking in the sophistication of the grandest methods our discipline now has to offer as proof of its importance.

It is for this reason that in the social psychology class I teach next fall I will jettison the modern textbook with all its accoutrements and return to the works of those authors above whom I typically treat as mere bullet points in the ever-so-short history segment of my course. It is, as I said above, an inquiry of recovery, and I am taking my students with me.

One final observation concerns not the matter of method in social psychology, but its epistemological grounding. To my knowledge, no student of the field seriously confronts this subject, and it is of great disservice to one’s education. Having recently taught an abbreviated seminar on the philosophy of social science, I can say that the ideas of Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill, in whom modern social psychology has some of its roots, leads one to wonder whether there could ever be such a thing as a more conservative social psychology. These influential thinkers saw the culmination of science in the study of persons and societies as supplanting all former approaches to these matters. This sentiment, I trust it is plain to see, is deeply antithetical to the conservative idea that some old principles are indispensable to human flourishing. If conservatives avoid the ranks of social psychology, perhaps it is because they do not feel the need to treat experiments and quantities as the best or final arbiters of their social convictions. Asking them to give up this commitment and hold their beliefs in abeyance until the mechanisms of science establish their veracity is, in fact, asking them to make Comte’s positivism prior to their conservatism.

I believe that if social psychology is to find a remedy for its current ailments, and if it truly wishes to accommodate conservative thought in its quarters, assuming it is possible to do so, it must pursue a leaning-over-backwards-honesty not just in its application of scientific methods to its questions, but in considering whether these methods are the only or best to apply to its questions, and where the motivation to do so comes from. In doing this, the field will find itself making a conservative move in the truest sense of the phrase, even in the absence of conservative membership: looking to the past for answers to their now-besetting problems.

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