social psychologyIn a recent essay, I argued that the ills facing social psychology today are the product of an obsession with method that elevates the standards of the natural sciences to how inquiries ought to unfold in the human sphere. Here I would like to address a related problem that bears on the prototypical education that undergraduates interested in social psychology encounter. This education entails first nurturing a spirit of doubt about intuitive social knowledge, and then holding out the scientific method, and especially experimentation, as the remedy for the uncertainty. After some years of following this practice myself, I am increasingly of the mind that such pedagogy is deeply misleading.

How is this skeptical attitude cultivated? A fair number of instructors initiate it by presenting a sample of competing adages of folk wisdom. They remind students of the saying “birds of a feather flock together,” and then point out how it is also believed that “opposites attract.” They say, “Many hands make light the work,” and then make it look funny by presenting it alongside the admonition, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” “And if ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’” they quip, “why do we at other times say ‘actions speak louder than words’?”

To the naive, the wisdom of their upbringing begins to look foolish in light of this demonstration, because it appears blind to the dynamics of the social order and mute about the conditions that make one proposition true over the other—assuming, of course, that any are true at all.

Paul Lazarsfeld

Paul Lazarsfeld

Another strategy for sowing the seeds of suspicion presents students with a set of research findings that are opposite of what was actually observed. I have frequently used Paul Lazarsfeld’s 1949 study of American soldiers for this purpose. I tell students that Lazarsfeld found better-educated soldiers to be more susceptible to psychological distress than their less-educated counterparts, and that soldiers from the South were better adapted to tropical climates than those from the North. I then ask students to develop in writing explanations for why the observations turned out as they did, and they do so with little trouble.

“Book smarts may help one succeed at desk jobs,” some students write in response, “but they don’t protect against the terrors of war. Only lessons in hard knocks do that.”

“And, of course, the South is hotter than the North,” others write, “so it only makes sense that southern soldiers would fare better than northerners in hot and humid temperatures.”

When I reveal to students that the actual results are just the opposite of what I described, and that the seamless explanations they manufactured really explain nothing at all, they are stunned at their ability to make sense of things independent of their rootedness in facts. I once had a student in a room full of classmates gasp loudly when I presented what Lazarsfeld observed. She voiced vocally what others routinely show in their countenances of surprise and disbelief.

The message conveyed by both techniques is clear: Doubt should reign over our social intuitions. Proverb-spinning grandparents speak out both sides of their mouths, and our own sense of why people act as they do, even when defensible with reasons, may land far away from brute reality. Such lays the foundation on which the edifice of social psychology is erected in a college semester, and such is the manner in which the discipline works to enfeeble students’ social intuitions.

What is wrong with these approaches? I admit that this is a new question for me to ask. Just a few semesters ago I was in the business of suggesting to students that they require the tools of social psychology to know what to think about the world, but now I am not so sure. Let us consider the “dueling proverbs” first. Because folk wisdom is the distillation of social knowledge into a small set of simple principles, the litany of conditions that qualify these principles’ truth-value are not taken into consideration. Consequently, they fall short of the exactness psychology wishes to achieve. Indeed, William James said in the opening pages of his Principles of Psychology that “the quest of the conditions” under which the faculties of consciousness are expressed stand as “psychologists’ most interesting task.” Today this emphasis on attending to conditions is vital to the activity of social psychologists, and so folk wisdom gets treated as an object of scrutiny or as a source of only potential insight until it can be verified under controlled observation.

But the criticism that cultural adages are ignorant of conditions is a funny thing. Does not the very existence of the opposing claims show that awareness of the conditions is available? Were they explicitly addressed in the adages themselves, they would cease to bear the distinctive simplicity of proverbial wisdom, which facilitates their dissemination across generations.

hopscotchSo where does knowledge of the relevant conditions exist if not in the proverbs themselves? Numerous and fluctuating as they are, it seems obvious that this knowledge is held in the very fabric of the social life we all reside in. It is functional and inarticulate knowledge that behaves similarly to our understanding of the rules of well-learned games like checkers or hopscotch. We rely on such rules for play, and we scrutinize those rules when unusual cases are encountered, but not otherwise. In this way, our knowledge of social rules and their conditions form the very context of action, making interpretation and navigation of our experiences possible. We feel no need for scientific exactitude in mapping out this context because we see it as trustworthy. For us to doubt it would unravel far too much.

I am increasingly convinced that only the most foolish people would deny that the axioms of folk wisdom are conditional. Insistence that the experimental method is needed to sort out the truth or falsity of propositions like “bad company corrupts good character” under different conditions denies to us our intelligence as veteran participants in life together as social beings. Surely we are not that inane. Of course, this does not mean we are always right when we say that Y follows X in society, but it does credit us with the capacity to get around to seeing situations properly through our informal (and sometimes non-conscious) strategies for testing our social beliefs.

Now if I am right, and only unmindful persons ignore the conditional truth of folk wisdom, the question for an instructor becomes how to help students become responsible wielders of the intuitions they have been brought up with, not how to supplant these intuitions with a method that only indoctrination into a scientistic viewpoint would lead them to recognize as the golden road to true social knowledge. Imagine, for instance, students who saw experimentation not as the starting point of inquiry about social facts, but as one of many tools to put to the task—a tool that should be used with limited questions and with a dose of reluctance. I myself imagine this at times, and it leads me to think that successful students of social psychology trained in this vein would not be dispassionate objectifiers of social situations and persons but sensitive perceivers of them.

I am still working out the implications of what this means, but currently I hold that a sensitive perceiver would at least possess the capacity to peer into the heart of situations and understand them with terms that the acting participants would acknowledge and use as self-descriptive. It is the kind of perceptiveness I believe the best novelists, poets, and journalists give us tastes of, and it is one that is open to revision on the basis of observation and experience of social life in vivo, not apart from it, and certainly not predominately in the laboratory.

Principles of Topological PsychologyIn his Principles of Topological Psychology, Kurt Lewin himself referenced Dostoevsky’s level of description and understanding of his characters as the ideal toward which social psychologists ought to aspire in their inquiries, but looking about today, this ideal seems to have been lost. Indeed, I wonder if it was seriously held by anyone other than Lewin.

But what about our adeptness at making sense of whatever social psychological facts we are presented with, regardless of their alleged rootedness in reality? This tendency is the one I presented above as the target of instructors’ second strategy for cultivating skepticism about social intuitions in undergraduates. Surely students’ ability to make sense of Lazarsfeld’s false findings shows a vulnerability that even the mindful person would fall victim to. For this weakness, do we not need controlled experimentation to overcome it?

Although I concede that intuitions have the potential to mislead us here too, I would still like to credit the mindful student with the requisite intelligence for seeing how social psychological events may unfold in many different ways on their own, without experimentation telling them what to think. I say this in part because I believe that the surprise my students express after learning Lazarsfeld’s actual findings is an artifact of a contrived situation.

No student I teach regularly, intelligent and in his right mind, would be incapable of dreaming up explanations for how Lazarsfeld’s findings might have worked out differently, nor would he insist that the results could only turn out one way. If he did so insist, it would only be because I successfully tricked him, and he did not expect to be tricked. In truth, my classroom demonstration shows nothing about the tenuousness of students’ social intuitions; it only appears to, just as a rabbit appears to emerge from a magician’s hat. Creating an experience in which students think I have made such a demonstration is also part of the trick. It works remarkably well, as my students’ reactions have routinely shown, but it is a great tragedy that they come to doubt their intuitions on the basis of it.

So where does this leave us? I think with the question I raised above: How can mindfulness be cultivated in students instead of incipient doubt about social intuitions? I believe I have the start of an answer, and although the social psychologist would wish to put it to empirical test in a controlled setting, I will take my lived experience as an intelligent person at a well-regarded institution of higher education as sufficient evidence for the veracity of my hunch (even while remaining open to correction by these same mechanisms of knowing). The answer is simply this: education in the great tradition of the liberal arts.



During my time as a professor at a college that prizes education in this tradition, I have met more sophisticated thinkers among my colleagues and students than I imagined could be concentrated in one place. What has persistently struck me is the fact that these students’ intuitions about themselves and their social worlds are keen at the outset and become more refined by reading and learning from the greatest social perceivers human history has given us, such as Plato and Aristotle, among others. Sadly, these are the very figures a dogmatic view of social science would have us ignore or hold at arm’s-length until their ideas can be tested. I reject such a view and believe instead that these thinkers have already withstood the greatest test of all: the passage of centuries, and social psychology can certainly not say this about itself! Inasmuch as these thinkers have given shape to the milieu of our lives together, there is reason to trust and to study them. In doing so we become the responsible wielders of our inherited social intuitions.

What, then, is the place of the social psychologists’ experiment in our knowing of self and other? I believe its place is to stand among the ideas we investigate, not to preside over them. The habit of thought experimentation teaches is valuable to the mindful inhabitant of society, but to treat it as the method that solves the problem of doubting what we think about ourselves is far too much. Taken with the forms of reflection that a student of the liberal arts is equipped with, experimentation becomes one mode of inquiry among others that serves, enriches, and is enriched by the best thoughts we have. According to this vision of things, the mindful resident of the social order has all the insights the modern social psychologist possesses and more, not because he has conducted the necessary experiments, but because he has learned to sensitively and perceptively see the world, to be respectful of experiments in their proper place (but not limited by them), and to aspire toward a genuine understanding of self and others, not toward alleviating doubts that should not burden us.

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