Top evening out last night (thanks Matthew & Steve & co). And some fascinating conversations. One above all with Ellie which prompted this – my 200th – post on the Herd blog. (Don’t think I’ll save the big questions just for round numbers but it seems a good point to do this one as there’s something in New Scientist this week which points in this direction, also.)
I think we’ve gone wrong in our attempts to understand, describe and predict mass behaviour in an over reliance on the discipline of psychology. This is not to say that all psychology’s findings are necessarily wrong or without merit; no, to be absolutely clear about it: psychology as we understand it (that is in its applied and diffused form) is based on a number of assumptions about humans that are just plain wrong.
i. that individuals are self-determining agents (they act independently of each other).
ii. that it is the internal mental processes of the individual which are important in shaping the behaviour of that individual (the thinking – conscious or unconscious – is the bit that counts)
iii. that individuals can examine and report their own internal processes and their actions accurately
Now, I’m aware the headline to this post seems like a big and blunt assertion: as in so many disciplines there are almost as many differences of opinion as there are folk to have opinions and within the psycological world there are folk who do not accept all 3 of these assumptions (or those, like the Freudians who have their own particular crosses to bear). That said, I think these assumptions cover much of the ground we would accept of psychology-as-she-is-in-the-world (psychology as we know it).
And why is it important to expose the wrongness of psychology? Does it really do any harm? Couldn’t we just accept the frame is a bit cock-eyed, the data less than perfect (we could blame the complexity of humankind, couldn’t we?) and let it do what it does, let itplay the role it does in society? After all, there’s nothing better yet to understand human behaviour, is there?
Well, Yes. And no. And No (in roughly that order).
It’s important to expose the ‘wrongness’ of psychology because as Pinker puts it it distorts our scholarship and science and everyday lives: it produces a map that is inaccurate and that, like the eugenic-driven pseudo science of phrenology, can lead us to dark places as well as dead ends. So Yes, it does do harm.
And no, we shouldn’t just accept the faulty nature of the framework. We wouldn’t accept the framework of phrenology as a means to understand and predict human behaviour because we know it’s based on silly assumptions about human nature and behaviour*. So why should we do the same with the psychology frame? Of course phrenology and psychology both provide answers and of course both sets of answers are less than perfect. But they are less than perfect because the assumptions behind the models are wrong not because the practice is per se wrong or willfully misleading.
And finally, there are other frames. A large number of the posts here feature other ways of thinking about and describing human behaviour based on the different assumptions to those on which psychology-thinking rests: that other people are they key influence on individual behaviour and that thinking and internal processes have little to do with shaping individual behaviour (we just tend to do stuff and then make sense of it later – NS suggests that it this is true for up to 90% of human life).
So for the record: why are psychology’s assumptions wrong?
First, we know from social conformity research and the other behavioural sciences that the influence of others is much more pervasive than any one agent would like to admit. Zimbardo for example points out that that it is the situation that shapes how otherwise good people do bad things rather than their volition or nature; Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling underlines how most human life is a response to a context which consists largely of other individuals’ responses to a context of other individuals’ responses. Copying is the key learning strategy for our species (not just for our children; it continues throughout our lives) and in fact more for our species than other primates. As Alex and Duncan point out copying accounts for much of what is needed to model behaviour cascades in populations…
Second, as a result, the internal processes that we – children of the “I” culture – would like to believe are the real drivers of our individual actions are necessary to a useful account of how human behaviour is shaped turn out to be much less important than we think. On the one hand, our consciousness has been shown to overclaim it’s own importance: Libet is amongst those showing how our sense of deciding something comes after the behaviour has started and not before (but is retrofitted by our minds). And contary to our experience – and the widespread assumption in Western culture since the Ancient Greeks – our opinions and attitudes tend to change after our behaviour rather than before it. As the NS points out, our conscious mind tends to play much less of a role in shaping our future behaviour than in making sense of present and past behaviour.
Third, it is widely recognised in the academic end of market research that individual consumers are unreliable witnesses to their own lives. Unfortunately, some practitioners together with other audiences (including the users of the data) insist that things are otherwise and carry on looking for “consumer-truths” to be revealed by witnesses or for individuals’ accurate assessments of their own future behaviour to be accessed by “just the right technique” or methodology. And of course, as the Recovered Memory Syndrome scandal shows, if you are convinced of what you will find, you can sort the data to suit just about any hypothesis, blaming the tools or “being in denial” if you don’t find what you’re after (or others don’t agree). The amount of energy exerted to compensate for or overcome the unreliability of individuals as witnesses to their own lives suggests to me that this is a real problem even for those who accept assumptions i. and ii are wrong. The experience that each of us has our of lives is captured in assumption iii. Giving that up seems to be just too much for any of us (even I struggle that my sense of my own knowledge and guidance of my life is illusory…it would be easier to pretend otherwise.)
So what do we do about this? How do we move forwards? Here are some suggestions:
1. I think that – as the therapeutic cliche puts it – we need to admit we have a problem. That psychology is a partial science at best and that it is in the minority of behavioural sciences in assuming that individuals shape their own behaviour independently of others.
2. There are a number of other approaches and ways of thinking about things which seem to add up to something more well-evidenced to deal with our social – HERD – nature. The collision between Anthropology (in its many forms), Sociology and behavioral economics is a good place to start. Ethnography is a key tool for this, as is behavioural observation.
3. Accept that within this new frame you don’t get quite the same questions and answers to worry about (the discipline of psychology is very much a product of the culture in which it arose so it deals in issues around why individuals do things, how they reason and the role of traits vs. other factors). Don’t just do what the neuromarketers have done and squeeze all the new learning into the same old frame.
4. Check yourself: because of the culturally-resonant assumptions behind psychology-led frameworks, you’ll find yourself slipping back into the “I” way of thinking again and again.
At the end of the day, the choice is this: do you want to stick with bump-like ways of explaining,describing and predicting human behaviour which you know to be fundamentally wrong or do you want to do the job properly?
Answers on a postcard please.
* Well actually we do accept some of the most important assumptions of phrenology which psychology has borrowed: for example, the idea that the brain is seat of the mind (not entirely true as modern neuroscience is largely agreed that the brain is only part of the nervous systems and not the whole deal by any means). Or the strange idea that the brain has specialisations which act independently of each other…one very popular with popular science – remember the debate around the search for the buy-button?