Friday, July 01, 2011

The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway? (Timothy D. Wilson)

Excellent article/conversation with Dr. Wilson on the field of social psychology from Edge - the series of posts touches on Wilson's new book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, but in general they are concerned with the larger issues of social psychology.

The post contains responses from three well-known figures - Dan Gilbert, Steven Pinker, and Hugo Mercier - click on the + at the end of each "comment" to read the whole response. At the bottom there is a video/audio to check out.

The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?

A Conversation With Timothy D. Wilson [6.7.11] SLIDE SHOW

There has been a question lurking in the back of my mind for all those years, which is how can we take this basic knowledge and use it to solve problems of today? I grew up in the turbulent 1960s, in an era where it seemed like the whole world was changing, and that we could have a hand in changing it. Part of my reason for studying psychology in the first place was because I felt that this was something that could help solve social problems. In graduate school and beyond I fell in love with basic research, which is still my first love. It is thrilling to investigate basic questions of self-knowledge and consciousness and unconsciousness. But those other, more applied questions have continued to rattle around and recently come to the fore, the more I realized how much social psychology has to offer.

One of the basic assumptions of the field is that it's not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world. You have to get inside people's heads and see the world the way they do. You have to look at the kinds of narratives and stories people tell themselves as to why they're doing what they're doing. What can get people into trouble sometimes in their personal lives, or for more societal problems, is that these stories go wrong. People end up with narratives that are dysfunctional in some way.

We know from cognitive behavioral therapy and clinical psychology that one way to change people's narratives is through fairly intensive psychotherapy. But social psychologists have suggested that, for less severe problems, there are ways to redirect narratives more easily that can have... [+]

Steven Pinker :

In his defense of social psychology as it is currently practiced, Timothy Wilson repeats the canard that evolutionary explanations of traits are exercises in "storytelling" which can "explain anything." He boasts, for example, that he can make up a story in which the redness of blood is an adaptation:

"What if in our very early mammalian history, blood was more brown, but there was a mutation that made it more red, and that turned out to have survival value because if an animals were bleeding, those with red blood would be more likely to notice it, and then they'd lick it. Because licking has healing properties, this conveyed a survival advantage, and so red blood was selected for, and blood became red. Am I right? Or is Steve [Pinker] right, that the color of blood is... [+]

Daniel Gilbert :

Surely the lesson in this debate is that experts in one area should probably not make rash generalizations about other areas. When my friend and collaborator, Tim Wilson, suggests that evolutionary psychology is merely a set of "just-so stories," he repeats an old canard that was laid to rest long ago. My friend and colleague, Steve Pinker, properly takes him to task and shows why his claim is...well, just not so.

If only Steve had stopped there. Alas, he goes on to make rash generalizations of his own. For instance, he claims that social psychology's "relentless insistence on theoretical shallowness" has given rise to "an ever lengthening list" of biases and errors that describe phenomena but do not explain them. This... [+]

Timothy D. Wilson :

I should have known better, in my Edge interview, than to take on someone as erudite, smart, and broad as Steve Pinker, whose work I admire. He makes many fine points in his rebuttal. As for the example about the color of blood, well, perhaps this was an unwise choice on my part, though for a reason Steve doesn’t mention: It is about a physical trait, when our disagreement is really about the value of evolutionary theory in explaining social behavior. But Steve goes on to express sentiments about the entire field of social psychology that are pretty shocking for someone so smart and widely-read.

To be clear, evolutionary theory is obviously true and has added to our knowledge about social behavior, by suggesting novel hypotheses that could then be tested with the experimental method. But I believe the examples of this are far fewer than... [+]

Hugo Mercier :

In the course of defending the still ‘mainstream’ way of practicing social psychology, Timothy Wilson feels compelled to criticize evolutionary explanations of human behavior. As pointed out by Steven Pinker in his commentary, Wilson’s critique is quite weak. In fact it’s even possible to use Wilson’s own research to demonstrate that evolutionary hypotheses are both satisfying and testable.

One of the major findings unearthed by Wilson and his colleagues is that reasoning can sometimes drive people towards poor decisions. In a series of brilliant experiments, they compared decisions made by participants who were specifically asked to consider reasons for their choice to those of a control group who made more spontaneous decisions. When the... [+]

Steven Pinker :

I thank Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson for elaborating on these issues, which I look forward to discussing further at our beer summit. I need no convincing that social psychology is a vital field which has made enduring contributions to intellectual life, and regret any choice of words that imply otherwise. But I think the field does itself a disservice if—alone among contemporary sciences—it remains content to stay within its disciplinary boundaries.

I'm aware of the research on the Fundamental Attribution Error that Dan describes, and didn't mean to imply that social psychologists discovered the error and left it at that—on the contrary, it's among the most studied phenomena in the recent history of psychology. But I'm less satisfied than Dan that it can be explained by the rather blunt instrument of the... [+]



The Social Psychological Narrative — Or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?

A Conversation With Timothy D. Wilson [6.7.11]

Beyond Edge

Tim Wilson, University of Virginia

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