Why Social Psychology Sucks

June 15, 2013
The recently departed serial killer Richard Ramirez. Deep down a good guy who just happened to wear counterfeit sunglasses too often.

The recently departed serial killer Richard Ramirez. Deep down a good guy who just happened to wear counterfeit sunglasses too often.

Is there something rotten in the state of social psychology? In recent years there has been several scandals within this field. Social psychologists from both Europe and America have been found to conduct research that ranges from highly questionable to outright fraud. Those exposed have left their positions, but in the media, and perhaps among the public as well, there is a lingering feeling that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. I think that is a well-grounded suspicion. To understand why that is, we need to review the history of this branch of psychology.

The 1960s – Peace, Love and Left-Wing Lunacy

Back in the 1960s, there was a debate or conflict in psychology regarding the very fundamentals of human nature – why we think, feel and behave the way we do, known as the Person-Situation Debate. The personality psychologists insisted that this was primarily a matter of personality, our innate tendencies. To social psychologists, and most social scientists as well, it was the particular situation in which we find ourselves that was the major determinant. This conflict mirrors the old nature-nurture debate since personality traits are highly inheritable and change little during our lives. In 1968 sociologist Walter Mischel wrote a little something he called Personality and Assessment, in which he in many people’s eyes settled this debate for good. He essentially claimed that there was no consistency in behavior across various situations and for that reason there was no such thing as personality traits. Instead, our behavior is dictated entirely by the situations in which we find ourselves.

Personally, I find it very hard to fathom the idiocy of Mischel’s conclusion. It would mean that a person who others think of as for instance shy is really nothing of the kind. It just looks that way because we have only had chance to observe him or her in situations that elicits shyness. And if you think of yourself as shy you must be either plain wrong or stuck in a series of situations that by coincidence predisposes you to acting shy. This idea may sound like a joke, but the zeitgeist of the 1960s was left of sanity and lots of “intellectuals” believed Mischel the way they believed in Marx, Lenin and Mao.

For that reason, social psychology became a major branch of psychology. After all, if it was all in the situation then this was the important field of research. Personality barely survived and its proponents, like Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen, were often dismissed as racists and right-wing lobbyists.


Unsurprisingly, it soon became evident that Mischel was wrong – there really was such a thing as a shy person. As traits became real again, personality psychology grew but at the same time social psychologists kept a grip on their dominant position by introducing interactionism, the study of both situations and personality. This way they blurred the line between the fields and managed to claim a lot of the newly available positions in personality research. But at heart they were never interactionists; they started out as situationists because of their political views and they have stayed that way ever since. To this day they rarely perform experiments in which personality measures are used. Their focus is very much on the situation. Look at the collective social psychology blog in the links to the right of this post – it’s even called The Situationist, not The Interactionist. For most of these psychologists, interactionism was just a word with which to neutralize the enemy.

Current Research

And today? Well, it’s like the French say, the more something changes, the more it stays the same. This can be seen in a recent post in the above mentioned The Situationist (which is still interesting to follow because not all social psychology is crap) about Harvard Professor Francesca Gino’s  book Sidetracked, in which she describes how small things or situations derail our plans, intentions and even our morals. As an example she mentions an experiment in which she and psychologist Dan Ariely equipped participants with high-end sunglasses. Half of the participants were told that they were actually counterfeits, while the other half were told they were the real deal. The participants were then instructed to perform a mathematical task which left room for cheating. It turned out that 70 percent of those who thought they wore knock-off sunglasses cheated compared to 30 percent in the other group.

This may sound like compelling evidence for the power of the situation, but is it really? The participants were all young women rather than a representative sample. But more importantly, they were informed that they were participating in a psychological experiment and then told to wear counterfeit sunglasses. That’s pretty far from any kind of real life situation. It’s more like saying, “let’s play a game – you will be the bad guy.” It supports the idea that social psychology is, as someone put it, a list of how people behave in weird situations. Needless to say, Gino and Ariely didn’t use any personality measure since that would only distract attention from the power of the almighty Situation.

A Trip to Reality

So if wearing fake sunglasses can make a person dishonest, how about the situation of being brought up by criminal parents? Now that should be a way more powerful situation. Psychologist Sarnoff Mednick and colleagues investigated this in the mid 1980s  using data from over 14 thousand nonfamilial adoptions (in which the adoptive parents are unrelated to the child). They found that when both biological and adoptive parents had no criminal convictions the adopted child was eventually convicted in 13.5 percent of the cases, so that’s our baseline. When adoptive parents had convictions but biological parents had not, the number of convicted adoptees only rose very slightly to 14.7 percent. So fake sunglasses will have a profound effect on your honesty, but being brought up by criminals will only marginally elevate your risk of being convicted of a crime. That must be some sunglasses.

The Future

So where does social psychology go from here? In response to the scandals, psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggested that studies in this field need more independent replications. It sounds like a reasonable suggestion, but a reply in Times Higher Education by social psychologists Wolfgang Stroebe and Miles Hewstone clearly indicates that scrutiny is not their cup of tea,

In our opinion, the controversy will not be resolved by replicating effect studies, but rather by further theoretical elaboration of the psychological processes underlying these effects and by empirical testing of those processes.

Well that’s comforting to know – they just need to construct some even more artificial situations in order to deliver those results that will prove that Marx was right all along. And no outsiders need to concern themselves with exactly how they go about doing that.

Another quote from Stroebe and Hewstone only fuels the suspicion that social psychology is almost as crazy as it was in the 1960s,

Science is based on trust, and scientists find it difficult even to consider that members of the club might be cheating.

No, science when done properly doesn’t rely on trust one bit. It works regardless of whether you trust this or that guy since it’s based on objective principles. And if you have a problem considering the possibility that your colleague is a fraud then you’re in the wrong business. Science is about evidence; it’s never about accepting something at face value.

While there is still interesting research in social psychology, you really have to read it with a critical attitude. Crappy studies like that by Gino and Ariely are practically the norm, and they always get written up by supposedly legit science sites like for instance Scientific American. That way it may seem impressive but in reality it’s as fake as fake sunglasses.

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