The Social Psychological Narrative
June 15, 2011 7:34 AM   Subscribe

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... Many policy makers, if they're thinking about a problem turn to economists... When economists think about how to solve a problem such as closing the achievement gap in education, or reducing teenage pregnancy, their inclination is to use incentives... To a social psychologist, it is a little naïve to think that adding external incentives is all you have to do. Not to say that incentives can't work, but they can sometimes backfire if you look at it through the eyes of the person who is getting that incentive.
Pioneering investigator of the unconscious Timothy Wilson on the state of social psychology and its practical applications – including government attempts to shape public behaviour, and the futility of the self-help industry. [via]
posted by AceRock (21 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
All of this a little galling to a social psychologist: there actually is some pretty good research on how to become happier and how to overcome personal difficulties that can be done relatively simply but which the self-help industry ignores.

First off, great article, and it made my morning. Second...I really really want to know more about that "pretty good research"--where to find it, more specifically where to find it translated in a way slightly dim people can understand. Is it all in his new book?
posted by mittens at 8:30 AM on June 15, 2011


I find 'behavioral economists' pretty annoying. It doesn't help that that's what the freakonomics guys are. The whole 'nudge' thing actually seems kind of elitist, assuming that the government should be trying to manipulate people into doing the 'right' thing by constantly intervening in their lives and annoying them to get them to behave. I'm sure there's more too it then that, but that's mainly what I hear about.

They also seem to be totally re-inventing social psychology, but from a weird perspective of thinking of humans should be the totally rational actors of economic theory, and then seeing how they deviate from that, as opposed to simply observing how people behave in groups, with the basis of existing psychological theory.

A good example of this is in 'superfreakonomics' where they talk about how pimps are good because prostitutes who work with pimps make more money. Totally ignoring the quality of life for the prostitute.
posted by delmoi at 8:32 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


where to find it, more specifically where to find it translated in a way slightly dim people can understand. Is it all in his new book?
Working out and being in shape are a big part, I would bet.
posted by delmoi at 8:34 AM on June 15, 2011


They also seem to be totally re-inventing social psychology, but from a weird perspective of thinking of humans should be the totally rational actors of economic theory,

I don't know the Freakanomics stuff, but not all behavioral economists are like that -- they are the people who are showing that people never have been rational actors. And some come from psychology themselves - like Dan Ariely. (My favorite economist ever to show up on Planet Money - I really need to read his book).
posted by jb at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2011


The whole 'nudge' thing actually seems kind of elitist, assuming that the government should be trying to manipulate people into doing the 'right' thing by constantly intervening in their lives and annoying them to get them to behave.

I think the "nudge" thing is more along the lines of: not every decision has an objectively better or worse choice or path to take, but some do, and we can help people make the right choice in those situations while still preserving their right to choose. For example, people respond to default choices (like whether you have to opt-in or opt-out of organ donation) and as a policy maker, you have to make a decision of which option to set as the default, so why not just make the default the better option anyway?

I don't know if the Freakonomics guys are behavioral economics guys, but there is/was some good stuff done in the field. Check out Kahneman and Tversky if you are interested. Their work won them a Nobel Prize.
posted by AceRock at 8:43 AM on June 15, 2011


It's not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world.

Bullshit. There are very well studied correlations between, for example, poverty and depression; and race and health; and depression and health. While people do have different personalities that might help them confront structural inequalities or challenges in more or less productive ways, it's flat-out ignorant (almost delusional, I'd say) to claim that the "objective environment" has no role in behavior.
posted by yarly at 9:28 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


yarly, I'm not you're understanding the point. He's not talking about different individual personalities being better or worse at dealing with challenges, rather that those well studied correlations you talk about reflect in part how people universally interpret and experience the world and their situations. The point is that nothing we experience is unfiltered by our mind and its quirks and limitations. Even vision is affected by mental shortcuts, assumptions and biases.
posted by AceRock at 9:50 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


where to find it, more specifically where to find it translated in a way slightly dim people can understand. Is it all in his new book?

Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, or his TED talk on that area would be a useful start. Beyond that, and especially for social psychology-based application, I'd highly recommend Christopher Peterson's A Primer in Positive Psychology.
posted by bizzyb at 10:02 AM on June 15, 2011


He's not talking about different individual personalities being better or worse at dealing with challenges, rather that those well studied correlations you talk about reflect in part how people universally interpret and experience the world and their situations.

But by focusing only on how people react to their objective environment, he misses the point that we can also (as a policy matter) chose to change the objective environment that's fostering that reaction in the first place. People aren't reacting to illusions; they're reacting to actual challenges. If social psychologists can prove that changing reactions is superior to changing conditions, then I guess I would be on board with that. But if social psychology is just saying that "homeless people can be happy too!!", then I think that's delusional.
posted by yarly at 10:13 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


But if social psychology is just saying that "homeless people can be happy too!!", then I think that's delusional.

Its a good thing that's not what they're saying.

Seriously though, the reason Wilson is focusing on that is that because changing the objective environment is outside the scope of social psychology, not because he does not think it is important. His point is that when economists try to solve problems that involve motivating people to change their behavior, their toolbox contains one tool: incentives. What social psychology has to offer are other tools that could work better if applied well.
posted by AceRock at 10:20 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


But by focusing only on how people react to their objective environment, he misses the point that we can also (as a policy matter) chose to change the objective environment that's fostering that reaction in the first place.

No he doesn't. He makes the point that his profession offers additional tools for dealing with that. It's not easy to just 'choose to change the objective environment' because we don't fully understand the dynamics or root causes of that objective environment. An obvious example would be the perplexing case of lottery winners who squander or even abuse their good fortune, and end up in trouble despite a massive improvement in their objective environment.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:46 AM on June 15, 2011


But by focusing only on how people react to their objective environment, he misses the point that we can also (as a policy matter) chose to change the objective environment that's fostering that reaction in the first place.

Social psychologists are often at the forefront of providing evidence for policy and campaigning for changes to objective environments; consider their amicus brief for cases like Brown v. Board of Education, or see SPSSI for current examples. The point with social psychology is rarely either/or, but how do all these things work together.
posted by bizzyb at 10:54 AM on June 15, 2011


This recent thread on the blue is somewhat related. The thrust there is that we may need to start treating cognitive resources (like the amount of energy any one person has to work, deal with daily, life, study, etc) as limited resources, like we do money and time. And so to help people pull themselves out of poverty, solutions that involve alleviating cognitive load provide opportunities in addition to solutions involving money.
posted by AceRock at 11:02 AM on June 15, 2011


Pioneering investigator of the unconscious Timothy Wilson on the state of social psychology and its practical applications

Am I the only one who, on a quick cursory scan of this FPP, wondered how anyone could get a job investigating a guy named Timothy Wilson who's unconscious?
posted by gillyflower at 11:28 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Seriously though, the reason Wilson is focusing on that is that because changing the objective environment is outside the scope of social psychology

What he actually says is "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."
posted by yarly at 11:41 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pioneering investigator of the unconscious Timothy Wilson on the state of social psychology and its practical applications...

Someone got into his head and saw the world the way he did.
posted by y2karl at 12:06 PM on June 15, 2011


.I really really want to know more about that "pretty good research"--where to find it, more specifically where to find it translated in a way slightly dim people can understand.

The book "59 Seconds" by Richard Wiseman is a nice easy to read book about self-help techniques based in peer-reviewed psychology research.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:33 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well I find this fascinating, not least because it's nice to see a word like "unconscious" being used again in modern psychological theories without a ton of disparagement attached to it and even reworked into more practical oriented approaches.

And the 'story editing' concept. I love it when scientific methodologies can be made to go hand in hand with artistic/literary ideas and forms. For the purpose of the pursuit of happiness, no less! Makes me hope maybe all those lectures on postmodern theories of the self weren't completely useless.
posted by bitteschoen at 12:45 PM on June 15, 2011


Bullshit. There are very well studied correlations between, for example, poverty and depression; and race and health; and depression and health. While people do have different personalities that might help them confront structural inequalities or challenges in more or less productive ways, it's flat-out ignorant (almost delusional, I'd say) to claim that the "objective environment" has no role in behavior.

If you actually read the whole article it's obvious that this a bizarre misinterpretation of what Wilson says. Seriously, you think social psychologists really believe that poverty doesn't matter? Seriously? I don't understand the knee-jerk willingness to assume that everyone but you is a delusional idiot.
posted by myeviltwin at 2:01 PM on June 15, 2011


The link in the FPP has taken somewhat of a weird turn. In the comments of the linked article, Steven Pinker takes issue with Wilson's evaluation/criticisms of evolutionary psychology and takes him to task well, but then levels some broad and off-base critiques at social psychology. Dan Gilbert and Wilson then respond.
posted by AceRock at 8:55 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Social psychologists don't say that poverty doesn't matter. What they say is that how people perceive poverty - their own or others - matters as much (if not more). If one's own poverty is percieved as a temporary matter or isn't perceived as poverty at all, this matters.

/ not a social psychologist, only hung out with one who actually studied racism/stereotyping, have vague lay-person sense of field, but don't like to see it so misjudged.
posted by jb at 10:04 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


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