“The boy leaped to his feet and sang out as loudly as he could, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ But the villagers thought he was trying to fool them again, and so they didn’t come.”—Aesop, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”
Sure, she was young and cute. But that’s not why I gave her the money for the payphone. Regardless, she put up her hand like a crossing guard when I tried to hand her the quarters. Said she didn’t need the money. Said she was just doing a study: a study of people’s willingness to give money to strangers. Her thesis—soon to be published, no doubt, in The Journal of Incredibly Obvious Results—is that the race, class, and gender of the person being asked (and the person doing the asking) are important. “For instance,” she said—with all of the sanctimonious seriousness of an annoying nine-year-old boy who’s memorized the names of the dinosaurs—“men like you are far more likely to give money to an attractive well-dressed young women than to a guy with a mohawk who looks like a junkie and smells bad.” “Um, yeah,” I replied—visibly pissed off at this point—“because I figure he wants the money for heroin. I thought you actually needed the money for the phone. Regardless, does it occur to you that I might be less likely to give money to anyone in the future?” She looked perplexed. Vaguely hurt. “Um, no, why?” “Because I’m gonna think it’s just another stupid study.”
Okay, Social Psychology: that was Strike One. But what happened today on the Mountain constitutes Strike Two and Strike Three! So I’m walking on the Mountain this morning when I hear a person crying for help. It takes me about ten minutes to locate the source of the voice in the woods. When I do, I discover that it’s three nerdy looking graduate students in khakis with a laptop and a speaker. Yes, you guessed it: they were doing another study: a social psychological study on who responds to the calls of a stranger in distress in the woods. Once again, homage was to be paid to the Holy Trinity of 21st-century academic life: race, class, and gender. Once again, their results were, no doubt, soon to be published in The Journal of Incredibly Obvious Results. And once again, I said: “Does it occur to you that I might be less likely to respond to the calls of a stranger in distress in the future?” They looked perplexed. Vaguely hurt. “Um, no, why?”—said the dweeb holding the laptop. I wonder if social psychologists realize what damage they do to the social fabric with these kinds of studies. What makes civil society possible is—in large part—social trust. And social trust is eroded by studies such as this.
Questioning the findings of social psychology was, for a long time, sort of like trying to find out why Homeland Security put grandma’s name on the No-Fly List. Since many of their landmark studies were done during the Wild West days of social psychology, before standards of research ethics were established and enforced, the studies couldn’t be replicated. We had to accept what they said more or less on faith. But since they were saying things that many left-leaning academics wanted to believe anyway (e.g., that human behavior is all, more or less, a function of environment and social roles), most of us were willing to do this. It now seems that our faith was misplaced. Many of social psychology’s greatest hits have been discredited. Many of its rock stars have fallen from grace. Some have even suggested that the entire discipline is fraudulent. Regardless, maybe it’s time to revisit the much-maligned dispositional approach. Maybe it’s time to start talking about virtue and character again.
—John Faithful Hamer