When Social Psychologists Cry Wolf

“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”

11q101-005Sure, 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, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

One thought on “When Social Psychologists Cry Wolf

  1. Now you’ve gone and done it. You shot my excuse for being a social misfit right out of the saddle. Now what am I going to say in defence, when some one points at me and says “He’s a real asshole”? No more liberal bleeding heart psychoderms to lean on to excuse my behavior (what ever it might be). No more crying ‘My daddy was mean to me.’ Damn…a whole encyclopedia of annoying excuses gone for ever.

    Other than that, I have to agree with you on many levels. Character and virtues indeed. No one seemed to consider those when I was growing up. I was accused of being on an ego trip (whatever the hell that is), or some other catch all cliché, that was the common drivel of the 70’s. I never set out to prove superiority over anyone. After awhile I began to notice that the people accusing me of being on an ego trip, were the same people who cringed at every sign of their own mediocrity. They loved to use all the pop psychology their vocabulary could muster. They tried (and failed) to use their pop psychology as a weapon.

    “…and a friend to the frivolous.” I like that.


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