A Social Psychology Hoax? (Or Is Social Psychology Itself A Hoax?)


Remember the wonderful Alan Sokal hoax on the ponderously pontificating journal, Social Text? As the New York Times reported in May 1996,

A New York University physicist, fed up with what he sees as the excesses of the academic left, hoodwinked a well-known journal into publishing a parody thick with gibberish as though it were serious scholarly work.

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” appeared this month in Social Text, a journal that helped invent the trendy, sometimes baffling field of cultural studies.

“At first glance,” according to the Sokal Hoax entry in the Museum of Hoaxes,

the article appeared to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. It was written in the typical style of academic articles, slightly overbearing and verbose, and it came armored with a bristling flank of footnotes (more footnotes than actual text). But on the day that the Spring issue of Social Text appeared in print, the author of the article, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal, published a letter in the academic trade publication Lingua Franca revealing his article was intended as a parody, a fact which the editorial board of Social Text had apparently failed to recognize.

“Any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof,” Sokal asserted. He suggested that his article’s acceptance by the journal pointed to “an apparent decline in the standards of rigor in certain precincts of the academic humanities.” He also fumed over “how readily they [Social Text] accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda.”

Is Too Much Freedom of Choice a Problem?, a PsychCentral report by “Rick Nauert PHD News Editor,” of a study about to be published in Psychological Science, is so bizarre that I immediately wondered if we were confronting another Sokal-sized hoax in the making.

The study purports to find that “a central tenet of American life,” choice — the availability of choices and the necessity of making them — is a bad thing. Bad for individuals; bad for the society. Really. Thus: “Social psychology researchers found that just thinking about choices makes people less sympathetic to others and less likely to support policies that help people.”

You may think I’m joking, but I assure you: if there’s a joke here, it’s not mine. According to the PsychCentral report:

So the researchers conducted a series of experiments to look at how thinking about choice affected people’s feelings on public policies.

For example, in some experiments, participants watched a video of a person doing a set of routine daily activities in an apartment. Some people were told to push the space bar every time he [sic] made a choice; others were told to do so every time he [sic] touched an object for the first time. They were then asked their opinions on social issues.

That was the research design. Here’s what the research is said to have found:

Simply thinking about “choice” made people less likely to support policies promoting greater equality and benefits for society, such as affirmative action, a tax on fuel-inefficient cars, or banning violent video games.

Another experiment found that when people think about choice, they are more likely to blame others for bringing bad events on themselves, like having a heart attack or losing a job.

By now some of you may still think I’m making this up, but at least anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know that’s impossible because I’m not that clever. Nor does it seem likely that the main researcher, Krishna Savani, a postdoctoral research scholar at the Columbia Business School, is capable of creating such a mind-boggling parody of social psychology today. Oh, wait. Perhaps I’m being unfair to him. Could Prof. Savani’s description of his teaching and research interests itself be part of the hoax?

[His] research examines how the ideas, practices, and situations pervasive in different societies shape the way people think, feel, and act…. His recent research has focused on using knowledge gained from cross-cultural comparisons to improve people’s decision making and to increase their support for collectively beneficial public policies.

Alas, I’m afraid Prof. Savani and his research are not only real but in the mainstream of how social psychology is all too often practiced today. His blithe but revealing assumption that “affirmative action, a tax on fuel-inefficient cars, or banning violent video games” are “collectively beneficial public policies” and hence that people who oppose them are “less sympathetic to others and less likely to support policies that help people” shows him to be a member in good standing of what University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt called (as I discussed on Minding The Campus) the “tribal moral community” of social psychologists today, a tribe with shared “‘sacred values’ that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.”

Despite the findings of Prof. Savani’s research, I’m confident in concluding that at least one choice we have remains beneficial to both individuals and society: the choice to laugh at this research.

UPDATE [31 March 2011]

Dirty Liberals, Or: Is Social Psychology All Washed Up?

I know some of you still suspect that I made up the research described above, despite my insistence that I did not and despite the fact that regular, or even occasional, readers know I’m not imaginative enough to have done so. For such doubters, you need look no further than an article in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education for additional evidence that social psychologists commit this sort of research atrocity on a regular basis.

“We already know,” the Chronicle’s report begins, “that literally having clean hands affects your moral judgment. But can it also influence your politics?”

Speak for yourself, Chronicle; I certainly didn’t know that. Following that link, however, I learn — or rather, see some social psychologists want me to learn — that conservatives are priggish.

A new study titled “A Clean Self Can Render Harsh Moral Judgment” found that opinions on social issues like pornography, adultery, and drugs were affected by whether people had washed their hands prior to being asked. Participants were told to rate their feelings on social issues, like the ones mentioned above, on an 11-point scale from “very immoral” to “very moral.” Those who lathered up beforehand were significantly more likely than those with grubby palms to find, say, profane language immoral.

In a second experiment, some participants were simply told to think of phrases like “My hair feels clean and light. My breath is fresh. My clothes are pristine and like new.” Meanwhile, another group was told to think “My hair feels oily and heavy. My breath stinks. I can see oil stains and dirt all over my clothes.” The groups were then asked, using the same 11-point scale, to rate the morality of abortion, homosexuality, and masturbation. Those who had been thinking clean thoughts were more likely to deem those practices immoral.

Now, if the stars produced by your smacking your head at the sheer brilliance of these findings have gone away, you may have noticed that this argument that “Cleanliness Is Next to Priggishness” says nothing about conservatives. So why, you wonder, did I make that connection?

Wonder no more; I made the connection because I had first read yesterday’s Chronicle article, “Filthy Liberals and the Politics of Purell,” linked above, reporting on more recent research arguing that conservatives are cleanliness freaks.

Researchers asked 52 college students to complete a questionnaire about their political attitudes. Some were asked to “step over to the wall” to answer the questions while others were told to “step over to the hand-sanitizer dispenser.” Those who simply stood in the vicinity of the hand-sanitizer rated themselves as more conservative….

Apparently social psychologists have, well, a fixation (“a preoccupation or obsession”) on finding that conservatives are, at least, deranged or just a bit weird. Thus, the Chronicle tells us, “In a previous study, researchers found a connection between disgust and conservatism.”

And indeed they did. In that study, “Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted Than Liberals,” Yoel Inbar and David Pizarro of Cornell and Paul Bloom of Yale found that conservatives have “a general disposition to feel disgusted by a variety of stimuli,” that “disgust seems to be an important component of the moral and political views of many conservatives….”

Conservatives like Leon Kass, the Chronicle notes, argue that since some things are in fact disgusting, “our feelings of disgust aren’t simply silly, visceral reactions. Instead they’re indications of the ‘wisdom of repugnance.’” Liberals find that view, well, disgusting.

Martha Nussbaum has written an entire book on the politics of disgust. In it, she argues that Kass is wrong and that “disgust is not wise but terribly obtuse.” She goes on to write that “projective disgust is inspired by a powerful loathing of aspects of the self, and it typically seeks a handy scapegoat. The idea of subordinating others by imputing disgusting properties to them lies at the heart of disgust’s dynamics.”

Tom Bartlett, the clever Chronicle author, concludes by asking,

Could you influence the outcome of an election by distributing free samples of Purell to voters? And would that be a dirty trick, or a clean one?

I think I’m about ready to wash my hands of social psychology.

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