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Psychology and the Brock Turner episode–bystander intervention

I am writing this in the week after Emily Doe’s remarkable letter to her assailant, Brock Turner, was published.  If you are not one of the millions who have read it, here is a link.  I generally do not do trigger warnings, but in this case, there is graphic description of sexual violence:

Mr. Turner was given a 6-month sentence, very light given the offenses.

What good might come of this horror? There is much that psychology could say about this all.  Why did the press not use his mug shot?  Why did the press describe his swimming accomplishments, when for most rapists they do not include the equivalent? Why did the judge make his decision? Why do we live in a world of entitlement, in which others’ bodies are objects to use rather than of gratitude, in which we might value instead reception of others’ freely given gifts?

Will this just be forgotten? This piece is my offering that it not be.

I want to focus on bystander intervention, both because it might save your life, or that of someone you might know, and because it is one of the greatest stories of social psychology research.

Mr. Turner was convicted in large part because two young men were bicycling past and saw him, stopped him, and held him till the police arrived.  The Washington Post told this aspect of the story well, and expands on bystander intervention.  Here is a link to their piece:

Someday you might need someone to assist you in an emergency. Someday you might be in the vicinity of someone who needs such assistance.  What can we do to make it more likely that those who can help will meet the needs of those in trouble?

Well, consider what had to happen in this case.

The bicyclists needed to notice. In the dark they could have ridden past and never known that anything was happening.  If you are in trouble you might need to draw attention.  If you are inclined to help…pay attention.

Once the bicyclists noticed something was happening they had to interpret this as a situation that called for help.  It would have been easy for them to just think that this was two people out having sex consensually and ridden on.  They could have imagined it was not a situation in which people get involved.  There are so many forces that lead us not to consider helping others. Will they be offended?  Did we misunderstand what was happening?  How embarrassed will we be if we step in where we were not supposed to?  No one else is doing anything, so it must not be a problem.  And all of these lead to inertia, inaction, victims suffering.  Be alert to your own subtle interpretations of the world that lead you not think that helping is called for.  Truth be told there is more that needs to be done than you or I could in a lifetime.

Bear with me as I describe a case from my own life. A few years ago I was in my neighborhood getting carryout and a young woman (remarkably one of my former students from social psychology) happened to be there and she pointed out a young couple down the (busy!) street having an argument.  How were we to interpret this?  People argue.  There was no physical violence.  Is this just a couple that needed to sort it out?  So we watched.  Then he picked her (not my former student) up and put her over his shoulder and carried her up the street, in our direction.  Those between us and them did nothing.  Did that mean it wasn’t a problem?  The woman wasn’t waving her arms or screaming. Were these two young people acting badly but in a nonproblematic way?  I’ve taught this stuff for a long time and I was confused.  I think we underestimate how confusing the world is, how hard to come to a proper understanding.  How are we to know who needs help?  And then as they were drawing nearer (and I was trying to figure out what to do) she said, while being carried, that she couldn’t believe that no one was doing anything.   To my shame it took that much to disambiguate the situation for me.  So I told him to put her down or I’d call the police.  He did and started to tell a cockamamie story as she ran off, so I called the police, trailed him as he ran off, and last saw him as the police were taking him away.

You will be confused about whether to help.  Ask.  If no help was needed you might be embarrassed.  If help was needed something awful might be averted.  Your embarrassment might be very salient to you.  Make salient those like Emily Doe.  Ask. If you need help and no one is helping, ask for help.  Your needs might be obvious to you. Perhaps they ought to be obvious to those around you.

They won’t be.


Even after realizing that there was a problem the bicyclists needed to take responsibility.  There are many people who could help those in need. Why should they? Why should you?  Why not someone else whose burdens are easier, who have more time, who are stronger, who know more, who are…someone other than you?

Most likely everyone around you is thinking that too.  There is a diffusion of responsibility.  If I’m the only one to see I know I am the only one to help. If many can see, then why me?

Be alert to this.  I was blessed with parents who taught me if I weren’t to help then who would?  Perhaps that helped in the case I just described.  I know that my teaching helped.  I recognized the diffusion and that recognition made it much more likely I would act.

Do you have a responsibility to those around you, your family, your friends, strangers?  If you do not, will they toward you?  Are we to live in a world where every tub is to its own bottom?  If so, to what end?

Watch yourself today, tomorrow, and see if that thought “oh, someone else can help” crosses your mind.  Is it a thought you wish to be your friend?

If you need help, break the diffusion. Point to someone if possible and tell that one person to take responsibility. There is promising evidence this will help.

There is more to this….figuring out how to help and so on. But noticing, interpreting, and taking responsibility are so critical.

And they are one of the great discoveries of social psychology.  John Darley and Bibb Latane (full disclosure, Bibb is a friend, though I’ve not seen him in a while) did the initial research on this in response to the famous Kitty Genovese case.  Their discoveries are the origin of what is being taught on campuses and elsewhere to spur bystander intervention.   It makes me proud of my field.

Take some time to reflect on Emily’s story.  Is there a lesson you might learn?  If each of us were to help one more person in need than we otherwise might have, how much better of a world might we make?



The psychology of happiness, higher education, and the Mount St. Mary’s fiasco

In this (very long!) piece I will reflect on the purposes of higher education, the saga at Mount St. Mary’s, some of the topics our Psychology of Happiness class has been considering, and some phenomena described by psychology that we have not considered. This provides an opportunity to reflect on a concrete application of some of that which we have been taken up thus far this term. I will break this up into four parts:
1) Background on the Mount St. Mary’s case
2) Reflections on the case in light of having read Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness
3) How we know, from my perspective as a social psychologist
4) What this means for my understanding of the role of higher education in the pursuit of happiness
1) Background
For background, in recent weeks it has been reported that the President of Mount St. Mary’s [which I will often refer to as “The Mount”] proposed a retention plan designed to identify those freshmen who might leave after the first year and instead encourage them to leave in the first six weeks. At least two justifications have been given by the President for this plan. One was that these students would not be counted in the calculation of retention rate at such places as US News, and so if the students exited this would improve the appearance of the Mount. A second is that college is expensive and students leaving early would receive a full tuition refund, so it would be better for the student to save this money.
Some faculty voiced opposition to this plan. Among other things students took a survey and were not informed that this survey might be used to encourage them to leave. As a psychology professor I would note that the chances that one could design such a survey without a large number of false alarms (encouraging students to leave who would have thrived) and misses (students who would have done well to leave but are missed by the survey) to be remote. And I can find no evidence that there was testing of this survey to see if it could in fact discriminate between those who would do well to leave and those who would do well to say. This struck me as psychological malpractice, though that aspect has not received wide discussion.
The president subsequently fired two of the faculty who had raised concerns, one of whom had tenure, for “disloyalty.” This ignited a conflagration that has drawn nationwide attention. Details of the saga are below.
The fired tenured faculty member, Thane Naberhaus, was offered reinstatement. He has opted to return to teaching and has written the following.
“For my 8:00 a.m. lecture class I will be teaching on the scheduled topic, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which Plato presents his radical notion that education is not a matter of filling the mind with knowledge, but of turning the soul toward Truth.
…My aim in returning is the same as my aim in teaching generally: to deepen the hunger for truth in my students.
I invite my colleagues at the Mount and other universities to join me in solidarity by exploring, in whatever way they deem appropriate, similar themes in their classes this week.”
I write this piece in part in response to the call for solidarity.
With that I should engage in full disclosure. First, I am a psychologist, not a philosopher. My thoughts will be offered from this vantage. Second, I am a practicing Catholic and my Catholicism is very central to my life. Mount St. Mary’s is a Catholic institution and I believe that the President has undermined Catholicism by his actions. (Indeed, he has been highly criticized in Catholic media by people from across the spectrum of Catholicism.) I understand that many of you are not Catholic, much less theists. I am attempting to write this piece drawing solely on my background as a psychologist, but I understand that my Catholicism will likely shape my arguments in ways of which I am unaware. [If anyone reads this is intrigued by the Catholic/psychologist combination, I will be delivering one of the Tuohy lectures at John Carroll University in Cleveland on April 6. My topic will be “Contemplating contemplation: A psychological perspective on mindfulness, gratitude, and Ignatian spiritual practices.”]
OK. Enough throat clearing. On to the topic at hand.
2) In light of Gilbert’s book.
Gilbert suggests that we make choices for a future self we do not understand. We choose to live in Seattle focused on the good coffee and scenery and do not understand that our future self will have wanted more sun. We choose to use cocaine not understanding that our future self will fall into despair about stepping away from cocaine. And so on.
We do not understand our future selves and so we encumber them with our bad choices.
I think this is obvious enough from inspection of our own bad choices, those times when we wish that we could reach back to our earlier selves and force a different choice. But here is one easy illustration. In one study subjects were told that they would be asked some trivia questions. At the end they could have the answers or candy. Their choice. People given the choice before they knew the questions chose the candy. Those given the choice after knowing the questions chose the answers. People asked before the questions didn’t understand their future selves and the curiosity those future selves would find so compelling. And so they chose badly, leaving themselves later stuck with a candy bar when their desire was for answers.
Part of the difficulty of imagining a direction for higher education (including at the Mount) is that we have difficulty understanding the needs of our future selves. Which do we pick, in Dr. Naberhaus’ framing—knowledge or turning toward truth? Which will our future self need more? If we understand our future self we will choose wisely.
So how do we know what our future self will want? Gilbert argues that in part we assume our future self will want what our current self wants. If I like disco music now surely I will in the future. If I dislike broccoli now surely I will in the future. Beyond that in part we understand our future self via our theories of how we operate. I’ve never been a retired person but I invest in retirement funds because I expect that someday I will be. And when I am I expect I will need a stream of revenue different from what I have now. Perhaps I am wrong about my future. We will see. Going back to the trivia problem–a person might have a self theory that says that they will think candy is great and that trivia answers will be boring. But they misunderstand themselves.
So will our future selves want knowledge or an orientation toward the truth? Gilbert’s work suggests that if we want knowledge now we will want knowledge in the future. And if we have a theory that the point of education is to get a job and that knowledge is the path to a job we will want knowledge. Regardless of what our future self will actually desire.
But…knowledge fades. What I know as a psychologist now is quite different from when I started teaching in 1987.
Or take one Mount alum’s view on this:
“All of this was possible because what I learned at the Mount could never be boiled down to “job skills” or merely a discipline designed to prepare me for a job. Those things are valuable and important, but learning how to think and what people are for is more important. A person who knows how to think can be taught to do just about anything, and to do it well.”
What I Want You to Know About The Mount
And so a question arises…are current societal pressure shifting people to have theories of how they operate that tell them “choose knowledge over the orientation to the truth”? (This can create a super-replicator, in Gilbert’s terms, a theory that is not true but that carries its own means of transmission.)
I suspect there are such pressures, though I do not have data. But now it’s time to talk about how we come to know things.
3) The social psychology of knowing.
The world is large. Our minds are small. As a result we have to simplify the vast world. Rather than getting to know someone as an individual we might just figure out their group membership and conclude that’s enough. Rather than figuring out a philosophy of life we might concentrate on getting through the day. We don’t have time or energy for doing more.
Perhaps this simplifying would not be so bad if the information we extracted were unbiased.
But what we know is biased both by the information to which we are exposed and by our desires.
Consider exposure to information…My earliest exposure to Chinese food was my mom’s cooking. And as much as I love my mother and think she has many fine qualities her Chinese cooking was chop suey out of a can. It was senior year of college before I actually went to a Chinese restaurant because I thought I already knew what Chinese food was like and I wanted none of that. My information had been biased.
Consider desire and what we know….I want to believe that I am competent and morally good. And so it is natural for me to cook the books to believe myself competent and morally good. Indeed, I’ve done so far too often! I am tempted to bias my information.
How does this apply to the Mount and to the theory about which of knowledge vs. orientation toward truth is more important?
To what information regarding this have you been exposed? Have you heard time and again something like “you need to go to college to get a job!” Or “you need to do internships so you can learn the skills needed in particular jobs!” Or have you needed to take standardized tests that get at knowledge and understood these tests to be key to your future?
And what happens when you are with friends? How many conversations have you had about fears about landing jobs? About strategies to land jobs?
How much does all of this focus our attention on the need for skills and jobs and fade into the background the importance of the orientation toward truth?
And then imagine that you start to entertain the possibility that the orientation toward truth is more important than skills and jobs? Does the thought make you queasy? How many years have you invested in a particular plan to land a particular job, thinking this is the key to happiness? To cast off that monarch is not easy.
Do we live in a culture in which messages can emphasize knowledge acquisition over the orientation toward truth. Absolutely.
I want to emphasize that this applies to well-intentioned highly intelligent people. One does not need to be nefarious or stupid to reach an erroneous belief. One needs only be surrounded by the like-minded and removed from information without awareness of being removed.
One of my favorite psychological phenomena is the Dunning-Kruger effect. The incompetent sometimes lack the ability to understand their own incompetence. Imagine I am at a party and have food on my face. I am being incompetent. But I am unaware of it. The only way I could be aware of my incompetence would be to see the food, at which point I would remove it and be competent.
We are too often unaware of how much we are unaware of.
How might this apply to the Mount?
The Board of Trustees at the Mount is likely grappling with what to do with the fiasco. I served on American’s Board and am proud of my time there and of the people who gave themselves to service on the Board. These are well-intentioned people who want to do well by the school. They put in a lot of effort with no compensation except seeing a job well done. But they are also human. We went through a governance crisis about a decade ago. One of the conscious decisions the Board subsequently made (and we the faculty had a long conversation with them about this) was to add diverse voices to the Board. The Board prior to the changes was largely composed of people with backgrounds in real estate and finance. They cared for the university but did not have deep knowledge of higher education. Imagine a board for Ford Motors in which no one knew anything about making cars. So we added a couple people with backgrounds in higher education and another who knew nonprofits (as a former head of the Peace Corps). We also added two faculty and a student as non-voting members just to add diverse voices. The point was that this diversity of backgrounds would shed light on some areas that formerly had been opaque. To raise awareness of some things that people had been unaware of. And the university to my biased eye has had a good decade. Does the Mount’s Board know what they do not know? Are they choosing vocational training for students, a focus on knowledge over orientation toward truth, because they do not understand the importance of orientation toward truth and the way that orientation is (hopefully!) shaped in higher ed?
And just so with all of us. Do we think higher education is about getting jobs? Are we exposed to those who think differently about the goals of higher education? If we are not exposed how can we be aware of what we are unaware of?
4) My understanding.
Which does your future self want? I cannot tell you. I am a psychologist and while I can tell you what people think of as the good life, my disciplinary skills do not equip me to tell you what is the good life.
But I can offer my own perspective. Many bits of knowledge that I have gained have subsequently proved unimportant. But the orientation toward the truth remains important long after it was drilled into my head. It is the focus of my work with graduate students who too often already know the answers and need to be taught to understand why their answers might be wrong. Time and again I have meetings with students whose research projects have not provided the results the student wanted. My task is to teach the student than any truth learned is important, to let go of the small world of their imagination to embrace the larger world that exceeds that imagination. The orientation toward truth is something I always need in my own research. I have to constantly ask myself of what I am unaware, in what ways I might be wrong, else find out when a reviewer finds the flaws in my reasoning. Outside of psychology I have also found that orienting myself toward truth is important for building relationships.
How much is the common sense that our future selves will want jobs over all else a function of a culture that asserts that money will make us happy? Yet the data we considered last week suggested that once past some threshold in which we have food, shelter and such money doesn’t do that much to increase happiness. And we learned about the opportunity costs of materialistic goals—that if we prioritize money we might forget to prioritize relationship. Yet relationship, too, seems quite important for happiness. And we discussed the intriguing data that wealthy countries have lower senses of purpose and increased suicide rates.
My belief is that learning an orientation toward truth will make you happier in the long run than will mere knowledge acquisition, at least if you know enough to keep food on your table and a roof over your head. My further belief is that higher education is one of the places in which this orientation can best be developed. I know how important college was for me in this regard. I can remember almost nothing of the facts I learned then. But I do remember that shift in orientation.
Our memories are imperfect, so the spiel I just gave could be wrong. And I have no crystal ball. Perhaps some piece of knowledge will be of utmost importance at some point. But it is what I think. Here’s a question for you—how would we know whether or not I am right?
We are at a moment in higher education in which it is quite possible that there will be a sudden crowd phenomenon leading to a complete reshaping of higher education with only the appearance, not the actuality, of careful consideration. Those with backgrounds in corporations have made a lot of money and so are in a position to spread the messages about how to make money. The language of the market is one with which we are familiar. The language of orientation toward truth not so much. Will a shallow version of market thinking win out leading to episodes like that being experienced at the Mount?
How will you assess the assertions you will hear about the value of higher education, about whether more skills should be taught with less emphasis on, say, philosophy? Will you assume the assertions are correct? Will you tune out the discussion because there is not enough time to think about everything? Or will you question whether they misunderstand happiness or the needs of their future selves?
Higher education is a precious gift. How can we best be good stewards of it? How are we to know if we are?

Gun violence and mental health
The link is to a piece describing what appears to be a bipartisan bill to help mental health as one route to reducing America’s unique culture of gun deaths. In a moment I’ll reflect on some of the mental health issues involved. As a preface, though, I’ll note that funding for research on gun violence has been blocked for a long while, so we are working in the dark more than I would like. And remember the human tendency to lock on to one cause out of many. Whatever we focus on as the cause of gun death is only going to be part of the picture.
One other caveat. The huge, huge, huge majority of people with psychological disorders will not engage in gun violence. When someone such as the Virginia Tech shooter commits an atrocity it is easy to generalize from him to those with disorders in general. Don’t. The base rate of gun violence, while too high, is still tiny relative to the base rate of psychological disorder. What’s the likelihood that you had a meal yesterday if you were the president? What’s the likelihood that you were the president if you had a meal yesterday? Those two likelihoods are very different. So…even if we knew the likelihood that someone who committed a gun atrocity had psychological disorder we would not know the likelihood that someone with a psychological disorder will commit a gun atrocity. Folks with disorders are among the most stigmatized. They have some of the fewest resources to deal with stigma. Just don’t go there.
OK. Throat cleared.
Back in the 60’s laws were passed to deinstitutionalize those with disorders. Prior to that many, many more were treated in places far from home. That’s often not a great idea, so it made sense to instead have them treated in their communities. It would also in principle save money, since they could live at home. And we all like to save money. Two (of many) problems with this. First, deinstitutionalization was done on a massive scale when it would have been better to do it with pilot tests to find the glitches. This is a good case study for those of us who are more liberal–often there are unintended consequences of our well-intentioned ideas. It’s a really good idea to be very wary of these and to work hard to find them before we act. Second, money was supposed to be spent on community mental health centers to replace the more expensive in-patient facilities. But the system never came close to being fully funded. And Reagan did a chunk of his deficit reduction by gutting what little funding there was. There is good evidence that deaths rose as a result, including for the many Vietnam vets who ended up homeless. This is also a lesson for those who want to cut funding in some way. That funding has existed in a system. If you get rid of the old inefficient system it is quite possible that a new system will not come into being. No one wants to spend money. Consider the consequences of your spending cuts. There is no free lunch, including no free spending cut.
Bottom line–there are a lot of people with psychological disorders and without the resources to receive decent treatment. Rates of schizophrenia, addiction, severe depression, and the like are sufficient that you probably know someone, and likely someone you love, who has such problems. You, my friends, are among the wealthy–you have computers for instance. If not for the support of you, your family, that person’s family what would those you know with severe disorders do? OK, now reflect on the many for whom there is no support system. What sort of despair would they experience? What sort of anger? Imagine that they are remarkably virtuous. 99% never act out of the despair or anger. Imagine the other 1% are nearly as virtuous. They resist the temptation for years, but one day they snap. Perhaps you can think of the time that you have snapped the worst in your life, likely with far, far less provocation and much more support than the most isolated and impoverished. How many will die as a result of the snaps of those hardest pressed?
For the most part this will result only in the death of the person suffering. Suicide by gun is common, and more lethal than by many means. (I’ve seen the argument that people who want to kill will do so. Sometimes, sure, but often not. Often killing is done impulsively, and having easy and lethal means makes it much easier to act on the impulse. But I’ll not digress further into gun control and safe gun practices.) But sometimes the despairing and angry will kill others too.
Perhaps we could do something about that?
The proposed bill seems like a small step in that direction. The keys to improvement, in general, would seem to me to be providing easy access to treatment, reducing the stigma for seeking treatment, and improving treatment.
This will cost money. Many of the most in need do not have money for treatment because they have the problems that provoke the need. The scope of the problem dwarfs the ability of charitable organizations to handle it. Government spending seems the only approach that could be sufficient to the task of sufficiently expanding treatment.
It would help to spend money on effective treatments. Pharmaceutical companies do spend money, because they can turn a profit on the research. But many routes to treatment are difficulty to patent, so turn a profit. And these receive little research unless the government spends. And federal spending on treatment has drifted to a biological approach, reinforcing the trends of the for-profit folks. So this is a challenging issue in current times.
More access to treatment and more research on effective treatment are fairly direct steps to alleviating mental health issues and thereby to alleviate the gun violence that sometimes, if rarely, arises from mental health issues. I’m going to mention three other more distal steps.
First, can we ease the worst fiscal fears of our poorest? How much despair comes from working incessantly while on the brink, perhaps also afraid for the possibility one would no longer be able to care for one’s children?
Second, can we simply accompany others more? How much despair arises from loneliness, from thinking others have no time or patience or understanding for us? How much more true is this for those who are already struggling? How much can the odd and troubling ideas take root if we are alone?
Third, can we shift our perspective of what gives humans value? How much despair and anger arises from the sense that we have been deemed not worthy, that we have been dismissed as inferior? That can only happen if we have a view of human worth that is conditional. That people only matter if they are smart enough, wealthy enough, kind enough, thin enough, coherent enough, possessing the same religion, race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, politics as us or some other. What would happen if we reflected on our own worth and concluded it was inherent in our existence? Perhaps the thought that we are worthwhile because we breathe? For the religious, perhaps the thought that we are worthwhile because the God that we worship loves us just as that Deity loves the person whom we most loathe? If we were to believe that might we not treat others somewhat differently, as no better nor worse in the most important sense than we are? And how might they react? How much despair and alienation would recede? It’s likely particularly hard to do this when we are so often dismissed by others. Nonetheless.
Perhaps our gun atrocity problems can serve as an opportunity to reflect on how our American culture has gone wrong psychologically, looking for worth in the wrong places. Perhaps it can serve as an opportunity also to reflect on those most in need and to ask whether we collectively can do something about it.
To my eye the gun violence that shows up in the US is only a symptom, albeit a terrible one, of something much larger.

One possible explanation of the Marine Corps gender difference data: Study statistics more!

This morning I heard this piece (linked below) on NPR.  The thrust was that Marine units with women in them performed worse in combat simulations than did those with men only.  There could be many explanations of this.  I want to flag one that was not raised in the NPR piece.

My understanding from this article is that some of the performance differences were likely due to muscle mass.  How much weight can people carry around for how long?  Probably those with more muscle mass can carry more weight.  I am no expert on the following, but my best read is that men tend to have more muscle mass.  I would not be surprised if the men, on average, could carry more.  But…someone women doubtless could carry more than some men. I’ll elaborate below.

I could not find the distributions of muscle mass for men and women, but I did find one for height, and I can use this to illustrate the point.  Here’s the link:

Men tend to be taller than women.  If we draw a particular cutoff for inclusion in our group (say “the Marines!”) (say, 169 cm in the graph), the height of men above the cutoff will be greater than the height of the women above the cutoff.  All have to be above 169 cm, but the average man taller than 169 will still be taller than the average woman above 169 cm.  So…if they are doing a height-related task men will do better than women, even though the same cutoff is being used to let someone in.

Is this the same thing with the Marine Corps?  If so, a uniform standard for muscle mass (or how much weight one can carry, for that matter) will leave a group included in the Marines in which women tend to underperform relative to men who have surpassed that uniform standard.

But…and this is key…by including women you can raise the standard and do better overall.  Some women will carry more than some men and those men can be displaced from the group leaving you better off overall.

Look back at the height chart. If I need a particular number of people and I want the tallest, I can reach the requisite number of tall people at a higher cutoff if I include women than if I do not.  Thus inclusion of women leaves us with two things (a) a group that overall performs better on height-related tasks (which is what should matter!); and (b) a group in which women underperform relative to men on height-related tasks.

If the analogy holds, the Marines should not worry a whit if the groups with women underperform relative to groups with men.  That’s not the relevant question.  What they should worry about is whether they can be more exclusive (that is, set a higher standard for inclusion in combat service) by including women, and thus as a whole perform better.

Obviously this is a more complicated situation than I described.  But I was stunned when I listened that no one discussed this as an issue.  These are not stupid people. But I wonder if they have spent any serious amount of time thinking about stats.

If you want to think clearly, please, please, please spend a good chunk of time learning, at a deep level, about basic statistics.

Inigo Montoya and psychology–You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. (Psych Favorites,post 3)

I am starting this series with three important stories about how little psychology can tell you.  In the first two I’ve noted that we can’t tell you why you should get out of bed in the morning and that we very rarely know much about why things happen.

Today I am focused on the fact that we oftenuse words in ways that are misleading.

Take, for instance, “happiness.”  I just googled “psychology and happiness” and I see the last story posted on a psych study about happiness is from 2 hours ago, in New York Magazine.

The story has this quote: “[Y]our middle-age happiness can be predicted by two things: the quantity of friends in your 20s, and the quality of friendships in your 30s.”  They measured happiness, right!  What did you think when you saw the word? Did you wonder what they meant by happiness or did you just fill in with your sense of what happiness was?  They seem to have combined four self-report measures.  For instance, they asked subjects the degree to which they agree with statements like “In general I am in charge of the situation in which I live” and “I tend to worry what other people think of me.”  Is that happiness?  Is that what you thought they meant when they said “happiness?” You can make an argument that it is, but there are all sorts of reasons to be hesitant.  People have trouble reporting on their experiences.  (What has your day been like?  As you answer did you go back to every moment of the day then somehow average it?  If so I am impressed because that seems like an impossible task!) So maybe they think they were happy but were in fact not happy.   Is happiness about the experience of pleasure?  Or is it about meaning (“this diaper I am changing is really rancid, but despite this misery my life has purpose!”)  Is either of those captured by the questions above? The article you read just said “happiness.”  And you likely filled in what they meant rather than wondering if the authors really got at happiness.  (Having said that, New York Magazine described a very cool study!)

That’s an easy example.  But think of any psychology study you read about in the news.  Does going to college enhance quality of life?  Some newspaper accounts will say yes, others no, but do any of the studies really address anything that gets at what you think of as “quality of life!”  Other studies will talk about doing things that lead to success, but what is success?

Or as another example, people want mental health.  But what the heck is it?  Over time the definition has changed. Across time the definition has changed.  At one point the methods that psychologists used to classify were wildly unreliable.  But once the phrase “mental health” has been uttered by someone with a doctorate how hard is it to keep an open mind about whether the person is actually talking about mental health?  And so we read articles about mental health and do not realize the challenges of actually measuring mental health.

I think every graduate student who works with me has a moment in which she says “I have here a measure of X.”  I say “Are you sure it is measuring X?  Read the items to me.”  The student reads the items and then says….”hey, that doesn’t sound like X at all!”  Because life is short and if you are a student looking for a measure of X and someone says they have a measure of X who are you to say they do not and what time do you have to really worry about it. So you think you have a measure of X even if it measures something else entirely.

But saying something is X does not make it X.  That word often does not mean what we think it means.

Over time when we as psychologists try to assess something like “happiness” we try to do so in a bunch of different ways.  We ask people to tell us what they think. We look at what they do. We ask their friends to report on them. And so on.  If we find that for every way we can think of measuring “happiness” doing a particular exercise increases happiness then we start to think the exercise causes happiness. (Start!  Maybe we have missed something important that won’t be discovered til later!)

As a reflex, then, I am skeptical when I hear someone say “I have measured X.”  But I have developed that reflex from years of study.  Mostly people absorb their psychology with less training.  And less time to think.  Those communicating in media often have reason to use shorthand.  (“Hey–happiness!”)  Particularly these days (perhaps I will write sometime on why I say that) there is great pressure on academics to fudge a bit (“Hey-happiness!”) rather than hedging about how uncertain they are that they have measured what they hoped to measure.

Given this, what can you do as you read the paper, listen to the news, scroll through your news feed.  I sense that two extremes are likely–believing thoroughly what is written or rejecting psych research as a fraud. I would encourage a third way, Perhaps say “That’s interesting.  Tell me more. And let’s watch how this plays out over the years to see if it has legs.”  That might be less satisfying than just accepting or rejecting the story.  But it is also likely more in keeping with what we know. And it can help to cultivate something that I personally find compelling–a sense of wonder.

Would you eat your pet?

Well, would you? If you were not vegetarian, if the pet had died of natural causes, if you had received assurance from a veterinarian that it was healthy, and if you had a nice barbeque sauce for it?

If you are like my students you almost certainly said “NOOO!”


That’s the interesting question.  Can you articulate a reason?  Did you articulate that reason and conclude logically from that reason that you should answer “NOOO!”?  When I ask my students I generally get to the point at which they say “I don’t know why, but it just feels wrong!”  This is much the answer Jon Haidt has gotten, and I cribbed the example from him.

Haidt’s view is that in many cases our moral judgment is intuitive. We have a gut sense that something is wrong and we then come up with reasons to justify the gut sense.  So we might say “but it might not be healthy to eat Rover” but when upon hearing that the vet assures us, and we believe it would be healthy we still think “NOOO!”  Perhaps much of our moral life is driven by our gut sense and our subsequent efforts to justify our gut sense.  Our lofty moral explanations, then, are often just stories we tell ourselves so we don’t feel like idiots with strong moral intuitions not grounded in reason.

Haidt suggests that we have five (ok, now it’s six, but the link below focuses on the older version) foundations from which arise these moral judgments.  Is there harm?  Is it fair?  Does it obey authority?  Does it violate loyalty to the person’s group?  Does it violate purity/sanctity?

Much of his work suggests that conservatives are driven by all five foundations whereas liberals are driven mostly by harm and fairness.  Thus liberals often do not understand conservatives’ moral judgments because they don’t value those other three foundations (authority/loyalty/sanctity).  And both liberals and conservatives often work from intuitions but hold forth publicly using the stories they tell themselves, which are not the real reasons for their moral judgment (“It would be unhealthy!  Oh, it would be healthy?  Well, I still think it would be wrong. Give me some time to figure out why!”)  And so we have really awful public discussions of moral decisions in which we understand neither our own basis for morality, nor that of others, and we at best struggle to see the other as someone who is neither a dolt nor evil.

The linked piece (below, from Bloomberg) cites some new research suggesting that liberals might actually use those other three dimensions after all.  For instance, if someone paints an arrow on a mountain it evokes in liberal mountain climbers a reaction like that arising in conservatives who see an arrow painted on an American flag.  This seems not to be due to harm to the mount, but more a sense that the mountain is sacred and the paint a violation.  Similarly are there authorities whom liberals feel should be obeyed (environmentalists, for instance), such that it is only conservative authorities liberals do not think should be obeyed?  In his wonderful initial TED talk Haidt (link below) intimated that liberals might actually value sanctity/purity (organic food!).  But I had not seen data supportive of that til these articles described in the Bloomberg piece.

Why should we care?  What if we all (liberals and conservatives alike) have intuitions about the sacred, about authorities to which we defer, about the ingroups to which we should be loyal, but what if we often are unaware of these intuitions?  Things (like eating the pet) will seem wrong to us. We will come up with stories about our reasons that are just stories, not the real reasons for our intuitions, and we will be appalled by the badness of others whose intuitions differ from our own.  As McArdle (below) puts it: “Coming at someone with utilitarian math when the problem is actually that you’ve desecrated their sacred space is a recipe for bitter and unresolvable conflict — and perhaps, for a culture war that no one is going to win.”

But what if we understood ourselves to see some things as sacred, even if we do not fully understand what those are, even if we think at some level that “sacred” is just a superstitious idea?  Perhaps we could understand, at least a little, others who have views of the sacred as well.  Perhaps we could talk to them about the sacred, rather than about harm (when their intuition is about the sacred).  Perhaps then our disagreements will be less sulfurous.

Postscript: I find Haidt’s work beautiful to reflect upon.  How were my moral intuitions formed?  Likely they developed long ago and I often lack the language to articulate those morals.  How might I shape my intuitions to be somewhat more in line with my reason?  I do not have an empirical answer to that question.  But perhaps by reading moral philosophers and moral theologians with both an intention to be open and the knowledge that I am in some ways a stranger to myself.

You know nothing about causality, Jon Snow! (Psych favorites, post 2)

(2nd in my series of most important things to know about or from psychology)

Psychologists study why people do what they do.  They know almost nothing about why people do what they do.

Today I’ll write about tive problems in inferring cause.  1) We mistake correlation for cause.  2) We forget that actions can have more consequences than the ones we study.  3) We study linear causes when people are embedded in systems. 4) It’s really hard to study a lot of possible causes. 5) We reason backwards from effect to cause.  This piece ran long, so I numbered them if you want to skip ahead.

1) The amount of ice cream consumed on a given day is correlated with the number of homicides on that day. So eating ice cream makes people homicidal, right?  You of course know better.  Killing people makes people crave ice cream!  We had it backwards.  Or perhaps a third way of looking at this is better.  Hot days prompt both ice cream consumption and homicides.  You know correlation is not cause, so hopefully you followed this example.  You know that we need to do experiments (manipulating one variable and holding the others constant) to determine if something is a cause.  If you want to know if eating ice cream causes homicides have some people eat ice cream and others not and see if innocent bystanders are more likely to die at the hands of the former.  I’m no longer IRB Chair, so I don’t even have to review your study for its ethics!

But do you remember to question whether those headlines you read in the news about cause are based on correlations rather than experiments?  You should.  For instance, one British study found that 40% of press releases exaggerated the meaning of the studies they described, with confusion of correlation and cause one common problem.  I just went to the Washington Post health/science site and found a piece from only 12 hours with this: “How much money people have to fork over when they go to the doctor can make a big difference in how satisfied they are with their health plan, a recent study suggests.”  Those with more out of pocket costs were less satisfied, and this reads like they know cause and effect, right? But did the costs actually “make a big difference”?  Who knows?  It’s not an experiment.  It could be that something makes people choose plans with more out of pocket costs and separately makes them less satisfied with their care.  (Income?)  We can’t know from the study as described.

With the election coming up you will see lots of statements from politicians about how what they propose will cause particular outcomes. Reflect on how many of these are backed by experiments.  Without that why should you buy into their predictions?

2) Actions have multiple effects.  If I buy a donut I not only end up with a donut but also with less cash in my wallet.  But science is often conducted by measuring only one outcome, for instance, counting the donuts I have after the purchase but not the shortage of cash.  Consider research on treatments for depression.  You will find experiments (studying a bunch of different treatments!) with reasonably good control groups.  You will see that the treatment affects depression. What you won’t see is an examination of all the other variables that might also be affected by the treatment.  For instance, might drug treatments for depression both reduce depression symptoms and also create other unwanted effects?

This strikes me as particularly problematic when the unwanted effects are difficult to measure.  One of the prime examples of this is the misguided (to my mind) emphasis on high stakes testing.  Folks with a very reasonable concern (how do we know kids are learning?) introduce testing so they can see if learning actually does increase.  But what other effects might high stakes testing have?  Might it lead to teaching to the test so that other things (like learning wonder, cooperation, and survival tactics for boredom) fall by the wayside?  Might some treatments for psychological disorder cause short term improvement at long term cost?  Might some forms of bucking up support for our favorite political candidate help win an election but also undermine the long term survival of democracy?  Might sparing people from challenge today leave them helpless a year from now?

Next time you read an article reporting that an experiment shows that X causes Y ask yourself what the Z’s might be that X also causes but that might not have been studied.

3) Have you ever left home, changed yourself, then returned home to find yourself returning to your old ways?  If so, this hints a the powers of systems, of the ecologies in which we live.  Psychology prizes (for many good reasons) experiments that involve manipulating X and looking at the consequences.  It is the way we get at cause.  But we only study people for so long, then they return to their homes.  So we might via experiment find a great way to get someone to give up alcohol off at our secluded treatment center. But when they return home their sobriety has a consequence-friends desert them!  And this serves to bring people back to the drink.  People live in a web of causes that can tend to hold things in balance.  Push on one factor and other factors will subsequently push back to return things to the status quo ante.  Lasting change might be better served by understanding this.

How much has our emphasis on the experiment caused a picture of the human that misses the centrality of our complete ecology?

4) If we can only know about cause through experiments then the set of causes of human behavior that we will know will be those causes that are easily manipulated.  If you want to know if going to college actually has an effect on something you need to randomly assign some people to go to college and others not, then look for the difference. This is insanely hard so I really have no clue if college actually causes good outcomes.  (Sorry if I just cost a lot of colleges tuition money!)  And I live my life understanding that I do not actually know if I am helping or hurting my students.   I can’t do the experiment.

Perhaps a treatment for X that takes 2 years will be much more effective than a treatment that only takes 2 months.  But you could only find out if you could do a study that actually delivers 2 years of treatment. Good luck with that! It will often be enormously expensive and logistically excruciating a study that takes that long.

How much does this limitation of science shape our understanding of what can cause good outcomes?  You have before you the rest of your life. You could imagine embarking on an experiment with it to see what happens.  How could I tell you that the life path you choose helps or hurts?  The experiment can’t be done.

5) Often the question we have is why something happened. The science can often only tell you what some causes of a given outcome are.  We can say that blowing up a thermonuclear device within fifty feet of you causes bad things for your health.  But just because your health is bad does not mean that you just had a thermonuclear device go off nearby.  We can speculate about the things that caused us to be where we are now, but it will mostly just be speculation.

People want to know why relationships ended (or thrived!), why jobs are lost (or found!), why their children are learning (or slumping).  While we know some factors that affect relationships, jobs, and children, it is awfully difficult to know about what in the history of a particular person has been an important cause.

6) A concluding thought.

All of this (and more!) says that most of what I would like to know about why people do what they do I cannot know.  Paraphrasing Gleitman (I think), psychology consists of small islands of coherence in a vast sea of chaos.

And in this I come to one of the main stories of psychology.  I have before me a choice.  I can pretend to know things I do not.  Or I can despair from knowing how little I know.  Or I can understand the limits of what I know and then act, knowing the act is at least to some degree a leap of faith.  What do we think of “faith” in modern America?  My sense is that we value certainty, instead.  Might understanding the limits of what we can know about people, and noticing that our actions then are leaps of faith rather than acts born of certainty help us find new appreciation for that word “faith?” And new tolerance of ourselves and others when our actions do not bring us to the verdant pastures we sought?

And for the field of psychology–can we neither claim more than we know nor despair in that which we do not know, but rather do the next study, in the faith that our collective enterprise will turn those small islands of coherence into somewhat larger ones?