(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. http://www.nature.com/news/study-points-to-press-releases-as-sources-of-hype-1.16551 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?
In addition to periodic reports of new findings I am going to write a series of posts on some of what I believe to be the most important things to know about or from psychology. I will start with some of what psychology can and cannot do, then turn to some specific findings. This is the first of these posts.
I have taught introductory psychology for over a quarter century. Many students take the course to discover the meaning of life, to decide why they should get out of bed each morning.
My first class meeting I tell students that we can’t answer their question. It’s not our job. They should turn to philosophy or theology (or perhaps the Hitchhiker’s Guide) if they want an answer to the question of the meaning of life.
To understand this is to understand what psychology does. A rough definition is that psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes. Some might shorten this to the study of behavior given that mental processes are just one sort of behavior. People do things. We run laps and research studies, go to concerts and through existential crises, walk dogs and yoyos, watch leaves change and The West Wing, fall in love and in the pit…and I could go on. Psychology can describe what some of these things are that people do. (As I write this my behavior could be defined by the movements of my fingers, by my construction of words, by my attempt to write a cogent essay, by my attempt to lead a good life, and so on. How shall we describe it?) It can then talk about factors that help us or hinder us in these actions. (It’s easier to type with none of my fingers in a splint, and it’s easier to be cogent if I am not severely sleep deprived.) Causes can be explored at many levels. (What chemicals are doing what in my brain? Who just walked down the hall outside my office? What is my intention? What were my surroundings growing up?)
None of that description and explanation of behavior says a whit about why we should get out of bed in the morning, or more generally what the meaning of life is. To answer that question you have to have a concept of the “good.” Psychology can certainly describe what people think “good” is. (Human sacrifice? Veganism? Total immersion in politics? Excitement? Tranquility? Watching Silence of the Lambs?) We can tell you who has the most popular definition at any given moment. But we cannot tell you which definition is the right one.
Not our job. Not doable by our methods. How could it be? We can describe, including description of cause. That’s it. I like the comparison to auto mechanics. They can describe cars very well. They can make them work because they understand an important subset of the causes involved in being a car that travels. But a mechanic can’t tell you why you should prefer to drive to New Mexico vs. New York. Well, I guess they can, but why on earth should you privilege their answers over the answers of others?
I think about this a lot as I teach my course on Psychology of Happiness. At some level I cannot even say what happiness is, at least not as a psychologist. Is happiness leading a pleasurable life? (I am drinking a nice oolong tea as I write this.) Is it being deeply engaged in what one is doing? (As I wrote that sentence I suddenly realized how focused I had been on writing this.) Is it doing something meaningful? (I find meaning in sharing with others that beauty of psychology that I know.) Different people give different definitions. Who am I to judge who has the best?
We do not train psychologists to understand the meaning of life. We don’t have the skills to do that. Nonetheless, my sense is that it is to psychologists that people turn.
If you want to decide where to drive this summer read about different locations. Talk to those whose tastes are like yours. Reflect on your life and your values. I’d recommend any of those over talking to a random auto mechanic.
If you want to understand the meaning of life read some philosophy. Read some theology. Reflect. Once you have a definition you might learn some psychology to help you get to the end that you desire.
Imagine you are at the beach on a sunny day and a friend offers to pick up a beer and bring it back to you. How much would you pay? How do you make the decision? Does the amount you would pay depend on whether it comes from a grocery store or an expensive resort? Does it depend on how much money you make?
In an April Psych Science paper, Shah, Shafir, and Mullainathan describe a bunch of studies with more than 4000 subjects. Across a variety of tasks those who were poor (whether in money or time) were more likely to make their decisions based on tradeoffs (“If I buy the beer there’s something else I can’t buy…”), and so were more likely to be unaffected by frame (so, for instance, they will pay the same for the beer whether it is from a grocery store or a resort). Wealthy people do not report thinking in terms of tradeoffs and they are willing to pay more for the beer from the resort than the grocery store.
The paper focuses on the implications for economics. “Economics makes concrete predictions about how preferences should unfold, whereas psychology and behavioral economics have identified several ways in which those predictions break down. Economics makes those predictions because it is built on the (correct) assumption that humans navigate a world of scarcity and regularly make tradeoffs. Remarkably, however, when people experience sufficient abundance, those trade-offs recede from attention.”
I wonder about which factors bring about or alleviate a scarcity mentality. I study gratitude, and one part of the practice of gratitude seems to be recalling that our lives are abundant. Take a second to recall the last hour or day. What good things have happened? How full is your life when you stop to think about it? Would the practice of gratitude reduce scarcity effects? I just did a PsycInfo search and found no studies on this. (“Gratitude” and “scarcity” produced only 6 hits, none on topic.)
But if gratitude reduces scarcity effects that would seem to make people less rational in an economic sense. But…gratitude seems to be good for us. (The evidence is yet young so I’m not entirely convinced. See my chapter with Courtney Forbes for more detail. Still, it looks promising.) How does one reconcile this? Is economic irrationality good for us?
I’m not sure what I think, and I suspect my thoughts are at this point incoherent. I’m mostly just curious. But perhaps it says something about what rationality is when there is real scarcity (when, for instance,it is unclear where the next meal will come from) as opposed to rationality when there is abundance (when, for instance, we might focus on the needs of others, since our own are met).
Here in the US we live in one of the wealthiest countries in history, yet the psychology in which so many of us live seems one of scarcity. How much does that lead us to think in terms of specific tradeoffs (if I pay too much for this beer I won’t be able to buy lunch), and how much does it lead us not to think in other ways (the cost of the beer is just not that important to me–what is more important in my life?)
Here is a link to a piece on the Shah et al. article. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150212131828.htm
Are you reading this as you eat? If so, how much are you enjoying your food?
I’m returning home from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) convention and one of the talks, by Colorado’s Joanna Arch, was on mindfulness and eating. She has had people eat just one of something (in two studies a raisin, in the third a chocolate chip), five times, with two or three minute breaks in between. During the breaks subjects search for words in a jumble. Some are given mindfulness instructions (like the raisin exercise for those who know it). Others are given no instructions or instructions to keep working in the word search as they eat. The mindfulness exercise leads to more enjoyment of the food. In the third study subjects could then eat as much as they wanted of six foods (pretzels, M & M’s, potato chips, carrot sticks..I’ve forgotten the others), as a “thanks” since they had fasted for three hours. Those who had eaten mindfully now ate less of the salty, sugary, and high-fat foods, but just as much of the “healthy” (e.g., carrot sticks) food. So mindfulness both increased enjoyment of tasty food and reduced the amount of eating.
Perhaps slowing down as we eat will help us to enjoy the food before us and, despite this increased enjoyment, eat less of it.
I imagine the “eating less” could happen in various ways….perhaps there’s less of a need after mindfulness. Perhaps there is more intentionality. Perhaps some of the not eating is aversive. (“I love this food, but it’s scary, and I’m paying attention now, so I realize it’s scary.”) So there’s more more work to be done. But the increased enjoyment seems consistent and reasonable. And I very much like the idea that attention to that which we have before us will help us feel sated and content, and lead us to chase most after that which we really need in the moment rather than consuming without even knowing it.
If those who give you things do not have free will why be grateful to them? In a piece published in November’s Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, MacKenzie, Vohs, and Baumeister addressed this question with several studies, including three experiments. For instance, in one study some subjects read a modified passage from Crick, including “Everything people are and do is the product of simple, physical processes in their brain.” and “There is no need for the existence of free will to explain how we behave.” Others read a piece in favor of free will, such as “Everything people are and do is mostly a product of the decisions they make and their free will.” Afterwards they were told they would have to do a really, really tedious task. But then they found out they would not have to. Those who had read the Crick beforehand were less grateful for being relieved of this obligation. In another study with this same manipulation those who read the Crick reported they would be less grateful to a hypothetical stranger who gave them change when they did not have enough money. This seems to be due to a reduction in the belief that the benefactor has free will and so a reduction in the belief that the motivations of the benefactor are sincere.
Reducing ourselves to our brains seems to reduce the inclination to be grateful. (I wish I’d known of these studies when I wrote my chapter with Courtney Forbes!)
Meanwhile in a paper in October’s Psychological Science, Twenge, Campbell, and Carter examined responses to the General Social Survey from 1972 to the present. They focused on the degree to which people think others can be trusted. Sadly the years with the most trust were 1972-1992. Every year since there has been less trust than that first 21 years, with the lowest trust in 2006. This decline is not due to birth cohort, but older people do tend to trust others more than younger.
I wonder if these two findings are related. The reflexive use of “the brain” to explain behavior seems to me to be on the rise, though I don’t have good data. (Someone needs to do some content analyses of explanations to see if this is so!) More and more I find myself needing to explain to students how it can be that I can teach a full semester of introductory psychology without relying on any real discussion of the brain. (There have been wonderful advances in neuroscience. Those are discussed in other courses.) Have we created, here in America, a culture in which people turn naturally to the idea that what they do is caused by their brains? A place where the solutions to life’s problems is found in creative pharmacology? By emphasizing neuroscience have we made people less inclined to turn to the idea of free will?
And if so, does that turn from the idea of free will diminish social capital such as trust? Given the importance of gratitude for social relationships, has the loss of a sense of free will eroded not only trust but the gratitude that leads people, in Sara Algoe’s words, to “find, bind, and remind,” that is, to identify, tie ourselves to, and remember those who are trustworthy relationship partners?
I don’t know the answer to these last questions, though I suspect in each case it is “yes.” If so, how can we foster a culture that emphasizes multiple levels of causality? One that can simultaneously marvel at advances in understanding of the brain and think of those factors that act upon the brain as also of causal importance. Including our freely made choices.
This isn’t a psychology post. It’s about being a professor.
One of my favorite courses as an undergrad was Science Fiction, taught by the late Professor Frank McConnell. One of our required readings was Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I just finished rereading a couple nights ago. As an undergrad I knew I was supposed to value this book, so I sort of did, and certainly said I did. And I remember bits and pieces of the book from my first read. It had some impact even then. But I took so, so much more from my reading this time than I did back those decades ago when I first took the course.
My first class meeting of the year is just over 48 hours away, and I’m wondering what my experience with Professor McConnell has to say to my own efforts as a professor. Perhaps one useful distinction is between teaching my students knowledge of psychology and planting the seeds of love of learning, of love of psychology, of love of the life of the mind. Day after day I’ll try to get students to understand detail. And I’ll evaluate their work in large part based on their ability to master that detail. These details will fade from their memories. I remember very few details from my time as an undergrad, and I don’t see why my students will be different. As a student it’s easy to understand this and to wonder about the point of it all. Why learn detail that will be forgotten? And in that state of mind I think being a student is very hard, very easily filled with a sense of pointlessness.
But here I am decades later, remembering that course. Professor McConnell loved this book. He loved the way it was crafted. He loved the language. He manifested that love in his presentation of detail. I can still recall him reading aloud the last paragraph of Leibowitz. I didn’t really get what he loved, but I got that he loved. On one level the details were the substance of the class. But in important ways those details might be better thought of as seeds, planting love of reading fiction. He scattered many seeds. He tested, as I recall, on grasp of those seeds. Most of those seeds probably did not fall on fertile ground when they found me, but a few did, and in important ways that was enough. His love of the material, manifest in these seeds, made me want to read more attentively. I came to understand that there was more in the books I read than I had known, even as I was unaware of what that “more” was.
When I evaluated this course I certainly didn’t know that I would still be thinking of it decades later. I am confident my recent delighted reread of Leibowitz did not factor into Northwestern’s evaluations of whether Professor McConnell was a good teacher! At the end of the semester I don’t know how he could have discerned that I would reread this book. Perhaps he could not even have discerned my increased love of fiction. But I wonder if that’s what he would have wished to assess. What did he want to accomplish as a professor? That I remember particular details of particular books and have the ability to think meaningfully about those details? Or that I carry forward a love of looking at and thinking about new details in new (and old!) books?
I can’t speak for him, but I know for myself that I want the latter, or the equivalent of it, for my students. I have no way to assess that directly. (Well I could come back decades from now to see what their lives are like, but that seems a bit daunting.) And so I have to live with the fact that at the end of this term I won’t know if I’ve done a good job, and I probably never will. The only option I can think of is to shrink my goals to something much smaller, something I can know about at the end of the term. But in shrinking the goal what would be lost?
What’s the purpose of higher education? I’m going to quote from Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What it was, is, and should be. “About a hundred years ago, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, John Alexander Smith, got to the nub of the matter. “Gentlemen,” he said to the incoming class (the students were all men it those days), “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life–save only this–that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.” Americans prefer a two-syllable synonym, bullshit, for the one-syllable Anglicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter. It’s a technology that will never become obsolete.”
I think this is what I took from Professor McConnell’s course. Perhaps it is better expressed in a slightly different way. I draw this quote, too, from Delbanco’s book. “,,,I once heard my colleague Judith Shapiro, former provost of Bryn Mawr and then president of Barnard, make [the following comment] to a group of young people about what they should expect from college: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.””
The trend in higher education is to reductionism, to measuring detail, to review progress toward narrowly defined learning outcomes. And those surely matter, but I suspect they only matter insofar as they are tied to something larger, and the attention to detail, to learning objectives, can draw attention from that which is more important. Mon ami, Professor McConnell helped me make the inside of my head an interesting place to be, May I keep my eyes on this prize as I teach this term.
A sidenote–Science Fiction has 600 students when I took it. There’s a trend in higher ed away from the lecture, and surely there are virtues to other forms of education. But my life would be so much poorer absent this particular lecture course, and so I hope they always retain a space in higher ed. If you’re interested in learning more about Professor McConnell, here’s a remembrance of him. A good quote: “There he wrote as he spoke–in a voice that combined the stand-up comic and the smart friend who just wanted you to like what he liked.”
I have been copying posts from my old blog site. This is the last I will copy over, from 2012. Copying into WordPress is not easy and so there will be formatting issues, I am sure. Thanks for bearing with.
What's your greatest weakness, that thing or action about which you most feel shame, guilt, or other badness? Now...can you speak to yourself about it with compassion? If so, what are you then inclined to do? This morning, I read a beautiful set of four studies by Berkeley's Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The common thread was to have people think about a weakness or an action that they had done and found, well, shameful. They then asked people to express compassion and kindness to themselves. The control groups were terrific. One was a standard "do nothing" control. The other typically involved thinking of a strength or something participants were proud of. Seems like a natural thing for us to do when we've messed up--think of something else, something good about us to make us feel better. Afterwards, those who had been compassionate toward themselves were more inclined to self-improvement than were those who had thought about something that made them proud, or who had done nothing. In the first study, self-compassion bolstered the belief that the weakness about which people had written was changeable. In the second, the compassionate wanted more to make reparations to the person they had harmed and avoid doing the harm again. In the third, they studied more before taking a follow-up test on which they had initially done badly. In the last, they were more likely to want information about someone else who had had their own weakness, but had overcome it (vs. someone else who simply had the same weakness). We live in a culture that seems to value perfection, so it is so tempting to serve up the illusion of perfection. But we are creatures of light and darkness...we often do that which we would not. And if we are to be perfect in the sense of complete, then surely acknowledging, with kindness, that from which we are tempted to run is necessary. How else can we make the most of the gifts which we have been given?