Monday, October 14, 2013

Is Social Psychology Best Left Unstudied?

Is love fair game for science? Or, is it a sacred mystery that we should not try too hard to understand?

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Is Social Psychology Best Left Unstudied?

The late U.S. Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin criticized the work of two prominent social psychologists when he stated that, "Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right at the top of things we don’t want to know is why a man and a woman fall in love." Are there some things in life best left unstudied?

Proxmire, pork, and passionate prudishness
With all due respect, Senator Proxmire was a windy old curmudgeon who bragged that he was fired from his first job for impertinence and was fondly eulogized as being a maverick. His personal integrity, however, was reflected by a record 10,252 consecutive roll call votes across twenty-two years of public service. Proxmire took pride in lampooning wasteful “pork barrel” government spending and was notorious for giving “Golden Fleece” awards to many pork appropriations (with the notable exception of dairy supports in his home state of Wisconsin). The quotation, above, refers to his very first Golden Fleece, which went for $84,000 given to the National Science Foundation in 1975 for the study of “Why a man and a woman fall in love.” He should be forgiven a little hyperbole.

Under the circumstances,
I whole-heartedly support Sen. Proxmire’s position, at least to the extent that public federal funds, at that time, may well have been best committed to more-pragmatic needs. In any event, by 1975, a generation of beatnicks and hippies had succeeded in establishing, to their own satisfaction, that spontaneous free love was better than traditional falling in love and marriage. And, on that point, I’m happy to report that I fell in love with and married an ex guitar playing, protest singing, hippy chick. We are delighted with our commitment, as are a large percentage of aging ex-hippies and windy old curmudgeons like me.

I do not agree that falling in love is best left unstudied. I would be hard put to imagine anything (permitted by modern ethical review boards) that should not be fair game for scientific consideration. Curiosity leads to investigation, which leads to knowledge, which leads to wisdom, which leads to better personal decisions, which lead to better interpersonal relationships, which lead to better communities, which lead to better cultures, which lead to better societies, which just might, with any luck, save the world. And, that is what Social Psychology is all about, so let’s rock on. Do I hear an “amen?”

On Further Reflection
The idea of scientists studying love has a wrong “feel” to it. The problem is not right out there on top and obvious, but there is a visceral alienness to the concept that makes one recoil from the proposition. It’s like your adolescent child assuring you that if you let him take the cat apart he promises to put it back together again, or hearing someone explain the joys of peering at the starry heavens through the vacuum cleaner.

The core of the issue is that, although we rarely stop to analyze things so carefully, we know that there are different ways of looking at things. For instance, pronouns can be singular, plural, indefinite, relative, and more, but who but Miss Thompkins in Senior English really cares to formally sort it out?

Sometimes, it helps to sort things out systematically. Follow me; this is going somewhere. Consider dividing thought into internal and external points of view and also dividing points of reference into singular and plural:

  • Internal/Singular (I/S) refers to “I”–everything about your internal subjective experience of yourself including your feelings, thoughts, sensations, emotions, values, and opinions.
  • External/Singular (E/S) refers to “It”–everything about one’s objective observations of his or her environment. These observed objects can be measured for quantity or quality. This is the singular domain and focus of science.
  • Internal/Plural (I/P) refers to “We”–everything that the group you identify with holds as true, just, and beautiful. This is the place of families, villages, tribes, and nations—as far as you have expanded to identify as “like me.” This is the area of culture.
  • External/Plural (E/P) refers to “Them” or “Its”—everything that is outside of what you identify as “like us.” This is the area of societies. We somehow have to get along with groups that are not like us.

Now, sex, love and romantic relationships forms a very messy hybrid concept that that spreads out through all four of the above quadrants. It is a strange and wonderful, dynamic; it develops and operates in additional dimensions beyond these four starter quadrants.
  • I/S includes your breathless wonder, and compelling desire to give.
  • E/S includes the sight of the sun sparkling in their hair and the fit of your lips when you kiss.
  • I/P includes your group’s attitudes about appropriate matches and standards of beauty.
  • E/P includes how you’re going to get along with your partner’s crazy uncle Larry, just back from fifteen years living with penguins.
On the other hand, science wants to look at and measure very clean and well-defined things. The ideal experiment reduces its observations down to a single independent variable. By the time science has isolated the species of fungus growing on a tree’s rootlets, it has totally lost its ability to observe the dynamics of multi-year rain cycles. Now, you want to use science to study social behavior?

I do, in fact, believe that there is a place for scientific study of social behavior. Our Internal/Singular processes filter everything through an unruly mass of previous experiences and interpretations. Our mental filters leave us frequently incompetent to make consistently accurate judgments.

The place of Social Psychology is to inform our filters so that our everyday lives, including romantic relationships, can be conducted from knowledge rather than ignorance and prejudice. We simply need to be aware of the limits of scientific inquiry so we can choose to apply its revelations appropriately.

David Satterlee