Discover more from Experimental History
Psychology is experimental history
To study humans, try bothering them.
[This is a rebroadcast of one of my earliest posts, and it’s the story of how this blog got its name. This time with audio!]
Turn on the TV and you’ll see psychologists: In Treatment, Lie to Me, Criminal Minds, Mindhunter, The Sopranos. Go on the internet and you’ll see psychologists: of the top 25 most-viewed TED talks of all time, five are by psychologists (seven if you count psychiatrists and neuroscientists). Go to college and you’ll see psychologists: 60% of college students take Psych 101. Of course, to get there, you’ll have to take psychological tests: the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, or Sorting Hat.
Talk to humans and you’ll hear words psychologists made up: cognitive dissonance, implicit bias, emotional intelligence, grit, growth mindset, stereotype threat, extraversion, nudges, confirmation bias, and groupthink, not to mention the alphabet soup of diagnoses (ADHD, OCD, PTSD), and the Freudian classics (ego, repression, anal fixation). Visit Google, Apple, Amazon, or Facebook and you’ll find psychologists tinkering with the tools that govern our lives.
Psychology is successful because people are naturally more interested in what’s going on in their minds than what’s going on in their small intestines. We fall in love with humans, give birth to them, work for them, vote for them, buy things from them, and sometimes get killed by them, so understanding them a little better seems like a good use of time. (Whether psychologists deserve all this attention or use it wisely is a separate question.)
Yet most people don’t really understand what psychologists do. I rediscover this every time someone at a party asks me what I do and I have to explain what I don’t do: I’m a psychologist but I don’t treat patients, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with their mother, and I can’t prescribe them anything. When I tell people that I spent much of the past five years asking study participants to have conversations and then asking them when they wanted those conversations to end, they don’t know what to do with me. (Studying when conversations end makes me a real hit at parties.) “So, uh, what…what do you learn from that?” they ask before gently drifting away to talk to someone else. This isn’t just because I’m a social psychologist rather than a clinical psychologist; my clinical colleagues don’t have much more success explaining that they’re writing a statistical package that calculates bridge centrality, or that they’re collecting data on “finstagrams.”
I don’t blame them. I didn’t begin to understand what psychologists do until I started doing it myself. In high school, I played pretend chemist by making green fire with barium and a Bunsen burner. I played pretend biologist by collecting lots of potato bugs and putting them in a jar; I forget what we were supposed to learn from this, but a lot of potato bugs died. I played pretend mathematician by proving you can solve a triangle if you know the length of two sides and the angle between them. I played pretend historian by reading Anne Frank’s diary, pretend author by writing a poem, pretend politician by running for student council.
But I never got a chance to play pretend psychologist. Even when I took Psych 101, I learned things like “Wilhelm Wundt made the first psychology lab” and on the exam it asked “Who made the first psychology lab” and I had to say “Wilhelm Wundt.” Surprisingly, this doesn’t come up often in my work today.
Psychology is such a powerful force in our lives that we ought to understand what it is and how it works. I’d like to offer an explanation. I ought to warn you that some of my colleagues may not agree with it, and while I’m making a case to you, I also want to make a case to them. It goes like this: psychology is experimental history.
PSYCHOLOGY TELLS STORIES
History is the attempt to tell true stories about humans. Historians hope to answer big questions by picking the right subjects and researching them carefully: What caused World War I? How did humans invent penicillin? Was Suleiman the Magnificent really all that magnificent?
Psychology is also the attempt to tell true stories about humans. We hope to answer big questions by picking the right subjects and researching them carefully, but instead of waiting for stories to happen, we create them. We construct situations, place humans inside them, and record what happens.
Sometimes the situations are very simple, like giving the participant a vignette to read. Sometimes the situations are clever little plays, like convincing the participant that someone in the next room is having a heart attack. In most psychological research, however, psychologists cause people to do something that they would not have done otherwise, even if it’s just answering a question. That is, psychologists make experimental history.
The base unit of mass is the kilogram, the base unit of length is the meter, and the base unit of history is the story. (That’s why “history” is just “story” with a little greeting tacked on the front). The base unit of psychology is also the story. Read the methods section of any psychology paper and you will find people doing things at times in places––stories. And it has to be that way. Humans are not hydrogen atoms; each one is different. Situations cannot be brought to standard temperature and pressure; each one is different. The interaction of humans and situations produces stories as inexorably as the interaction of elements produces mass: these people did this thing in this situation.
We call lots of things “stories” these days so to be clear: the stories I’m talking about are literal accounts of what people did, the stuff that populates methods and results sections. You know that’s where the action is because nobody will ever remember anything else. (Anyone recall the introduction to the Milgram shock studies?) Everything surrounding the story is exposition, exegesis, or salesmanship.
Of course, you don’t have to be a psychologist to make stories. Doctors might assign some patients to get a real pill or a placebo, economists might send some people a wad of cash but not others, and urban planners might turn an intersection into a roundabout to see if it unclogs traffic. These all produce stories. However, you can do medicine, economics, and urban planning without writing stories about people––you might be fiddling around with E. coli or measuring GDP or trying to figure out whether rerouting a river will flood a neighborhood. But it’s nearly impossible to do psychology without bothering somebody, and the moment you do, you’ve made experimental history.
STORIES TELL US PSYCHOLOGY
Looking at psychology as a series of stories helps us make sense of what psychologists do all day. It also helps us see where it’s all going: psychology progresses by collecting stories and figuring out which ones go together.
For example, psychologists have long reported stories of people making weird mistakes when judging and choosing. When asked how much money they’d donate to save some oil-spill-soaked birds, the people who were asked about 2,000 birds pledged just as much money as the people who were asked about 20,000 birds. People thought there were more words that start with “r” than have “r” in the third position, even though there are way more of the latter. When people were asked to flip over cards to test a possible rule about what’s printed on each side, they tended to only flip over cards that confirmed the rule rather than disconfirmed it.
Eventually all these stories got stapled together into a chapter called “Heuristics and Biases,” which is all about how people have ways of solving problems that usually work but also cause systematic mistakes. Reading these stories together made us realize that some of those problem-solving hacks work the same way and happen for the same reason, allowing us to combine lots of the stories and save some space. That’s progress!
The other way that stories can signal progress is that we start telling them in the present tense instead of the past tense. “People are slower to read the word BLUE when it is printed in red ink.” “People like their team better than the other team, even when the teams are made up.” “People judge the frequency of events by how easily they come to mind.” This verbal creep may let us forget, but these were once stories we told in the past tense about specific people at specific times. We’ve just heard these stories about enough people at enough times to not feel embarrassed about talking about all people at all times. We can shift our conjugation prematurely, of course, but if we change to the present tense and find that we’re not proven wrong, we’ve learned two things: this story is important enough that people keep telling it, and it doesn’t seem depend too much on who the characters are or where it takes place. That’s a story worth keeping in our Big Book of Stories and that, too, is progress. But you’ll miss it if you don’t realize psychology is the production, collection, and curation of stories.
THE HUNT FOR A GOOD STORY
If we approach psychology as a series of stories, we can ask an interesting question: what makes a good story in psychology?
Psychological stories are supposed to be nonfiction, so frauds and falsehoods are out. So are stories that don’t include enough people to be trustworthy, which is why we measure things with numbers and apply statistics to know whether people in one situation really did something different from people in another situation, or whether it might have been chance.
Good true stories focus on people doing things. It may seem hard to tell any other kind of story, but it’s surprisingly easy to kill off all the human characters in a story and replace them with abstractions. When we do this with history, we spot how boring it is right away:
“Previous scholars said the Renaissance began in the 15th century, but it really began in the 14th century”
“The year 1972 marks the beginning of an era called New Modernity”
“The Delian League was the first true nation”
These stories make us yawn because they’re not about people doing things. Nations, eras, and the Renaissance make poor protagonists because they lack everything that makes humans interesting: they don’t have faces or foibles, they don’t love or lose, they can’t be your friends.
When it comes to history, even us non-historians have a good sense of what’s interesting. But for some reason we don’t apply that sense to psychology, because we replace humans with abstractions in psychology all the time. Here are some snippets of stories you might encounter in psych journals:
“Previous literature said depression has six symptoms, but it actually has seven”
“Self-efficacy moderates the link between performance desire and performance”
“Ego depletion exists”
These may sound complicated and science-y, but if you bulldoze the abstractions and excavate the people buried underneath, these stories would read:
“When people said they felt depressed, they did and felt these other things”
“The people who did well were the people who both wanted to do well and thought they could”
“When people forced themselves to do stuff, they eventually got tired”
Now it’s clear what these stories are about, and it’s clear that they’re all pretty boring. This is why thinking about stories is so important: replacing people with abstractions makes it hard to tell when a story is any good.
Good stories should also tell us something important, and we know an important story when we see one because it makes us feel something. Important stories excite us, anger us, or get us to pick up our phone and call our senator. When I read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I felt outraged that people could ever own other people, optimistic that people can find clever ways to escape even the worst circumstances, and worried that this story does not feel as distant in history as it should. Apparently it makes other people feel things too, because we’re still reading it nearly 200 years later.
Psychology can also make people feel things. The Milgram shock studies are some of the most important stories psychology has to offer (and the most misunderstood, as I’ve written recently). Normal people entered a room and a few minutes later, at the direction of a white-coated researcher, they were electrocuting another human to death (or so they thought; it was all a ruse). That story made me feel flabbergasted that people could be induced to do such a thing just by being told it was okay and that they should. It made me feel pity for the poor unsuspecting participants who had their capacity for evil demonstrated to them. It made me feel empathy for the real people–-both those following orders and those on the receiving end of those orders––who the study was meant to allegorize. And it made me feel inspired by Milgram’s cleverness, and that’s why I became a psychologist.
TRANSMISSIONS FROM ALTERNATE TIMELINES
That’s the coolest part of these stories: we get to make them. History happens once; we’ll never know what might have been. In our experiments, however, we can create alternate timelines and compare them to our own.
For example, psychologists may not be able to figure out why World War I happened (that’s a job for the non-experimental historians), but if we put people in the right situations, we might be able to figure out why wars happen in general, and how to stop them. We might run big war games where we vary all sorts of things––how much the two sides communicate, what they know about each other, what their allies want, whether they have world-ending weapons or not, etc.––and see what happens.
Psychologists may not figure out how penicillin was discovered, but we may figure out how discoveries happen, and how to make more of them. We might randomly assign some scientists to get locked in their labs for a weekend or to go partying instead and see who comes up with better ideas afterward. We could make them apply for funding or give it out randomly. We could surround them with people from their field, make them mingle with other departments, or just leave them the hell alone.
These are stories I’d like to read! I want to be part of a field that aspires not to “run studies” or “publish papers” but to make history. It often feels like that sentiment is in short supply, but I know it’s out there because I’ve read brilliant stories like these:
People just sat there as a room filled with smoke––as long as other people (who were in on the study) didn’t react either (Latané & Darley, 1968)
People liked a colonoscopy better when the doctor just left the scope motionless in their butts for a little bit at the end vs. when the doctor simply removed it after the procedure––a less painful ending made them remember the whole experience as less painful (Kahnemann et al., 1993)
At the Olympics, bronze medalists were happier than silver medalists (Medvec, Husted, Madey & Gilovich, 1995)
People expected to feel way better after a conversation with their romantic partner vs. a stranger. But in fact, they felt just as good talking to someone they’ve never met as they did talking to the person they love the most (Dunn et al., 2007)
People preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than simply sit alone with their thoughts (Wilson et al., 2014)
Maybe stories like these are so rare because it’s hard to tell true, new stories that make people feel something. You have to think for a long time. You may have to toss out lots of stories that turn out not to be true, or that don’t make anyone feel anything, or that someone already told in the 1970s. But if you do it right, people might still be telling your stories long after you’re dead. You may change the way humans think about themselves and each other. You might earn a spot in the textbook right next to Wilhelm Wundt and the first psychology lab. Seems worth a try!