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October 17, 2016+Collin Barnes
+Open Inquiry

Why is Wonder Alien to Social Psychology?

Guest post by HXA member Collin D. Barnes, assistant professor of Psychology at Hillsdale College

In a prominent textbook that I have used with students, Michael Shermer is quoted as saying,

“I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know. I believe the truth is out there. But how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.”

I believe that the unbridled skepticism Shermer expresses is at the heart of education in social psychology and that it has given rise to a belief that what we think about ourselves and our lives together cannot be held with any confidence until objective, scientific insight into these problems is obtained. The result of taking such a stance on our knowledge in this realm is that we become thoroughly unsure of the only seat of experience available to us: ourselves. Doubt penetrates to the deepest level such that we begin to wonder if we are merely mirages, and the scientific method is seen as the sole means of reassurance that this is not the case. In consequence, the prospect of making genuine discoveries, ones that invite reverence and further inquiry, wilts because method is crowned the despot without which rescue from uncertainty is believed impossible.

Last April I attended a presentation at my college by the director of the Vatican Observatory. Brother Guy Consolmagno made no mention in his talk of the importance of doubt or skepticism to his work. It was as if these feelings were only distant shadows to his mind. What he did discuss was the experience of wonder, his own and that of visitors to his observatory who see the rings of Saturn with a telescope for the first time.

I felt this when I looked at images of Neptune as a child. Gazing at that blue giant remains to me among the more potent recipes for evoking wonder, and I gather from my professional associations that such encounters are not infrequent among physicists and that they give rise to an enthusiasm that stimulates research in vital ways.

What is telling is that I have never used this term to describe my experience as a scientist, nor have I ever personally interacted with other social psychologists who would do so. It is curious that my field is bothered today because it has failed to achieve the standards of reliable prediction and control upheld by physics (Open Science Collaboration, 2015), but that it does not recognize the absence of wonder in its work as anything to take notice of. Why has social psychology elevated the one marker of scientific accomplishment over the other?

It could, I suppose, be argued that awe-evoking discoveries are difficult to make in a discipline that addresses itself to phenomenon of such common experience, that such discoveries will emerge, for instance, the more we learn about the hidden ties between psychology and biology, or that it is simply an unreasonable standard to hold given the change in subject matter from infinite cosmos to supposedly finite persons. But I find all of these assertions dissatisfying and see no good reason why Saturn or Neptune should evoke reverence in onlookers but human beings should not.

It appears that among the best physicists, method and practice always stand in the service of a scientific spirit that is characterized by such qualities as honesty and openness, a love of free inquiry and discovery. When this relationship is reversed, the spirit dies, and with it the possibility of wonder. My position is that the relationship in social psychology has, since the beginning, been predominately, and perhaps exclusively, of this reversed kind. Scientific spirit atrophies because it does not demand one reliable technique for having insights or finding answers, and this is much too vague a position for a mindset that requires certainty to trust what it knows. Wonder dies for related reasons, because it stands as a marker for those things that surpass comprehension and mastery.

The picture I am drawing is not intended to give the impression that my colleagues go about wringing their hands in perpetual uncertainty—they do not. Rather, I can say from experience that the demeanor is best discerned by existing in the field’s atmosphere for a time and paying close attention to how its members talk; only then does it become clear what ideas are at the helm of their enterprise.

I also wish to say that in calling attention to the absence of wonder in social psychology, I am not denying that its practitioners are ever surprised by counterintuitive results or that they experience excitement or exhilaration about their work. Indeed, such reactions I personally have had and witnessed on many occasions among my colleagues and their students.

But the cases of excitement and exhilaration I have observed do not strike me as manifestations of wonder; they appear instead to be the emotional concomitants of self-satisfaction. The social psychologist is proud of himself for correctly identifying the laboratory configurations and measurement strategies necessary for showing his predictions to be correct. He is pleased that his scientific vision of the social and psychological order is being confirmed in his work because such confirmations promise that relief from doubt—however successfully he has hidden it from himself—is on the way.

It rapidly becomes the case that social psychology must work, that it must succeed and not fail because for it to do so would leave its practitioners only with the uncertainty that set off the entire affair and which they taught themselves to hold by embracing Shermer’s attitude. Of all the explanations offered for the troubles facing social psychology today in its cases of fraud, replication crisis, and ideological bias, the possibility that these are inevitable eruptions of a need to recover the deepest parts of ourselves from the ravages of skepticism is never dwelled upon.

My diagnosis is that the alien status of wonder in social psychology is a natural consequence of an allegiance to scientific method above all else that is motivated by a desire for rest from cataclysmic uncertainties about ourselves and our relations to others. Spirit and wonder do not directly serve the need for relief and even create greater levels of disquiet, and so they perish from the outset. If this state of affairs is to change, what would have to take place? As I presently see it, two things. I regularly think about both—for my own rehabilitation, if nothing else.

First, there would need to be a genuine shift in how the human person is viewed in social psychology. Having taught themselves to doubt those things most intimately human and that the techniques of science are required for countering this problem, social psychologists see themselves as holding the Rosetta Stone that outsiders lack. This encourages social psychologists to grant themselves a status above the individuals in their studies and feeds an emotional disposition toward them that is of a degrading sort. People become objects of prediction to be bested by the greater ingenuity of experimenters, who have the scientific method at their disposal, and this besting ratifies the cycle of doubt-and-method myopia that sustains their reality.

Healthier and potentially more wonder-evoking visions of the human person can be found in other halls of psychology, as well as beyond them. In my own readings, I have been struck by the ideas of Carl Jung, William James, Carl Rogers, and Sigmund Koch. Some of these names will cause my colleagues discomfort because these men play the game of science by broader rules—or, we may say, by the spirit of the thing—but I hope it is clear that I see this discomfort as a symptom of the very problem I am describing.

Outside of psychology, I have felt most invigorated by conversations with historians, literary scholars, and philosophers. This fact speaks volumes about the essentiality of interdisciplinary conversation which I find unfolds best in a milieu devoted to liberal education. The social psychologist is likely to hear this and think I am speaking his language of “interdisciplinary research.” But from what I have seen and experienced of this activity, it tends to mean transforming the ideas of the humanities into constructs that can be measured and experimented on, which is to assume that real psychological insights cannot be had without all that. This is not what I mean.

For social psychologists to feel comfortable with these kinds of moves, they would have to begin from a starting point not rooted in radical skepticism. This leads to the second and more fundamental change that I believe is required for wonder to take up residence in social psychology.

In his 1964 essay, Some Thoughts Regarding the Current Philosophy of the Behavioral Sciences, Carl Rogers says:

“All knowledge, including all scientific knowledge, is a vast inverted pyramid resting on this tiny, personal, subjective base. If this seems to you to be an unwarranted undercutting of the solidity of our knowledge, I would add that such modern philosophers as [Michael] Polanyi reinforce this view. I think that it is not too much to say that knowing, even in the hardest sciences, is a risky, uncertain, subjective leap even when it is most ‘objective.’ We do no one a service by pretending it is not this.”

Explaining the basis of Rogers’ claims reaches beyond the scope of my essay, but if it is true that the scientific knowledge we prize for its objectivity and certitude can nevertheless be demonstrated to be irrevocably personal in nature—that is, tied to parts of ourselves that are never fully disclosed to scrutiny but show themselves, for instance, in the moment a researcher inexplicably senses that one hypothesis will have a greater likelihood of confirmation than another—then we have every reason to trust our capacities for knowing and to not grotesquely doubt them. After all, it is what we do any way. We simply have misled ourselves into thinking that we are walking on indubitable foundations when, in fact, faith upholds every step.

I will end with an observation made by Wolfgang Kohler during his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1959. Critiquing the “situation in which American psychology finds itself today,” he says:

“I doubt whether it is advisable to regard caution and a critical spirit as the virtue of a scientist, as though little else counted. They are necessary in research, just as the brakes in our cars must be kept in order and their windshields clean. But it is not because of the brakes or of the windshields that we drive … I wonder why great men in physics do not call caution and a critical spirit the most important characteristics of their behavior. They seem to regard the testing of brakes and the cleaning of windshields as mere precautions, but to look forward to the next trip as the business for which they have cars.”

If we substituted for Kohler’s “caution and critical spirit” the words method and practice and also related the ideas of scientific spirit and wonder to the motivation he sees behind physicists’ “next trip,” a common thread emerges. It serves as confirmation that the problems I have pointed out are real and longstanding, that they may reach beyond the particular borders of social psychology, and that others too have hoped for something better.


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