The Situationist

Should Psychologists Speak More to the General Public?

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 15, 2010

I really enjoyed reading Paul Bloom’s article, The Moral Life of Babies, in the New York Times last weekend.

If you missed it, here is the intriguing opening:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

This incident occurred in one of several psychology studies that I have been involved with at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University in collaboration with my colleague (and wife), Karen Wynn, who runs the lab, and a graduate student, Kiley Hamlin, who is the lead author of the studies. We are one of a handful of research teams around the world exploring the moral life of babies.

The article held personal interest for me because of recent experiments in the area of moral psychology that I’ve been working on with a cognitive psychologist colleague.  However, what really got me thinking today is the creation of the article itself.  How did it come to be?

I assume that Bloom approached the New York Times (although perhaps they approached him, as he’s written for them before) with the thought that he should reach a broader audience with his current research.  I, for one, am glad that he did, but while an increasing number of psychologists, behavioral economists, and other academics seem to be having similar urges, others seem quite resistant to the idea.  After a behavioral economist friend of mine recently told me about some new studies he was working on, I urged him to write an op-ed as his work seemed to shed important light on a current news topic.  Although agreeing that his research had the potential to reframe the debate, he was very wary of the idea of speaking to the public directly.  “Why don’t I send you some things and you can write the op-ed,” he said.

What do you think?  Does summarizing one’s work for a popular magazine, or writing an op-ed or blog post exploring some of the potential implications of one’s research, stand as a threat to academia or is it something that could make academia more effective?

This is a conversation I hope we can continue on the Situationist in the coming months.

* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” “Implicit Associations on Oprah.” and “Situationism’s Improving Situation.”

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3 Responses to “Should Psychologists Speak More to the General Public?”

  1. Tamara Piety said

    Adam – I do think psychologists should publish for the general public. And actually there is a lot of evidence that they regularly do. (Think the slew of books lately on these topics). Whether those psychologists (or for that matter neurologists, economists, etc.) who do are criticized by those in their academic circles as oversimplifying the research or engaging in work that is unseemly for an academic I couldn’t say since I don’t work in those fields. But I do know there is some wariness about employing that research in legal arguments. This sort of criticism (or something like it) has been particularly launched at those seeking to apply the insights of behavioral research to legal questions. Charges have been made that the application is over simplified or insufficiently nuanced. For example, some of my work has been criticized for claiming that Kahneman and Tversky’s work on bounded rationality and cognitive biases revealed that these sorts of limitations were widely shared human limitations or that debiasing was largely ineffective, when according to the critics, not *all* biases applied to all people or that *some* debiasing efforts could be successful. However, the critique missed the obvious wider point, that, *in general* the limitations Kahneman and Tversky discussed were common features of human reasoning, not special shortcomings of the uneducated or the intellectually lazy. And indeed, this, and much of the work that has followed in behavioral psychology and has been the subject of many books for the popular press would be utterly insignificant if that were not the case. It is no great insight to discover that sometimes, some people reason poorly or irrationally. The significance of this work, and thus presumably the reason for Kahneman’s Nobel, arises from the observation that these limitations are systematic, predictable and widely shared and (in some cases) very resistant to bebiasing efforts. All of this is by way of saying that I think one thing that sometimes inhibits the translation of academic work into something for general readers is fear of being charged by one’s colleagues with having made a mistake or of overstated a finding. For us I think the fear is also that if you are not a psychologist or an economist you will be charged with going beyond your area competency. However, I think sometimes you have to risk being wrong. And history reflects that many powerful thinkers have not shrunk from putting their ideas out there for fear that they may not be perfect or subject to later revision. Wittgenstein’s second work of philosophy almost completely repudiated the ideas he’d advanced in his first. John Maynard Keynes ideas evolved over time. In the present day, Richard Posner has not been shy about either revising some of his earlier opinions or venturing into areas of social science or literary commentary for which he does not have formal training. Coase was an economist who wrote about law. Kahneman a psychologist who won a prize in economics. You get the idea. I think the argument that speaking to the general public somehow undermines your scholarly credentials is often just used as a weapon to try to intimidate and silence those with novel ideas (or ones the critic disagrees with). You didn’t say whether your colleague who expressed that reluctance was young and untenured, but this is undoubtedly a more legitimate concern for junior scholars since the disapproval of ones elders can put you out of a job. But I don’t think this should be an obstacle for those who are past worrying about tenure. And from a purely selfish standpoint, I enjoy reading articles like the one you allude to and I find them intellectually stimulating. So I hope your colleague reconsiders. The financial rewards for writing best selling books like “Predictably Irrational” or “Nudge” offers some assurance that some people will continue to offer some findings or implications from their academic research to a broader audience. But my endorsement of writing for a wider public stems from more than just my interest in its entertainment value or the possibility of financial reward. Sometimes this research has important implications for social justice (ex. IAT; stereotype threat) that I think we, as legal academics in particular, have an obligation to bring to the awareness of a wider audience if would seem to advance justice application of the law or suggest new solutions to problems of injustice.

  2. […] Should Psychologists Speak More to the General Public? […]

  3. […] Should Psychologists Speak More to the General Public? « The … […]

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