Saturday, April 10, 2021

Quick-Fix Psychology

Jesse Singal has just published a new book called, The Quick Fix. In it he debunks many of the claims made by so-called social psychologists. Their studies have the veneer of science, but they are really snake oil gussied up to sound like science. Nowadays, we should have figured out that anyone who is telling us to follow the science is trying to trick us into following their lead, regardless of the science.

Amazingly, these social psychologists claim to be offering up easy fixes to all of our social problems. When you are marketing nonsense it is probably good to go all-in on your claims. The only thing missing is the claim that these new techniques will pave your way to Heaven.

Anyway, Singal is promoting his book with an essay in The Wall Street Journal this morning. Since I generally like his work, I am happy to add my own small contribution.

Among the nonsense that passes as science are these claims. Note well the numbers. These people with their silly ideas have attracted massive followings.

Amy Cuddy (61 million TED Talk views) argued that by adopting brief, expansive poses—think Wonder Woman with her hands on her hips—women could feel more powerful in the workplace, shrinking stubbornly persistent gender gaps. Angela Duckworth (23 million views) introduced “grit,” a new psychological scale for measuring passion and stick-to-it-iveness, which has been marketed, in part, as a tool to redress educational inequality. Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji’s implicit association test, or IAT, came to utterly dominate the diversity-training industry, promising to pull back the curtain on our minds and reveal their unconscious biases against disfavored groups.

As Singal points out, these are faddish. They are ruses to dupe the gullible. And the science, for those who care, has most often proven them to be false:

Most people don’t realize that despite the air of scientific legitimacy which surrounds such faddish ideas, they have failed to deliver on their potential over and over again.

These psycho experts always direct their quick fixes at individuals, Singal writes. They pretend that complex social problems, deriving from a multiplicity of factors, can be eradicated once we learn power posing or learn how to have grit:

Often the field offers what are, in effect, quick fixes for complex and enduring societal problems like inequality and bias. These self-help-style solutions are almost always aimed at diagnosing and optimizing individuals, whether that means boosting their grit, making them feel more powerful or discovering their hidden racism. Because they promise so much reward for so little effort, social psychology fads often win attention and resources long before there is any rigorous evidence of their effectiveness. And such evidence often never materializes: Only about half of all published experimental psychological findings are successfully replicated by other researchers. The subfield of social psychology tends to fare even worse.

In some ways it all began with a book called The Secret. Its premise was that if you wish for something to happen, then you will be making it happen. In the simplest example, if you cannot find a parking place and start wishing that one will appear, then, the next time you turn a corner someone will be vacating a choice parking place.

You might believe, rightly, that this resembles the process whereby God answers your prayers, but seriously, does anyone think that God has nothing better to do than to find you a parking place?

Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “The Secret,” which spawned a wildly successful mega-franchise thanks to a major assist from Oprah, is basically New Thought updated with the language of 21st-century experimental research.

“Under laboratory conditions cutting edge science has confirmed that every thought is made up of energy and has its own unique frequency,” notes Ms. Byrne’s website. This supposedly means that “as your thought radiates out, it attracts the energy and frequencies of like thoughts, like objects, and even like people, and draws those things back to you.” The site offers testimonial after testimonial proving that anyone who wishes and visualizes hard enough can get what they want, eventually.

As I said, snake oil.

As for power poses, the notion that women would quickly overcome gender discrimination if they only adopted the right posture, the truth remains that there is a reason why it is called posturing. Whatever advantages women gain by standing a certain way, someone somewhere is going to call the bluff. Don't fashion models adopt power poses when they strut down runways?

When it comes to grit, clearly Angela Duckworth oversold the notion of perseverance. True enough, perseverance does sometimes pay off. On the other hand, as the song says, you have to know when to hold them and to know when to fold them. As for how much one's perseverance-- as opposed to IQ or SAT scores-- contributes to success, here Duckworth found herself on shaky ground.

Grit gained a great deal of attention thanks to Dr. Duckworth’s provocative claims that it “beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores,” and other traditional measures of potential in determining “which individuals will be successful in some situations.” Subsequent research has showed this to be an undeniable overstatement, in some cases a massive one. While some studies have found that grit might be useful for predicting achievement in certain narrow contexts, the first grit study conducted on a large, representative sample of Americans, published last year, found that “intelligence contributes 48-90 times more than grit to educational success and 13 times more to job-market success.”

The differential is massive. Intelligence contributes far more to success than does grit. 

It should be obvious that quick fixes do not work, except in the sense that they contribute massively to the fortunes of those who sell them:

If we really could improve gender equity in the workplace with a quick power-pose before a meeting, or close those yawning achievement gaps with a novel psychometric instrument, that would be undeniably wonderful. But it’s also not very realistic. We’re all profoundly affected by forces beyond our control, by decisions made behind closed doors, by the wealth we were born with or without. “In our complex world, causes and effects always join in complicated ways,” wrote the sociologist Charles Tilly in his 2006 book “Why?” “Simultaneous causation, incremental effects, environmental effects, mistakes, unintended consequences, and feedback make physical, biological, and social processes the devil’s own work—or the Lord’s—to explain in detail. Stories exclude these inconvenient complications.”

As for gender disparities, achievements would go a long way toward eliminating them. Did you notice that many of the great minds of quick-fix psychology are women? Perhaps they would better advance the cause of gender parity if they did more serious work and less self-promotion.


Anonymous said...

The goal these days is to replace uncomfortable things that are true with things that sound nice.

Sam L. said...

I've never heard of any of these persons. But then, I don't read big city "news"papers
or watch TV "news", so how could I. Besides, I'm old, live in a rural area, and just don't care.

whitney said...

in the early 80s, when I was a young teenager I was having a fight with my older sister and I adopted a power pose. The Feisty women in fiction books always had power poses so I gave it a shot. My sister mocked me mercilessly for it. That was the end of my posing.

jmod46 said...

It's like a salesman making cold calls. You can be selling a load of crap, but if you call enough people you'll always find a few suckers. And when you're able to contact 60M people through a Ted Talk, you'll be assured of success.

Ron Liebermann said...
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Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ares Olympus said...

Comparing grit to IQ seems unfair if we assume grit is a skill that has more control than innate IQ. And there's an open question, what is innate, and what can be developed and how, if you have the inclination.

Whatever mental framework you try, I think starting with an accurate representation of where you are gives you a better chance in using your strengths to your advantage, while not ignoring your weaknesses, but trying things out with proper expectations. OTOH, perhaps some self-deception is necessary while you can only see where you are, and don't really know where you can go. And if overarching self-doubt is the problem maybe some need crisis times, where they're over their heads, to see what they can really do, and grit sounds like the right tool in such sink or swim moments.

So if being more prepared to express "grit" helps more women find more agency in their life, sounds good to me. The main downside risk is disappointment if you take these ideas as gospel truth and think effort guarantees results.

Perhaps the opposite of "grit" is cynicism that says don't even try, don't put yourself in situations where you can fail, and we can predict clear outcomes with that.

markedup2 said...

think effort guarantees results
Why would anyone think that? Oh, yeah, the labor theory of value.

if we assume grit is a skill that has more control than innate IQ.
Why would we assume this? Granted that we CAN assume it, but is there any evidence for that stance?