Get back to the actual behavior in the science of behavior

An interesting look at the replicability of the concept of ego depletion includes this bit toward the end about doing experiments:

If the replication showed us anything, Baumeister says, it’s that the field has gotten hung up on computer-based investigations. “In the olden days there was a craft to running an experiment. You worked with people, and got them into the right psychological state and then measured the consequences. There’s a wish now to have everything be automated so it can be done quickly and easily online.” These days, he continues, there’s less and less actual behavior in the science of behavior. “It’s just sitting at a computer and doing readings.”

Perhaps, just like with the reliance on smartphones in daily life, researchers are also becoming overly dependent on the Internet and computers to help them do the work. On one hand, it certainly speeds up the work, both in data collection and analysis. Speed is very important in academia where the stakes for publishing quickly and often continue to rise. On the other hand, the suggestion here is that we miss something by sitting at a computer too much and not actually analyzing behavior. We might take mental shortcuts, not ask the same kind and number of questions, and perform different analyses compared to direct observation and doing some work by hand.

This reminds me of a reading I had my social research students do last week. The reading involved the different types of notes one should take when doing fieldwork. When it came to doing the analysis, the researcher suggested nothing beat spreading out all the paper notes on the floor and immersing oneself in them. This doesn’t seem very efficient these days; whether one is searching for words in a text document or using qualitative data analysis software, putting paper all over the floor and wading through it seems time consuming and unnecessary. But, I do think the author was right: the physical practice of immersing oneself in data and observations is simply a unique experience that yields rich data.

George Will on the Arizona shooting, sociology, and social engineering

The opinions are flying regarding the Arizona shooting over the weekend. Conservative commentator George Will enters the fray with some thoughts about sociology:

It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson’s occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds. The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

This does seem to be a common human desire: to establish order within the chaos of life. But I would make a distinction between his quick thought here that sociology and half-baked explanations are related. As a discipline, sociology seeks to observe and measure reality. Bad sociology leaps to half-baked conclusions while good sociology follows the scientific process, looking for evidence of causation. Bad sociology is really “pop sociology” or “armchair sociology” where commentators leap to certain conclusions without carefully considering the evidence or attempting to be objective.

Will then goes on to talk about what he thinks is behind the desire of the Left to blame the Right for the shootings:

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

Using the term “social engineering” is an interesting choice. It implies images of 1984 or A Brave New World where a powerful government dictates what people should do in order to fulfill their own ideas of human perfection. Of course, there is a lot that could be discussed on the subject of human perfection (can humankind bring about its own redemption?), what kind of perfection is desirable (individualism or a Marxist collective?), and how to reach this point (and whether it has to be “clever” or not). And if we have some tools and knowledge that could help improve the social environment, available through disciplines like sociology, shouldn’t we pursue some of these options?

But by linking sociology and social engineering, Will is obscuring the fact that the social environment does play some role in influencing human behavior. It does not completely determine human behavior but there would be few social scientists who would claim this. Figuring out why humans do what they do is a complicated story involving both nature and nurture.

From Will’s point of view, do conservatives deny that the social environment affects human behavior? Do conservatives not try some social engineering of their own to advance particular ideas and policies?