Paul L. Caron

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The False Allure Of Power Posing, Grit, Implicit Bias Testing, And Other Social Psychology Fads

Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay:  The False Promise of Quick-Fix Psychology, by (Jesse Singal; author, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills (2021)):

Quick FixPower posing, grit and other trendy concepts are scientifically unproven but have become enormously popular by offering simple solutions to deeply rooted social problems.

It would be hard to find a scientific field that has enjoyed as much mainstream success in the 21st century as social psychology. Social psychologists dominate the TED Talk stage, rack up impressive contracts as consultants to schools and companies, and write book after bestselling book. Their most viral ideas promise to solve some of society’s most pressing problems, often in slickly counterintuitive ways.

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.

These ideas have launched a veritable industry of books, training courses and other products. There’s big money in social psychology and a great deal of excitement. But there’s also a lot less substance than meets the eye. 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. ...

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. ...

[T]he same thing seems to happen over and over with social psychology’s big ideas. A book or TED Talk launches a theory to stardom, changing the national conversation and winning lots of research funding. Then over the next few years countervailing evidence quietly piles up, until it’s high enough to force the question: Why were we so excited about this, again?

Power-posing, for example, is either dead or on life support, depending on who you ask. ... 

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. ...

But it’s the implicit association test, a brief computerized exercise anyone can complete on Harvard’s Project Implicit website, where the gap between hype and reality is most staggering. The test’s creators, Drs. Banaji and Greenwald, have long claimed that implicit bias may help to explain persistent racial disparities in American society, especially given the well-documented decline of explicit bias. This is a tidily inspiring story: There is a mental flaw many of us are carrying around without even realizing it, but here comes a new tool that can shine a light on the problem and help us to overcome it. That’s likely why the IAT narrative was so quickly accepted by corporations and institutions nationwide.

Experts have long understood, however, that modern racial inequalities are the result of complicated social systems that can reproduce themselves even in the absence of ongoing discrimination. ... Implicit bias could certainly play a role in exacerbating these problems. ...  But no one has come close to proving that implicit bias is so significant that it deserves to dominate American racial-justice and diversity-training efforts. ...

It’s hard to solve complicated social problems, especially in a country as big, diverse, polarized and politically dysfunctional as ours. Psychological quick fixes offer relief from this reality, offering simple solutions to imposing conundrums. Even better, they come from authoritative-seeming experts with genuine credentials rather than slick self-help charlatans. ...

Sometimes it is cheaper and less time-consuming to give everyone in your office an IAT training than to closely examine the hiring practices that have led to a less-than-diverse workplace. It might be less painful for all involved to pin academic underachievement on a lack of “grit” than to look seriously into the heartbreaking educational gaps that manifest themselves by kindergarten and only grow larger in later grades. But while these ideas help HR managers and school superintendents check items off their to-do lists, they don't actually solve problems. Once the TED Talk lights go down, there are still the 14-year-olds who are barely literate in part because of their dysfunctional schools.

Fortunately, there’s reason for hope that the worst social-psychology fads are behind us. As awareness of the full severity of the field’s so-called replication crisis has taken hold, so too has an ardor for methodological reform that will likely make tomorrow’s studies sturdier than today’s. The original power-posing study, for example, would be less likely to get published in 2021, at least in a top scientific journal.

Incentives largely caused this problem. Even upright scientists might find that their commitment to rigor wavers when the possibility of a TED Talk beckons. But incentives can also help to solve it. Research psychologists, particularly young ones, don’t want to waste their early years producing work that will get effortlessly toppled the first time someone tries to replicate it. Now that they know their work is more likely to face such scrutiny, they are embracing newer, sounder techniques in the hopes of forestalling such problems. But in the meantime there’s still a lot of cleaning up to do, and a lot of zombie ideas in need of dispatching.

Wall Street Journal Bookshelf:  A Bias Toward Easy Answers, by Sally Satel (reviewing Jesse Singal, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills (2021)):

In “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills,” Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, chronicles several dubious enthusiasms that permeate our culture. Along the way, he tries to show why they are so widespread. His focus is on “the allure of fad psychology,” as he puts it, and on the ways in which “both individuals and institutions can do a better job of resisting it.” ...

Each chapter of “The Quick Fix” presents accessible explanations of the research that was eventually shown to be “half-baked,” as Mr. Singal puts it. The problems, he shows, often derive from dodgy statistical analysis or faulty experimental design. Researchers, for instance, might use various statistical tests until one shows a sought-for result, or they might submit only positive results to a journal for publication, holding the negative ones back, a practice known as “file-drawering.” Mr. Singal also traces the social and political currents that helped propel certain trends.

Mr. Singal’s analysis is thus a quick fix for readers who want to be more enlightened and thoughtful consumers of psychological science. It is also a bracing reminder that social realms in which there are Big Problems—such as crime, education and poverty—are beyond the reach of fads and quick fixes, no matter how seductive. Optimistically, the field of psychology—chastened by the problems Mr. Singal describes so compellingly—is becoming more circumspect, putting overdue emphasis on replication. We might all want to be more circumspect when we encounter yet again a startling headline announcing a key “scientific” finding about human behavior.

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