We spend a lot of time psychologizing people. But we spend very little time psychologizing the people who psychologize people—that is, psychologists. What’s up with these people? What’s in it for them?
The conventional story is that they’re trying to help. They’re looking for “interventions” to make us less stupid and bad. They’re hoping that their research will have “policy implications” designed to save us from ourselves. They work tirelessly to show us how to pursue happiness, live a meaningful life, and do the right thing.
By now, you probably know I'm about to say: that’s bullshit.
The truth about psychology is that it’s a less of a tool for spiritual self-improvement and more of a tool for dunking on other people. There have been psychology studies about the results of learning about psychology studies, and the results aren’t pretty. If a study says we’re biased, we assume the biases don’t apply to us, because we’re special. We call out the biases in other people, but not ourselves. We’re biased about how biased we are. And though this hypothesis hasn’t been tested, I assume we’re also biased about how biased about how biased we are—an infinite vortex of fractal self-delusion.
It’s worth reflecting on any psychological research you've read in the past. When you read something that makes humans look bad, do you think to yourself, "Oh my god, I'm such a bad person—I need to better myself."? Or do you think, "Jeez, humans really suck. We should really do something about those sucky humans over there."? I'm guessing it's more often the latter than the former.
Why else would there be a cottage industry of dubious studies designed to show people how biased and irrational they are? Because the studies seem to leave out the people doing the studies, and the people reading about the studies. Leaving these people out is a feature, not a bug: psychologists get to look good, their readers get to look good—it’s a win-win.
Of course, there are other unflattering motives at play, like the desire to be "interesting." We love to be interesting. It captures people’s attention. It makes us feel smart and important. Psychologists compete to generate the most surprising, gee-whiz findings—which are the ones most likely to be false—so they can appear "interesting" to their peers. The stranger the finding, the less likely other plebeians are to believe it, which helps psychologists distinguish themselves from the plebeians.
Then there are the positive psychologists, who study how to be happy, even though nobody wants to be happy. These scholars aren't so much interested in dunking on people or showing off how interesting they are; instead, they want to signal how nice they are. Happy people are friendly and easy to get along with, and we've picked up on this association. So people study happiness as a way of saying, “Hey look at me, I’m such a nice person.”
Then there are the political psychologists, who are mostly liberal, who study all the ways in which liberals are morally and intellectually superior to conservatives, despite the fact that liberals and conservatives have the same human nature, which includes the tendency to view outgroup competitors as morally and intellectually inferior.
None of this should surprise us. Like all humans, psychologists’ motives are more unflattering than they let on. They're not noble seekers of wisdom and virtue, but normal, flawed humans, just like the rest of us.
If we want to improve social science, we must come to terms with this fact. The people studying humans are also humans, and that’s a problem. Zebras don’t study other zebras, and if they did, they would be very biased. For the same reason, humans are pretty bad candidates for studying humans. What to do?
Part of the solution is having more rigorous theories—ideally ones that leverage insights from evolutionary biology—that give psychologists less wiggle room to bullshit in their theorizing. Part of the solution is having better incentives for uncovering true information, rather than “interesting” information, like prediction markets, adversarial collaborations, pre-registration of hypotheses, and greater funding and support for replications. And part of the solution, of course, is psychologizing psychologists, so we know what they’re up to.
Which reminds me: what about me? Shouldn’t I psychologize the person who’s psychologizing the psychologists? I should, and I will. My motives are just as unflattering. I’m human too. Making other psychologists look bad makes me look good by comparison. It would be surprising if that fact did not tickle my dopaminergic neurons, vainglorious primate that I am.
Then again, when I look inside myself, and introspect on my own motives, I see nothing but a noble quest for truth and wisdom. It doesn’t feel like I’m trying to raise my relative status. But of course it doesn’t feel that way. It never feels that way. Our deceptive brains don’t let us see how crappy we are. That’s why we need to study our deceptive brains: to prevent them from tricking us into thinking we’re awesome when we’re actually crappy.
As a matter of fact, it’s why we need to study the people who study our deceptive brains, and the people who study the people who study our deceptive brains, and so on, on and on, as far as we can possibly go.
The only way to find ourselves is to descend the infinite staircase of human bullshit.
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