Our beliefs change over time.
|Dall-E. [ digital art young man looking at a skull on the desktop ]
Good thing too.
(The Open Polar Sea was a hypothesized ice-free ocean surrounding the North Pole. This eventually disproven notion was once so widely believed that many exploring expeditions used it as justification for attempts to reach the North Pole by sea or to find a navigable sea route between Europe and the Pacific across the North Pole. It was a classic mistake for the ages.)
Today, we don’t believe that tooth worms cause dental disease, that we only use 10% of our brain, or that bumps on your head are strong indicators of your intelligence or personality.
That’s obvious in retrospect for “obviously bogus ideas” that people used to believe.
Bogosity only becomes clear with time.
However... It’s harder to see how ideas change when they’re closer to our time and less obviously crazy. For instance, the idea that multitasking lets you be more efficient at getting many things done was widely held to be true. But our understanding is slowly changing to an attitude that multitasking is often NOT very effective, and is a bad idea in general.
Our Challenge for today is this: How can we SearchResearchers come to understand how an idea is changing over time?
Here are two such examples that are much closer to us in time than phrenology:
A. In 1977, a famous paper by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson ("Telling more than we can know") argued that people cannot introspect about cognitive processes.
That is, "...when people try to report on their cognitive processes, … they do not do so on the basis of any true introspection. Instead, their reports are based on … [pre-existing beliefs] …about the extent to which a particular stimulus is a plausible cause of a given response.”
That's an amazing claim when you think about it. It implies that when you talk about why you made a decision (say, to accept a particular job offer, or to bake a particular dish for dinner), you actually don't know why that decision was made. You can talk about it, and you might feel as though you have a good understanding of why you made that choice, but the reality is that you're actually making up that story.
Is that true? Or, more in keeping with this week's Challenge--does the field of psychology still believe this to be true?
B. Another famous social psychology result is that if you give people ideas and words about growing old (such as feeble, worried, Florida, elderly, forgetful) then they will walk more slowly after exposure to such materials. That's another famous paper, "Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action" by John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows (1996).
This kind of experiment is called a "priming" study. In other words, a person who is primed with words about the elderly will unconsciously walk more slowly immediately after they read the priming material. This seems wild on the surface of it--would just reading some text about older folks change MY behavior? That's what the paper argues.
With all that as background, let me pose the Challenge with this caveat: Our Challenge is not whether or not both of these results are true or not, but for this week…
1. Can you find out how well has these two results have withstood the test of time? Is it still considered to be true? Is it something we should be teaching in our psychology courses today? What SearchResearch process would you use to figure this out?
The general idea here is to figure out a way to determine if an idea's acceptability has shifted over time. We could ask similar questions about all kinds of socially held beliefs. Is it true that Moore's Law no longer describes the growth of microelectronics? How has our understanding about the role of dietary cholesterol shifted over time?
For our SearchResearcher purposes, what advice would you give to someone who is trying to understand the changes in an idea over time?
This is the kind of research I do all of the time these days. I'm writing a new book about Unanticipated Consequences (link to the Substack that's tracking what I'm doing on the book).
Let us know how YOU would do a bit of SearchResearch to find this out. Imagine that you're telling a junior researcher how to validate a claim that was made a few years ago. What would you tell them to do?