Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Promoting Happiness Through Public Policy

An article by Tim Hartford on aiming for happiness through public policy. By liberal standards, the idea of explicitly promoting happiness seems so manipulative as to be distasteful (which is unfortunate). It would have been nice to see that issue addressed here, but Hartford focuses on the measurement issues, which are more of a liability only when you're doing across-country comparisons. Given that we know a number of things make people happier, I think we'll see some government policies that nudge people toward greater happiness in some of the more liberal states in the U.S. over the next two decades, but not much at a national level.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Social Cognition: Special Issue on Social Neuroscience

In this month's special issue on social neuroscience (only available to subscribers), you can find most of the big names of social neuroscience: Banaji, Cacioppo, Ito, Bartholow and Kihlstrom. Here's a summary of what it contains:
Each of the contributors to this special issue offers a valuable perspective on these questions. Banaji provides a rousing introduction to the issue in a letter to young researchers considering a social neuroscience approach, arguing that the advent of social neuroscience methods presents a historical opportunity for scientific advances in the field. Cacioppo offers a big picture view of the breadth of the social neuroscience approach and of how different levels of analysis inform one another. This integrative perspective is also emphasized by Ito and illustrated with important examples. Amodio presents a detailed discussion of the advantages and challenges of social neuroscience approaches, drawing the important distinction between mapping and hypothesis testing, and offering a set of recommendations about how to make social neuroscience relevant to social psychology. Cunningham also discusses the important role of brain mapping in social neuroscience research. Bartholow focuses on the use of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to advance social psychological theory, and provides some very detailed examples of how such advances may be realized. Klein emphasizes the breadth of social neuroscience approaches and the importance of taking advantage of that breadth, focusing specifically on the use of neuropsychology. Finally, Kihlstrom offers a skeptical view of the ability of social neuroscience to constrain social psychological theory and of the ability of domain-specific functional modules to account for many important aspects of human psychology and behavior.

One issue that a number of the authors address is that question that pretty much crops up all the time: does all of this amount of uninformative reductionism? According to the introduction, both Cacioppo and Kihlstrom argue that the psychological level of analysis is the not the same as the neural level of analysis. Apparently, both of them also argue that social neuroscience is valuable is important even if it doesn't enrich psychological theory. I'm not sure how they pull that off, but I'm planning to skim Cacioppo and read Kihlstrom.

Incidentally it's notable that nearly everyone on this list is doing research on racial stereotyping, a field that I think isn't well-suited for study in the U.S., because the U.S. is currently remarkable for its lack of racism rather than its racism, because the race-culture correlation in the U.S. makes it difficult to ascertain if race-based categorization is really culture-based, and because race can become unimportant within minutes after zero acquaintance.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's the Point of It All?

I'm just about done with my first semester, so it's an appropriate time to think about whether this whole pursuit of psychological knowledge thing is worthwhile. Let's look at "On the Purposes Served by Psychological Research and its Critics":

We concur with Wallach and Wallach's (1998) subjective assessment that much psychological research contributes little to our corpus of knowledge, but we dispute their analysis of the causes of this problem. A critical assessment of their analysis reveals it to be (a) logically flawed, (b) irrelevant to hypotheses conceming psychological processes, and (c) potentially injurious to the processes through which creative scientific hypotheses are developed. The Wallachs' article may serve a valuable purpose-but only if read very critically.

I plan to read the rest in a few days but it definitely grabs my attention to see a critique of a critique where the authors still reach the same conclusion, namely, that psychology is largely worthless.