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Study the Self-Evident
Solve the murders in front of you
The task is not to see what has never been seen before, but to think what has never been thought before about what you see everyday.
— Erwin Schrödinger (or possibly Arthur Schopenhauer)
The way to get somewhere in science is to ask dumb questions about things that are totally obvious.
Looking at obvious things and asking dumb questions is the source of our greatest achievements. Some guys were standing around and were like, hey, uh, what is air? What is the moon? Why does it look like that? Where did it come from? What is gold made of? Why do fleas bite us? What are sparks? When something gets hot, what’s happening to it? What is heat? What is light? Where do colors come from? And so on.
All these things — air, the moon, gold, fleas, sparks, heat, light, color — are pretty obviously real. They are for-sure real things, things that are definitely out there. This makes them great starting points.
I used to call these kinds of topics and questions “natural”, after I found the following snippet from Paul Bloom:
[In this course] we’re going to ask questions nobody would have otherwise thought to ask, where the common man wouldn’t address, and this is, of course, standard in all sciences.
The first step to insight is to ask questions like why do things fall down and not up? And I imagine the first person who articulated the question aloud probably met with the response saying, “What a stupid question. Of course things fall down.” Well, yes, of course things fall down, but why? Why is our flesh warm? Why does water turn solid when it gets cold? These are natural facts about the universe, but the naturalness needs to be explained and not merely assumed.
But calling a subject “natural” sounds rather judgmental, and carries the suggestion that other research questions might be “unnatural”. On top of that, the term “natural science” is already taken. I’ll agree that these are natural facts, but if we call this quality “natural”, things will get confusing. So to crib a phrase from Solomon Asch, who I suspect was referencing Euclid, topics and questions that are this stupidly obvious (and thus ideal for study) might be called self-evident.
To naïve thought nothing is less problematic than that we grasp the actions of others, but it is precisely the task of psychology to remove the veil of self-evidence from these momentous processes.
— Solomon Asch (1952)1
Studying self-evident phenomena is great because whatever you do ends up being useful. If you make careful observations or develop a theory about something that’s self-evident, like “what are stars?” you are guaranteed to be gesturing towards something.
You may still be seriously off-track. To the ancients, planets like Mars and Venus were stars, and the Sun was not a star,2 so the theories they had about stars were pretty far off the mark. But even if your theory is entirely wrong, the stars are clearly out there. And the observations the ancients made about stars were still useful, even if they thought that stars were holes in the orb surrounding the universe through which you could faintly glimpse the fires of Heaven. Whatever kind of thing they are, everyone can agree that the little points of light in the night sky are a for-real thing.
Likewise, anything you discover about mountains is guaranteed to echo down through history (assuming you write it down) because mountains definitely exist, so any new observation, no matter how small, will contribute to an understanding of this very real thing. Anything you “discover” about unicorns is guaranteed not to echo down through history, because unicorns aren’t real. Sorry.
Keep One Hand on Reality at All Times
Science is a lot like a murder mystery. The whole point of the mystery is to figure out how the dead body became dead. If everyone’s alive, there’s nothing to explain.
Every self-evident phenomenon is a dead body. We don’t know where they came from, but we know that they’re there. Our job is to find out who done it. Detectives Newton and Maxwell and friends pretty much solved the murders of light and color, Detectives Pasteur and Koch cleaned up in the case of the microbiology murders, but there are still lots of dead bodies lying around for the rest of us to investigate.
You don’t go looking for bodies no one has ever seen before and which may not exist, when you are already tripping over the murder victims you already have. Yes, there are probably some missing persons that no one has noticed. You can choose to spend your time dragging the river to see if you turn up any new bodies, but why would you do that when there are so many cold cases already on the books?
Sometimes when you’re trying to solve a murder, you stumble across a dead body that you didn’t expect. And when this happens, it is pretty exciting. When Wilhelm Röntgen accidentally discovered the X-Rays, it was like coming across a whole new murder victim. Thrilling stuff. But Röntgen didn’t bring the police force to an anonymous patch of farmland outside the city limits and say, I think we are about to discover a new body, dig here. More like, he was investigating the murder of electricity, and when he went to interview a witness, he found an unexpected skeleton in their closet.
The really exciting part of Röntgen’s discovery wasn’t even the new body, though that did get a lot of attention. The shocking twist came when detectives discovered that the new victim (X-rays) was the missing piece that tied together the murders of electricity, magnetism, and light, cases that up to that point, they had thought were totally separate! These were all the work of one serial killer, and his name is electromagnetism. Ok maybe this metaphor is getting a little strained.
I bring this up because despite the earlier quotes from psychologists, my home field of psychology has a surprisingly hard time staying focused on things that are self-evident.
Instead of studying broad, clearly visible topics, psychologists tend to be interested in topics that are narrow, subtle, and sometimes invisible. Blue-ribbon findings in psychology include “being on a rickety bridge makes an attractive woman more attractive”, “people eat more soup when their bowl is secretly rigged to refill itself”, and “doing word scrambles that include words like ‘wrinkle’ makes you walk slower”. These projects do have tangential connections to self-evident topics like emotion, attraction, eating, and… I dunno, stereotypes? But they’re not really steps towards finding the answers to these mysteries. They’re just flags in the sand, claiming the discovery of previously unheard-of effects.
Also, all three of these examples fail to replicate. Their findings may not be real at all. But the actual problem is this: I can’t bring myself to care. These studies wouldn’t be important even if they were true. They just don’t tell us enough about the self-evident mysteries of psychology, and they don’t stake out a strong enough claim to present a new mystery. “Misattribution of arousal” has nothing on X-rays, which you could confirm by taking pictures of your bones.
This gives me pretty mixed feelings about the replication crisis, which is a weird position to be in. I think the replication crisis is important, and I think we should teach students all about it, which is why I teach students all about it. In particular, the replication crisis has taught us a lot about the correct (and incorrect) uses of statistics and methods. I’m also glad that some very [redacted] psychologists were exposed. We do want some minimum of quality control.
But we also waste a lot of time arguing about whether or not particular effects are real, and whether or not they exist. I’ll grant some exceptions, but for most of the specific effects in question, who cares? I certainly don’t care if briefly exposing people to “a faint image of $100 bills” leads them to endorse “free-market systems and social inequality” more than people who saw a blurred version of the same image. I want to know what an emotion is, how many come included with purchase, and how many are available as DLC.
Maybe you disagree with me about whether or not these effects are self-evident, or whether these studies have any bearing on questions that are self-evident. That’s fine. I just want to remind you that our job is not to invent new concepts or discover new effects. Our job is to explain the things that are obvious.
Instead of spending all this effort trying to gin up discoveries, or playing whack-a-mole with the fraud of the week, psychologists should spend more time going after the many self-evident murders taking place in our beautiful psychology city. We should be asking questions like: Why do different people want different things? What kinds of different things can they want? Why do we get along well with some people and not others? Why does depression have the particular list of symptoms that it has?
The subjects of all these questions are self-evident. People want things, and different people want different kinds of things, in ways that are hard to categorize. Some people become fast friends and others become bitter enemies, and it’s hard to predict in advance how this will shake out. Depression officially includes symptoms like “insomnia” and “trouble concentrating” — those seem fairly different, why would it include both of these things? These are topics with solid foundations.
Psychology doomers will tell you that all of psychology is bunk, people chasing phantoms and abstractions. They’re wrong. Bad studies get all the press, and yes, they get lots of the blue ribbons. But there is real self-evident murder-mystery psychology out there. All I’m saying is: I want more of it! I want us to focus on our real successes. For example:
People definitely make predictions about how they’ll feel in the future, and they often make decisions based on their predictions; this is self-evident. Dan Gilbert and his collaborators study these predictions.
People definitely choose what to do, and at any given moment there are an infinite number of things they could do. They must narrow this list down somehow; this is also self-evident. Fiery Cushman and his collaborators think this probably has something to do with how the mind represents value.
People definitely think some things are good (vacation) and other things are bad (COVID-19). That seems self-evident to me, so I tried to study it with my friend Adam Mastroianni. But we ended up finding out something unexpected about what happens when you ask people to think about how things could be different. Even so, this new topic also seems self-evident. People definitely spend some time thinking about how things could be different, and this is something we don’t understand all that well.
Maybe in time we will return to the question of why some things rule (burritos) and other things drool (Congress). Until then, it’s a self-evident problem just waiting to be solved. Your move, detective.
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Asch, S. E. (1952). Social psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Sort of; it’s complicated.