Research Shows

There’s a psychology blog I follow on RSS, because Jeremy Dean, the blogger, is good at reviewing and keeping up to date on interesting psychological studies and their interpretations. All the same, I am constantly disappointed by just how unilluminating supposedly important (nay, groundbreaking) psychological research can be. It’s disappointing because it is not nearly so illuminating as a good novelist — but then my standards for novelists are quite high, and it is true that brilliant psychologists (whether their theories are accurate or not) are quite as interesting as brilliant novelists, only perhaps more laborious to read. Jung, for instance, is a fascinating read, and remarkably compelling, even when I disbelieve his theories. After considering such a comparison of genres, I feel a bit better about the psychologists, because it is hardly to be expected that psychologists who are merely clever should compare favorably to brilliant novelists for powers of observation, so it’s not fair to be disappointed when they don’t.

All the same, I believe Marilynne Robinson, who is an excellent novelist, and also a good  (if unduly dense) essayist, is onto something in her recent book, Absence of Mind, when she suggests that we moderns are far too ready to believe in external observations over the testimony of “inwardness,” and of our own consciousness of ourselves. Unlike great novelists (and psychologists sympathetic to the numinous), the researchers for this morning’s study seem to have no feeling for the tension between the internal and external worlds of men — and I can’t help but imagining that they might learn far more from a sympathetic reading of Tolstoy than by any possible improvements of scientific method. the report was on some recent studies measuring… I couldn’t quite figure out what, but they seem to mostly measure the corrolation between a person’s own internal sense of what manner of person he is, and a researcher’s sense (that can’t be the right word… judgement? assessment?) of those same traits, using indirect measurements. Mr Dean writes:

You’d be pretty sure that you could describe your personality to someone else, right? You know how extroverted you are, how conscientious, how optimistic?

Don’t be so sure.

When people’s personalities are measured implicitly, i.e. by seeing what they do, rather than what they say they do, the correlations are sometimes quite low (e.g. Asendorpf et al., 2002). We seem to know something about our own personalities, but not as much as we’d like to think.

How very odd. Not the findings — as I’ve heard quoted from some Orthodox source (probably a monk somewhere), to truly know oneself is a greater miracle than raising the dead. What’s more surprising is that Mr Dean is surprised. Socrates wouldn’t be surprised, except in our naive trust in the psychologists — he would probably show us that even with a “working definition” we hardly know what we mean by extroversion, conscientiousness, optimism, and so on anyway, and that, not knowing what we mean by any of the attributes we’re looking for in ourselves, it’s hardly surprising that we don’t know very well to what extent we possess them. We don’t know what we mean by virtue most of the time, either, or justice, or good. The abstract for the study Mr Dean cited is:

Using the trait of shyness as an example, the authors showed that (a) it is possible to reliably assess individual differences in the implicitly measured self-concept of personality that (b) are not accessible through traditional explicit self-ratings and (c) increase significantly the prediction of spontaneous behavior in realistic social situations. A total of 139 participants were observed in a shyness-inducing laboratory situation, and they completed an Implicit Association Test (IAT) and explicit self-ratings of shyness. The IAT correlated moderately with the explicit self-ratings and uniquely predicted spontaneous (but not controlled) shy behavior, whereas the explicit ratings uniquely predicted controlled (but not spontaneous) shy behavior (double dissociation). The distinction between spontaneous and controlled behavior was validated in a 2nd study.

That, right there, is why I could never be a researcher. “It is possible to reliably assess individual differences in the implicitly measured self-concept of personality”? Does that kind of language really help Mr Asendorpf conduct better research? But language aside, if I understand the abstract at all, he’s testing for “shy behaviors,” and then comparing his results to people’s self reports of how shy they are. Being a trained researcher, I’m sure Mr Asendorpf has realized that shyness, like so many human behaviors, is extremely contextual, and that being experimented upon by psychological researchers is not a context that most of us have much experience with, and so it’s hardly surprising we might not anticipate our behavior with much accuracy — I suppose it has also crossed his mind at some point that whatever the IAT asks, it’s unlikely to use language in a way that most of us are comfortable with, or are able to accurately understand, let alone assess ourselves by (this is not because the language is difficult, but rather because communication about complex psychological states and behavior is difficult, and most of our terms are too vague to be used point blank without being rather vague). Not having read the actual test or the experiment, I don’t know what he did to try to mitigate these difficulties — but I am absolutely certain that he not only did not, but could not possibly account for them in such a way tat his study could say what Mr Dean seems to think it says. That is because Mr Dean seems to suppose that this experiment says that we don’t know much about ourselves — based upon the assumption that if consciousness and research conflict, then research is true and consciousness is untrue. Which is quite an assumption — and the reason why I suppose he might do well to spend some time with War and Peace before pronouncing so blithely upon the relationship between consciousness and… whatever it is the study measures — because whether Tolstoy’s conclusions are true or not, at least he sees very clearly that the difficulty is difficult, and the contradiction is contradictory — and I don’t think that Mr Dean has seen that yet. And then there’s this one:

Self-esteem: Perhaps this is the oddest one of all. Surely we know how high our own self-esteem is?

Well, psychologists have used sneaky methods of measuring self-esteem indirectly and then compared them with what we explicitly say. They’ve found only very weak connections between the two (e.g. Spalding & Hardin, 1999). Amazingly some studies find no connection at all.

It seems almost unbelievable that we aren’t aware of how high our own self-esteem is, but there it is. It’s another serious gap between what we think we know about ourselves and what we actually know.

“It seems almost unbelievable that we aren’t aware of how high our own self-esteem is, but there it is.” The assumptions behind this statement strike me as much stranger than the discrepancy between an internal and external assessment of self-esteem. Not only do I not know why I should expect myself to know the state of my own self esteem — I don’t think I really know, in any concrete way what self-esteem is. How are we to know whether virtue can be thought if we don’t know what we mean by virtue? How can I know whether I should expect to be able to know my own level of self-esteem if I don’t even know what self esteem is? Even more extraordinary is Mr Dean’s trust that, while I neither know what self-esteem is, nor to what extent I possess it (and can it be taught?), Mr Spalding not only knows what it is, but can even assess it in others with such certainty that, where his assessments and personal consciousness disagree, he unquestionably right. He is so very right, that we can judge personal consciousness based upon nothing other than its disagreeing with Mr Spalding. I don’t know that most of us give that much credit even to the judgements of God. When the commandments of God and personal consciousness disagree we are more likely to find it a strange and mysterious thing, and to see whether both might be true, or how our own vision could be so very bad, or whether we have misunderstood the commandment — we try, in other words, to account both for the truth of the commandment, and for the truth (albeit it much dimmer) of our own consciousness. Or, if not truth, then the sin in our own consciousness, that could cause such a strange lack of vision. We don’t, I think, believe that our own consciousness can simply mean nothing — can be false in that way, in a meaningless way — even when confronted with the most disconcerting blindness  of intellect and belief. Anyway, the abstract:

In contrast to measures of explicit self-esteem, which assess introspectively accessible self-evaluations, measures of implicit self-esteem assess the valence of unconscious, introspectively inaccessible associations to the self. This experiment is the first to document a relationship between individual differences in implicit self-esteem and social behavior: Participants completed either a self-relevant or a self-irrelevant interview, and were then rated by the interviewer on their anxiety. When the interview was self-relevant, apparent anxiety was greater for participants low in implicit self-esteem than for participants high in self-esteem; implicit self-esteem did not predict anxiety when the interview was self-irrelevant. Explicit self-esteem did not predict apparent anxiety in either interview, but did predict participants’ explicit self-judgments of anxiety. Self-handicapping about interview performance was greater for participants low in both explicit and implicit self-esteem than for those high in these measures. The experiment provides direct evidence that effects of implicit and explicit self-esteem may be dissociated.

I don’t think I know what that means. I know that if I were asked to self-assess for self-esteem I would be puzzled, and would say that some people I respect have said some kind things about me, while some other people have remarked upon my thoughtlessness towards others, and I suppose that both groups saw something true about me; and the canons of Lent have said that I am worse than a number of murderers, adulterers, and idolaters, no doubt with reason; but God and people are very kind to me — and I don’t know what all this means, nor can I make an account of it, for people I have known are most often charitable and willing to think well of others if they possibly can — and I most certainly don’t know what any of these interactions mean about me, much less what they mean for a thing so vague and unsubstantial as my self-esteem.

In other words, personal consciousness has an entirely different method from psychological researchers, and it’s hardly surprising that they should find different things. Consciousness isn’t so interested in anxiety based behaviors — I’ve spent a lot of time being socially awkward, not knowing what to say or do, blah, blah, blah, and my own consciousness, at any rate, would report that as being “self-esteem” neutral; quite beside the point. So I’m more awkward when I’ve been thinking about myself a lot. What has that to do with anything interesting or important? I’m generally hopeful — generally other people are charitable about awkward neighbors, and that has nothing to do with me, really. But since the research is obviously judging participants, I can see how that would make participants more self-consciousness — and I can see how if I were feeling especially arrogant then this would affect me less than if I were feeling the extent to which one must always rely upon the good will of others in order to maintain positive interactions….

All that is by way of example, but what seems most clear is that for one’s own consciousness –at least for my own consciousness — not behavior is not always self-referential. If I have a good student who likes what we’re doing in class I don’t immediately suppose that I’m a good teacher, or that it was a good lesson — but there’s this other person who’s willing to be pleased with our class, and that’s delightful and unexpected (as Fr John often thanks his congregation for being such kind listeners); and if I show some concern for what you think of me, I most often think that there’s something between us that is not only about me, or only about you, but which comes out in combination — and perhaps the mind cannot sort this into neat categories of “self-esteem” and “researcher-esteem” and more than the human eye can sort the world into discreet light waves and molecules and forces and whatever else is going on — for the human eye is doing something much more artistic; it’s seeing people and trees and animals, which are more than the sum of their parts. Anyway, so an internal account might say. It’s great that scientists can find out about the movements of bodies as well, but it would be ludicrous to say that because tigers are held composed of the movements of atoms and molecules and cells, that they do not also move as tigers — that they are not also fierce and furry and beautiful in a way that is different from and more than the cells and atoms. Anyway, I’m getting too Lucretian, and will soon begin exhibiting anxiety based behaviors as a result of my low poetic self esteem. A quote from the blog:

The mind is a tremendous story-teller and will try to make up pleasing stories about your thoughts and behaviour. These aren’t necessarily true.

The minds of those who interpret psychological research are also tremendous story tellers, and will try to make up displeasing stories about my thoughts and behaviors. These aren’t necessarily any more true than my own account.


3 thoughts on “Research Shows

  1. This is lovely and witty and logical, and may I say, prescient. I want to say something that is positive but has a barb in it (as Shelby Foote said about Faulkner’s critical comments). Alas, I am normally barbless when it comes to your writing. Ask Sean for his honest–honest I say!–opinion or Gary or Janet (she is a psychologist after all).
    Did you read David’s article yet? We have copies of it–very affecting and well written. I wonder if your little article might find a place in First Things. You should spiff it up if you can think of any improvements and send it off.

    1. Haha — my cheering section may be small, but at least it’s vocal…

      I didn’t — don’t have a copy; it’s be nice to read it, though. Would you like to come to Vespers tomorrow?

  2. Cheerleader #1 is right. This is easily on the level of a witty, and biting, book review in First Things. I sense, too, that you weren’t working hard at it–a good sign. Shoot them something (perhaps ten somethings). A good editor is an amazing thing.

    Over-intellectualized and over-jargoned researchers are (very much to your point) opaque to themselves. The classic problem of too many trees and not enough forest.

    It’s amazing he reached any conclusion at all. Inscrutable though he is, he must have done something right (or luck fraught) to conclude that people think more highly of themselves than justifiable. Does he turn it on himself, I wonder?

    I guess that is another example self-irrelevant moralizing–the other more famous example being the categorical statement that there are no absolutes.

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