Monday, April 1, 2019

When social narratives and historical/empirical facts clash

This is just intended to be a quick fly-by post, inspired by a talk an anthropologist friend of mine gave at a local bookstore over the weekend. In discussing the tourist industry centered on the frontier mythology that dominates my community, he noted that there were social facts that often hid historical facts. By the way, countering the prevailing narrative is not an easy task, and a great way to make a few enemies along the way.

Anyway, his presentation got me thinking a good deal about how we go about teaching the psychological sciences, and more specifically social psychology. Any of us who have ever taken an introductory psychology course will inevitably read and be lectured on the story of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in Queens in the early 1960s. I won't repeat the story here, but I will note that what we often see portrayed in textbooks is not quite what actually happened. The coverage spawned research on the Bystander Effect, which may or may not be replicable. As a narrative, Genevese's murder has been used by social conservatives as an example of the breakdown of traditional moral values in modern society (part of the subtext is that Ms. Genovese was a lesbian), and by social psychologists to further their narrative of the potentially overwhelming power of the situation. Policymakers have used the early Bystander Effect research based upon the myth of Kitty Genovese to pass "Good Samaritan" laws. The Bystander Effect and the myth of Kitty Genovese that spawned that research has been monetized by ABC in the reality series, What Would You Do. There is power and profit to be had by maintaining the narrative while burying the historical facts. After several decades, the damage is done. The APA's coverage of the murder of Kitty Genovese effectively debunked the myth a decade ago. And yet it still persists. If more non-replications of the Bystander Effect across nations and cultures are reported, that is great for science - to the extent that truth is great for science. However, my guess is that the debunked classic work will remain part of the narrative, shared on social media, and in textbooks for the foreseeable future.

In my own little corner of research, there is a sort of social narrative that has taken hold regarding various stimuli that are supposed to influence aggressive and violent behavior. It is taken as a given that media violence is causally related to aggression and even violence, even though skeptics have successfully countered the narrative with ample data to the contrary. Even something as superficial as short-term exposure to a gun or a knife is supposed to lead to aggressive behavior. The classic Berkowitz and LePage (1967) experiment is portrayed in social psychology textbooks as a prime example of how guns can trigger aggressive behavioral responses. Now lab experiments like the one Berkowitz and LePage conducted are often very artificial, and hence hard to believe are real. But what if I were to tell you that some researchers went out into the field and found the same effect? You'd be dazzled, right? Turner and his colleagues (1975) ran a series of field experiments that involved drivers blocking other drivers at intersections. They measured whether or not a horn was honked as their measure of aggression. After all, a horn honk is loud and annoying, and often in urban environments is used as the next best thing to screaming at other drivers. At least that is the thinking. Sometimes the driver (a member of the research team) drove a vehicle with a rifle on a gun rack. Other times the driver did not. The story goes that Turner and colleagues found that when the gun was present, the blocked drivers honked their horns. Case closed. The problem was, Turner and colleagues never actually found what we present in textbooks. Except for a possible subsample - males driving late model vehicles - for most drivers the sight of a firearm actually suppressed horn honking! That actually makes sense. If you are behind some jerk at a green light who has a firearm visibly displayed, honking at them is a great way to become a winner of a Darwin Award! What was actually happening then, is that with the possible exception of privileged males, drivers tended to make the correct assessment that there was a potential threat in their vicinity and that they should act cautiously. For the record, as far as I am aware, after the Turner and colleagues report was published, no one has been able to find support that the mere presence of a gun elicits horn honking. And yet the false social narrative continues to perpetuate. Who benefits? I honestly don't know. What I do know that I see the narrative of the weapons effect (or weapons priming effect) used by those who want to advocate for stricter gun laws - a position I tend to agree with, although the weapons effect as a body of research is probably very ineffective as a means of building an argument. Those who benefit from censoring mass media may benefit again from the power they accumulate. Heck, enough lobbying got rid of gun emojis on iPhones a few years ago, even though there is scant evidence that such emojis have any real impact on real world aggression, let alone violence.

Finally, I am reminded of something from my youth. When I was a teen, the PBS series Cosmos was aired. I had read Sagan's book The Cosmic Connection just prior, and of course was dazzled by the series, and eventually by the book. I still think it is worth reading, though with a caveat. Sagan tells the story of Hypatia, a scientist that probably any contemporary girl would want to look up to, and her demise. As the story goes, Hypatia was the victim of a gruesome assassination incited by a Bishop in Alexandria (now in modern day Egypt), and that the religious extremists of the time subsequently burned down the Library of Alexandria. Eventually I would do some further reading and realize that Hypatia's apparent assassination was much more complex of a story than the one Sagan told, and that the demise of the Library of Alexandria (which was truly a state-of-the-art research center for its time) was one that occurred over the course of centuries. Sagan's tale was one of how mindless fanaticism destroyed knowledge. It's a narrative that I am quite sympathetic toward. And yet, the tale is probably not quite accurate. The details surrounding Hypatia's murder are still debated by historians. The Library's demise is one that can be attributed to multiple causes, including government neglect, as well as the ravages of several wars.

Popular social narratives may play on confirmation bias - a phenomenon any of us is prone to experiencing - but the historical or empirical record may tell another story altogether. If the lessons from a story seem too good to be true, they probably are. A healthy dose of skepticism is advised, even if not particularly popular. In the behavioral and social sciences, we are supposed to be working toward finding approximations of the truth. We are not myth makers and story tellers. To the extent that we accept and perpetuate myths, we are doing little more than science fiction. If that is all we have to offer, we do not deserve the public's trust. I think we can do better, and often really do better.

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