Social psychology is often formally defined as the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the real, imagined, or implied presence of others. Informally, it’s the scientific study of everyday life.
Many people’s first exposure to the field of social psychology comes from Stanley Milgram’s famous research on obedience to authority. These studies, and the replications that have followed, suggest that most individuals will obey when commanded by what they perceive to be a legitimate authority figure to administer painful electric shocks to another person (actually an actor working with the experimenters). In fact, most people in Milgram’s studies were willing to administer shocks all the way to the end of the experiment, up to 450 volts, and long past when the other person had stopped responding (Beauvois et al., 2012; Burger, 2009; Doliński et al., 2017; Milgram, 1963).
These findings tend to leave an indelible impression upon the minds of those who learn of them. Beyond being surprising, these findings reveal the power of social forces to influence human behavior – not just in the laboratory setting constructed by Milgram, but in real-world contexts as well.
Yet experiments like Milgram’s are no longer the norm in social psychology. Instead of placing participants in what they believe to be a real social situation demanding a behavioral response, studies today often ask participants to answer questions about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, often while seated in front of a computer and in response to some hypothetical rather than actual events (Anderson et al., 2019; Sassenberg & Ditrich, 2019). This situation has led to criticisms that psychology is no longer the science of behavior but the study of self-reports and computer mouse clicks (Baumeister et al., 2007).
Indeed, regardless of the causes or defensibility of the methodological sea change that has occurred within psychology (a topic discussed at length elsewhere; Anderson et al., 2019; Rozin, 2009; Sassenberg & Ditrich, 2019), many social psychologists have expressed concerns that their field’s ability to provide reliable information about important, real-world social behaviors – exactly the kinds of behaviors the field has historically studied – has waned with time (Baumeister et al., 2007; Cialdini, 2009; Doliński, 2018; Ellsworth, 2010).
The relationship between social psychology’s methodology and its real-world relevance is important and something I hope researchers will continue to discuss and address in future research.
Yet the methodological trends noted above raise another set of concerns that are perhaps more insidious and have yet to receive attention among social psychologists: the possibility that members of the public – including those who serve as participants in social psychological research – will come to view psychology as an enterprise with little resemblance or relevance to everyday life. If this occurs, several negative consequences may follow.
In sum, how people outside of social psychology view the field’s real-world relevance has far-reaching implications. Yet we do not at present have a good sense of non-experts’ views of current social psychological research.
It is this gap in knowledge that I and my co-author Anna Reiman hoped to address in a paper recently published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. To get an accurate sense of how non-experts perceive modern social psychological research, we prepared plain-language summaries of the research questions, procedures, and findings of a representative sample of 114 studies published in three of the top social psychology journals between 2018 and 2019.
In August 2020, we presented these summaries to over 300 MTurk workers recruited using the CloudResearch platform, which is increasingly relied on as a source of research participants in social psychology (Anderson et al., 2019). Each participant was randomly assigned to one of two groups.
The first group of participants read five randomly chosen summaries describing the main research questions and findings of five of the 114 articles (i.e., what questions did the researchers hope to answer about human psychology and what answers did they find?). After reading the summaries, participants answered questions about how important and relevant to everyday life they perceived this research to be.
A second group of participants read five randomly chosen summaries describing the method and procedures used in five of the 114 studies (i.e., what did participants in the study experience and do and what measures were collected by the researchers?). These participants then answered questions about how realistic they perceived the study’s procedures to be, both in the sense of whether the things participants were asked to do serve as a good representation of common, everyday social situations and whether participants’ behavior in the study is likely to predict their real-world behavior. Whereas these are not the only dimensions we could have asked about, we tailored our questions to the concerns most expressed by social psychologists. In addition, we asked about participants’ demographic characteristics (e.g., political orientation, level of education), their prior experience with psychology, and their general attitudes toward the field.
Interestingly, we found that non-experts’ perceptions of contemporary social psychological research did not seem to align with social psychologists’ views of their own field.
Our participants tended to “slightly agree” (i.e., a 5 on the 7-point rating scale we used) that the research they read about used realistic methods, was informative regarding real-world social behavior, and was relevant to their everyday lives. Furthermore, these perceptions did not differ based on participants’ political orientation, level of education, amount of prior experience on MTurk (potentially including experience as a participant in psychology studies), or prior experience and familiarity with social psychology and research methods (e.g., having taken college courses in these subjects).
Instead, the only statistically significant correlation we observed was with participants’ attitudes toward psychology as a whole: people with a more positive view of this field also expressed more positive views of the specific research they read about in our study. (It is worth noting that because this variable was measured at the end of our study, it is possible that these ratings were influenced by the research participants had just finished reading about.)
First, that laypeople – those without formal expertise or extensive training in psychological research – do not appear to share the view expressed in recent critiques that social psychologists no longer study “the important things that people do” (Baumeister et al., 2007, p. 396). Rather, our participants tended to express somewhat positive views of the applicability and relevance of current social psychology to their own lives. Whereas this finding absolutely does not mean that the issues raised by social psychologists are invalid or not worth worrying about, it does tell us that these issues seem at present unlikely to negatively affect this field’s ability to attract new interest, funding, and talent.
Second, these findings also raise the possibility that one’s perception of the severity of the issues plaguing social psychological research depend in part on how these issues are defined and measured. We may have obtained different results if we had simply asked participants whether the studies they read about featured “real behavior” – a concept that, despite serving as the focus of several recent reviews (Baumeister et al., 2007; Doliński, 2018), can be quite difficult to precisely define and operationalize (Fiedler, 2018; Garcia-Marques & Ferreira, 2018; Kruglanski et al., 2018). Thus, methodological critiques of social psychology may benefit from more thoroughly addressing questions about what precise qualities the field purportedly lacks and why these qualities matter to begin with.
Finally, it would be interesting to see what our results would look like if we conducted this same exact study with a sample of experts. Perhaps it is not expertise that makes the biggest difference but rather how the relevant questions about social psychological methodology are framed.
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Beauvois, J. L., Courbet, D., & Oberlé, D. (2012). The prescriptive power of the television host. A transposition of Milgram’s obedience paradigm to the context of TV game show. European Review of Applied Psychology, 62(3), 111-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erap.2012.02.001
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