5 Truths that Hindsight Made Clear

5 truths that hindsight made clear

I was able to pull some strings in college and take Social Psychology instead of Advanced Statistics. It was one of the best classes I ever took. The textbook still sits on my bookshelf, and I reference it more than any other college text. The ideas stuck with me. This post is one of those ideas that popped into my head again, and is a direct excerpt from David G. Meyers, Exploring Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994, pp.15-19.

Anything seems commonplace, once explained.
– Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes

Does social psychology simply formalize what any good amateur social psychologist already knows intuitively?

Cullen Murphy (1990), editor of The Atlantic, thinks so. So far as he can detect, the social sciences turn up “no ideas or conclusions that can’t be found in [any] encyclopedia of quotations. . . . Day after day social scientists go out into the world. Day after day they discover that people’s behavior is pretty much what you’d expect.” Nearly a half century earlier, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., (1949) reacted similarly to social scientists’ studies of American World War II soldiers as reported in the two volumes of The American Soldier — “ponderous demonstrations” of common sense knowledge, he said.

What were the findings? Another reviewer, Paul Lazarsfeld (1949), offered a sample with interpretive comments, a few of which I paraphrase:

1. Better educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.
(Intellectuals were less prepared for battle stresses than street-smart people.)

2. Southern soldiers coped better with the hot South Sea Island climate than Northern soldiers.
(Southerners are more accustomed to hot weather.)

3. White privates were more eager to be promoted to noncommissioned officers than Black privates.
(Years of oppression take a toll on achievement motivation.)

4. Southern Blacks preferred Southern to Northern White officers.
(Because Southern officers were more experienced and skilled in interacting with Blacks).

5. As long as the fighting continued, soldiers were more eager to return home than after the war ended.
(During the fighting, soldiers knew they were in mortal danger.)

One problem with common sense, however, is that we invoke it after we know the facts. Events are far more “obvious” and predictable in hindsight than beforehand… Daphna Baratz (1983) tested college students’ sense of the obvious. She gave them pairs of supposed social findings, one true (for example, “In prosperous times people spend a larger proportion of their income than during a recession” or “People who go to church regular tend to have more children than people who go to church infrequently”), the other its opposite. Her finding: Whether given the truth or its opposite, most students rated a supposed finding as something “I would have predicted.”

You perhaps experienced this phenomenon when reading Lazarsfeld’s summary of findings from The American Soldier. For actually, Lazarsfeld went on to say, “every one of these statements is the direct opposite of what was actually found.” In reality, the book reported that poorly educated soldiers adapted more poorly. Southerners were not more likely than Northerners to adjust to a tropical climate. Blacks were more eager than Whites for promotion, and so forth. “If we had mentioned the actual results of the investigation first [as Schlesinger experienced], the reader would have labelled these ‘obvious’ also. Obviously something is wrong with the entire argument of obviousness. . . . Since every kind of human reaction is conceivable, it is of great importance to know which reactions actually occur most frequently and under what conditions.”

The point is not that common sense is predictably wrong. Rather, common sense usually is right after the fact; it describes events more easily than it predicts them. We therefore easily deceive ourselves into thinking that we know and knew more than we do and did.

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  • Ryan Murri February 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    This highlights the problem I have with social psychology and why it’s often incorrect or at least incomplete – it only looks at external factors. For example, it looks at a prisoner and suggests they must have had a bad childhood, but doesn’t consider they might have made bad decisions. Social psychology too often doesn’t hold people accountable. But calling a spade a spade isn’t PC and labels an individual as a prejudice, which, interestingly enough, is more condemning than being labeled a liar, a thief, or an adulterer. Thanks social psychologists.