I Ruined Two Birthday Parties and Learned the Limits of Psychology

“Psychologists sometimes act like we’re compiling a how-to book for life. Year by year, we scratch out the old wives’ tales, folk theories, and cognitive biases, and then replace them with evidence-based guidance for making better, happier decisions.

We are not compiling a how-to book for life. Many of our studies fail to replicate, but even if every paper were 100 percent true, you could not staple them together into an instruction manual, for two reasons.

First, people are just too diverse. Almost nothing we discover is going to be true for every single human. In my own research, for example, some strangers became fast friends, but others spent two painful minutes asking questions like “So, uh, do you have any cousins?” and then left as soon as they could. We also study just a small slice of the Earth’s population, and there’s no guarantee that what we discover about undergrads doing studies for extra credit, or Americans taking online surveys for pennies, or Chicago commuters striking up conversations for fruit, will generalize to the rest of humanity.

Second, social situations vary too much. People did have a surprisingly nice time talking on a train in Chicago, but the same might not be true at a grocery store in Tallahassee, or in a New York elevator. The outcome might depend on whom you’re talking with, or what you’re talking about, or whether you’ll end up getting a banana. [..]

My advice is to think of psychology research less as a set of instructions and more as a means of refining your intuitions. If you expect talking to strangers to be a terrible ordeal, then you should wonder why study participants find it surprisingly enjoyable. It’s possible those studies are wrong. But if they’re not, what gives? Maybe you’re just part of a minority of misanthropes. Maybe the strangers you meet aren’t like the strangers on that commuter line near Chicago. Maybe you treat every surprisingly delightful stranger as an exception and assume the next stranger will be bad. [..]

When we hear a narrative, we understand that some details matter (“Brutus betrayed Caesar”), and some don’t (“Brutus wore a toga”). We know that a story shows us what can happen (“Sometimes friends turn on you”), not what always happens (“Every friend will turn on you”). And we intuit that a story’s message should be taken seriously (“Make sure you maintain your friends’ loyalty”) and not literally (“Make sure to wear a stab-proof vest”). Nobody has to tell us how to reason in this way.

Applying our story sense to psychology works because psychology is stories. Each study reports what a certain group of people did in a certain time and place––that is, it sets a scene, fills it with characters, and puts them in motion. The stories can be simple (“People who said they felt depressed also said they had trouble sleeping”), or they can be complicated (“We offered people a banana to go talk to strangers on a train, and they reported having a better time than they expected”). We use statistics to show that our stories are credible, but a little bit of math doesn’t change what’s underneath. [..]

A story sense can sometimes be misleading, though, as psychologists have shown in many different ways. For instance, people tend to assume that easily imagined events (such as dying in a terrorist attack) are more common than events that are hard to picture (such as dying from falling out of bed). Learning how to apply the findings of psychology research is not like learning long division or computer programming; there isn’t a handbook, and nobody can tell you when you’re doing it wrong. You pick it up slowly, painfully, through trial and error [..]. No amount of expertise can speed up that process, which is why psychologists can study happiness and marriage all we want and yet some of us still end up depressed and divorced.”

Full article, A Mastroianni, The Atlantic, 2023.4.25