The Quick Fix:
Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills
by jesse singal
farrar, strauss and giroux, 352 pages, $28
During the decade following World War II, the Cold War was often described by American observers as a conflict between the Judeo-Christian West and the atheistic communist East. Around 1955, however, this rhetoric shifted to emphasize what might be called “Enlightenment values.” The West would beat the East not on the basis of its greater religiosity, but thanks to its greater secularity. We would triumph on purely materialistic terms, not only building more and better microwaves and toasters, but also developing Star Wars-level technological and military might.
Early-1960s idealists hoped for a triumphantly technocratic society that would deliver ever-expanding material well-being. Thus science came to be viewed as the only universally valid form of knowledge, and the ideology of scientism—which asserts (non-scientifically) that the only meaningful truth claims are those which are scientifically validated—was elevated to our reigning public philosophy. Scientism’s ambition far exceeded the aims of the actual scientific method; but in a 20th-century revival of the 19th-century religion of Comte, the burgeoning social sciences were expected to offer empirical solutions to age-old human and social problems. Cultural elites dethroned philosophy and theology as the queen of the sciences, replacing them with psychology and sociology as the new sciences of progress, with statistics as handmaiden.
In the half-century since these cultural shifts, the social sciences have consistently over-promised and under-delivered. Perhaps we asked too much of them; but they certainly never refused the offer to become oracles of human and social wisdom. And our fascination with their latest pronouncements has not waned, despite the repeated failures of these disciplines to deliver societal harmony, cohesion, and prosperity. Jesse Singal’s thoughtful new book on social psychology, The Quick Fix, is a helpful catalogue of some recent failures. Singal has a skeptic’s keen eye for spotting shoddy claims, while remaining balanced in his assessments, and a knack for explaining complex statistical and methodological issues.
The opening chapter chronicles the failed but enormously influential efforts of California’s 1986 governmental task force on self-esteem—a project whose aims reverberated outside the state known for embracing novelty and fads. (A friend of mine likes to say that the San Francisco Bay Area is the place in the world where new proposals meet the least resistance: As a result, we get creative innovation in Silicon Valley but also a lot of really bad ideas.) It took California’s task force a year just to come up with a definition of self-esteem. Its projects to improve outcomes on a number of social problems by boosting self-esteem flopped spectacularly. Some academics at the University of California saw through the charade; but their objections were muted—state funding for the university was just too important. The absence of public dissent, combined with fawning media coverage and a ready audience for the language of self-esteem, generated an enormous cottage industry, introducing commercial considerations that further distorted critical scientific research.
This example of fad social psychology illustrates a pattern that repeats itself in Singal’s later chapters. The social policy reforms that ask the least of us—i.e., those that promise a “quick fix”—are most likely to go viral, irrespective of scientific evidence or a priori plausibility. Throughout the book, social scientists from both sides of the political spectrum come in for sharp criticism. Singal chronicles the missteps of many personalities who preferred the short-term payoffs of being “thought leaders”—TED talks, popular book deals, the speaking circuit—to the long-term but less flashy contributions of real intellectual work.
The consequences of these trends for public institutions have not been trivial. In the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, for instance, the U.S. Army spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an unproven approach to addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the alarming suicide crisis among traumatized soldiers. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the founding father of the positive psychology movement, sold the Army a “comprehensive soldier fitness program” to supposedly prevent PTSD, despite having no empirical evidence that this scheme could actually prevent PTSD or the associated suicides. Astonishingly, no PTSD specialists were consulted before the Army adopted this program. Singal argues that the Army bought this boondoggle because the program’s rhetoric fit well with the military’s culture and appeared to be an offer too good to refuse: Prevent PTSD rather than deploy expensive mental health interventions to treat it later. That this program never worked would not have been surprising, however, to anyone who has studied or treated this complex condition.
Singal favors structural accounts of social problems and tends to look askance on social psychology theories that focus too much on individual behavior and agency. He is unimpressed, for instance, by the Implicit Association Test, so often used in diversity and inclusion training programs. These tests—which aim to reveal unconscious racial bias—do little to effect meaningful social or institutional change, Singal writes: the eradication of micro-aggressions and other subtle individual faults has proven ineffective in addressing racial disparities. By contrast, a straightforward examination of the wealth gap can explain much of the disparity between whites and blacks in the criminal justice system. As Singal persuasively argues, obsession with implicit bias distracts our attention from other factors that have considerably more empirical evidence behind them.
The book’s penultimate chapter is a balanced account of the “replication crisis” currently crippling the social sciences. A great many findings, even widely touted ones, do not hold up when the studies are repeated. This crisis calls for a deep and honest self-reckoning from these disciplines. Wisely, Singal has no interest in tossing the baby out with the bathwater. In the spirit of reform-minded critics, he wants to see the social sciences re-founded on more solid footing, precisely so that their findings will hold up under scrutiny.
Psychology and sociology have doubtless made meaningful and often fascinating contributions to our understanding of human beings and society. But since we elevated them to master disciplines, expecting them to yield insights into the secret recesses of human nature and to fix complex problems that bedevil all societies, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we have been asking too much. If the social sciences, humbled by their evident failures, can distance themselves from charlatans and eschew salesmanship; if they can proceed carefully and soberly with due methodological rigor; and if they can honestly question their own practitioners’ assumptions and biases, then they will be capable of making real—though always modest and imperfect—contributions to our self-understanding and our shared life together.
Aaron Kheriaty, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Director of the Medical Ethics Program at the University of California, Irvine.
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Photo by Vibha C Kashap via Creative Commons. Image cropped.