May 8, 2014

Social psychology v. marketing research

On statistician Andrew Gelman's blog, there is an argument between Gelman and Steven Pinker over the so-called "replication crisis" in the social sciences, with Pinker defending evolutionary psychology in contrast to social psychology.

If I could step back for a second to take a larger view, much of the problem with social psychology in the 21st Century is that it discovered that there was money to be made by becoming a branch of marketing research while still maintaining the pretensions of being a science. I suspect Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 bestseller “The Tipping Point” was a, uh, tipping point in this evolution.

The selling point of social psychology is that it’s a Science and therefore, goes the unstated but implied assumption, any experimental result that social psychologists come up with about how to manipulate college students is Science and therefore part of the Unchanging Laws of the Nature of the Universe. 

For example, the canonical experiment in 1990s social psychology was that a social psychologist had manipulated college students into walking ever so slightly slower to the elevator by showing them words related to old age.

People in the marketing and advertising industries went wild over this experiment because it was much like what they do -- manipulate young people -- except it was Science! 

When you get started in advertising, it seems very exciting because you have New Ideas about what today's youth think is cool. But as the years go by and you rise up the corporate ladder to the point where you get sent to conferences featuring expensive speakers like Malcolm Gladwell, marketing starts to seem like a giant hamster wheel of pointless motion. As T.S. Eliot, who worked in the publishing industry, lamented:
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

So, this guy with the crazy hair up on the stage talking about Science is very appealing. Now that you have a mortgage and a family, you don't want to lose your hard-earned job to some 20-something who is more in touch with what today's youth are into. You've got to emphasize your advantage in wisdom. But nobody believes in wisdom anymore, they just believe in Science. But by going to this expensive conference, you are learning the latest Science, like how a Genuine Scientist got college kids to walk slower down the hall to the elevator. Granted, it's not immediately obvious how walking slower can make your clients more money, but the point is that this stuff isn't just an endless hamster wheel of fashion, it's Science, which you can best learn about by attending exclusive conferences. And the great thing about Science is that it doesn't change, right? 

Unfortunately for middle-aged marketers everywhere, this famous experiment has proven hard to replicate, however. Maybe it was garbage in the first place, or maybe it was just some 1990s college kid fashion, like wearing flannel shirts. Somebody manipulated them into doing that back then, right? Maybe college students want to be manipulated into the latest stupid fads?

In contrast to social psychologists, the basic assumption of marketing researchers is: We can figure out for you what’s working right at the moment to manipulate consumers, but, hey, this isn’t the Law of Gravity, this isn't the search for eternal wisdom, it's just business. So whatever works now will probably stop working soon as shoppers get bored by it. So, you’ll have to come back and hire us again next year to tell you what those crazy kids have gotten into next.


hardly said...

I think its possible the experiment with walking speeds was true. I read somewhere that the implicit association test could be gamed by picturing high achieving blacks like mandela in your mind.

Anonymous said...

Maybe college students like to be manipulated into stupid fads?

Most college students aren't all that smart, and still have the high school metrosexual mentality.

Anonymous said...

That walking speed experiment was almost certainly junk to start with. A bunch of results by the guy who did that study (John Bargh) are turning out not to be replicable. Very doubtful it ever worked, in the 1990s or any other time. Google "Many Labs Replication Project" to see the results of a large recent effort to replicate some related social priming effects along with other psych effects in many different labs simultaneously. The other psych effects all worked, but social priming was a complete bust. It's looking like a big urban folktale in a very screwed up social psych field.

Anonymous said...

All this noise about Sterling but not much talk about Bryan Singer.

Anonymous said...

Nicholas Wade interview: A Troublesome Inheritance

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

Great post. Like, borderline profound.

Drawbacks said...

"The half-life of truths in psychology is 18 months." -- Marvin Minsky

Anonymous said...

Todd Gitlin located the origins of this link to marketing much further back than Gladwell, in a piece called "Media Sociology: the Dominant Paradigm"--late 'seventies, I think.

Pat Boyle said...

I was arguing with my friend Calvin about this. He got incensed when I suggested that empirical verification wasn't the criteria in the social sciences.

That was 1969.

I applied for a Market Research job a few years later at Walter Landor. It was a highly romantic place to work. The company which was famous for designing the Coca-Cola logo was situated on a boat in the San Francisco harbor.

I think I asked for too much money and possibly the fact that I knew nothing about market research. In any case they didn't hire me - and I had worn such a good suit too. Such are life's turning points.

Many years later when I was heading up a software development team and in conflict with my opposite number in the marketing group. I told this story and suddenly got a reputation as a market researcher. I still didn't know anything about market research but it didn't seem to matter. People in the company accepted me as an authority.

I began to think of Market Research as something like Sociology - a lot of airy persiflage that impresses the great unwashed.

Pat Boyle

Anonymous said...

Social psychology unnerves me. All that rational science in service of learning how to manipulate us like guinea pigs.

Anonymous said...

Social psychology is, of course, a legitimate scientific endeavor. The problem is that people tend to equate Science with the proclamations and speculation of scientists, which is especially dangerous when the research has anything to do with humans and how they think/act.

If you want to know what Science really has to say, I'm afraid you have to get your hands dirty. Even the abstracts won't cut it. You have to actually read the damn papers and then try to imagine every possible reason why the results might be garbage.

Anonymous said...

People can be manipulated even without trying. In a movie Clark Gable took off his shirt and wasn't wearing a t-shirt underneath. T-shirt sales plummeted after that.

Anonymous said...

Social psychology unnerves me. All that rational science in service of learning how to manipulate us like guinea pigs.

Educational psychology is much the same.

Alcalde Jaime Miguel Curleo said...

Steve, ever read any of the later output of George Lakoff? He is a veteran academic eminence who suggested, among other things, that the Howard Dean/netroots faction's main problem was a technique of branding. I've never understood why politicians are complete suckers for this type of consulting; it would seem that, if you need a scientific manual to explain people's tribal behavior, politics probably isn't your bag

Anonymous said...

"The half-life of truths in psychology is 18 months." -- Marvin Minsky"

With one notable exception: The only 'truth' that seems persistent is the grief stuff ( I believe attributable to Elizabeth Moss-kantor). This phooey has has enjoyed a dream run in last three or four decades; spawning an industry of 'counselling' that makes psychoanalysis at its peak look like a cottage industry.

My intuition is that it goes unchallenged because it offends no-one in particular, and no-one really wants to deal with loss, death and bereavement.

Gilbert P