Monday, March 16, 2009

Social Psychologist Retires and Blasts the Field

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini (author of the excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion) announces his retirement, in part because social psychology is too biased towards artificial laboratory experiments on undergraduates and too biased against actual field research on human beings in the wild (so to speak):
The flagship journal in social psychology is the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). As a past Associate Editor, I know how to get papers accepted there; along with my coworkers, I've continued to have JPSP articles published regularly in recent years. But, I haven't had any of my field research published there in over 15 years. And field research, remember, is what I do best. So, I have had to take reports of that work elsewhere, sometimes to top-of-the-line scholarly outlets in consumer behavior, organizational science, survey research, marketing, and management.

Although the effects of the misalignment of my strengths with the changes in my home discipline have not been especially harsh on me as regards vita-building, they have been devastating in another respect: I am no longer able to accept graduate students. At least, I am no longer able to do so in good faith because most apply hoping (a) to be trained by me in field research methods for investigating behavior in naturally occurring settings and (b) to be competitive for the best jobs in academic social psychology at the end of that training. For the foreseeable future, I know that I can reasonably help them attain only the first of those goals. Therefore, I also know that, even though academic social psychology offers a vital, burgeoning, intellectually engaging research arena, it is time for me to leave. Aside from this minor consequence, there stands to be a more far-reaching outcome of the field's retreat from the field.

Observers of the national behavioral and social science scene as well as sympathetic elected officials have been warning for years that unless researchers more clearly demonstrate the value of their explorations to the wider society, support will be reduced by politicians looking for ways to eliminate what their constituents do not find relevant and, hence, worthy of support. With the recent changes at the National Institute of Mental Health that have eliminated the Behavioral Sciences Research Branch, which formerly funded much basic social psychological research, those warnings have become nasty reality. As we have moved increasingly into the laboratory and away from the study of behavior, I believe we have been eroding the public's perception of the relevance of our findings to their daily activities.

One of the best aspects of field research into naturally occurring behavior is that such relevance is manifest. When my colleagues and I have studied which messages most spur citizens to reduce household energy usage, the results don't have to be decoded or interpreted or extrapolated. The pertinence is plain. Truth be told, as a discipline, we've become lax in our responsibilities to the public in this regard. They deserve to know the pertinence of our research to their lives because, in any meaningful sense, they've paid for that research. They are entitled to know what we have learned about them with their money.

So, my idea for improving academic psychology would be to reassign substantially more value to field research than has been the case in recent times. It should be taught regularly in our graduate methods classes, there should be prestigious awards designated for the best of it, and it should be given more grace (and space) in the loftiest of our journals. If that could be accomplished, I would be able to head off in other directions happily knowing that my lifelong love is destined to be healthier and more appealing than ever.
(Also via BPS).


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