22 Jan Twin Perspectives
I have a twin brother. We are fraternal twins, which means that we are no more genetically similar than any other siblings. However, we did have a shared experience of the womb, we grew up in the same social and cultural milieu, and our shared childhood experiences created a unique familial bond. At the same time, we have made distinctly different choices about how to live our lives. My brother went to Harvard. Having grown up in a college town, I wanted nothing to do with that kind of “college” experience and ended up an NYU partly because it didn’t have a real “campus life”. After college, my brother went to graduate school for social psychology which pleased my father a great deal. I worked as a messenger, typist, bus boy, and sperm donor (that’s another story), but mostly I did those jobs so that I could play in a rock band and make art. My life choices didn’t disappoint my father as much as they worried him. While my father was somewhat rebellious, he understood how to work within systems to reach his own goals. He was the head of the psychology department at his university. He grew up poor, so that sense of stability was important to him.
When I started playing in a band, I was not really a musician. Being in a band was a way for me to make art without being an “artist”. More than anything, it was a way to become part of a community of artists who worked outside of the galleries and the kind of expectations that that entailed – outside the system. After a few years of being in a band, I met my future wife through her roommate who was also in a local band. My future wife was in film school at the time, and I talked her into dropping out of film school and making a film with me about the music world that we were a part of. Thirty years later, my brother is the head of his school’s psychology department and I’m still making movies with my wife. He has the stability that my father desired for us, and I do not. I don’t have a salary, nor a job that pays for health insurance, nor the kind of connections that those come with. Admittedly, I also don’t have to deal with some of the problems that those situations entail either. In general, our films tend to subtly challenge cultural expectations. Like my high school self, our films ask questions that people in power don’t really want to have to answer. One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. According to this definition, I should be locked up. This year we finished two feature films that we are quite happy with. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t expect them to “do a little better” than they did. It’s been a long year.
A month ago, I was at a Christmas party full of social psychology students and professors that my brother organized for his department. I was talking to a colleague of my brother’s about a film we’d made about Dr. John Sarno and the resistance that he faced because his work on mind-body medicine was viewed as “unscientific“. She had seen the film and brought up its connection to the current “replication crisis” in social psychology. Sarno was dismissed by his peers in a similar manner to the one in which younger social psychologists currently are putting pressure on the research practices of some of their more established peers- calling into question the validity of their work. Dr. Sarno’s dismissal was largely based on the fact that he had done no randomized control trials to confirm his theories. In the replication crisis in social psychology, many important studies in the field can’t be replicated by other scientists. This has led to hard questions about the process by which the experiments were carried out, how the data was collected, and how that data was then used. A couple of weeks before the party the NY Times Magazine ran a long article about the downfall of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who often collaborated with my brother.
A few years ago, Amy did a TED talk about her study concerning “power poses”, and how we might use them to “fake it till we become it”. Not only did the study show that this process made people feel stronger, but it also physically boosted their testosterone levels and decreased their level of cortisol, a hormone related to stress. That TED talk has been viewed over 43 Million times, making it one of the most watched talks ever. However, in an effort to “solidify” the scientific foundations of the field, some researchers are demanding much more exacting standards in regards to how data is collected and processed. When her study was challenged because it couldn’t be replicated Amy asked who was challenging her work for some advice about how to present a re-evaluation of the work. Due to a miscommunication, she released the re-evaluation in a way that those who were challenging the work (and whom she consulted) felt was insufficient. They quickly, and publicly, attacked the paper. In short, the whole situation was so onerous that Amy ceased working in her field.
One thing that my brother studies is how relative relationship to “power” changes our behavior. In some regards, due to Amy’s notoriety, which was based largely on her power pose study, she had a higher level of power than her younger colleagues who challenged her work. However, others have argued that because she was a woman, these colleagues might have been more likely to challenge her than her male colleagues. In fact, the problems that they had with her study were essentially standard procedure when she completed it. Further, their relative lack of power might have made them feel that they had to challenge her work in a forceful and public manner in order to be heard. At the time that my brother entered the field, it was fairly wide open. However, in the 20 or so years since he began his work, the job market has become increasingly competitive. While there was certainly risk in challenging their colleagues work in this way, making a name for themselves as standing up for truth could also lead to the kind of notoriety that might propel their career just as Amy’s TED talk propelled hers. Clearly, data can be spun in many different ways, and even social psychology dramas can be examined in a psychosocial manner. Our experiences and our relationships shape our worldview and our behavior. If we don’t grasp the complexity of those factors we risk telling an oversimplified story. In general, randomized control trials involve limiting the factors that might affect the outcome. While that limiting helps to create a sense of clarity, it does so at a cost of complexity.
I believe that the practice of social psychology can help us gain insight into how we make decisions, how we unconsciously behave, and how social systems function. However, while these studies have value, it takes a certain amount of hubris to see them as solid proof of how people as a whole function. When we use these studies to make blanket statements about groups of people, enact inflexible social policies, or pass laws, it can be problematic. Yet, writers like Malcom Gladwell, Jonah Lehrer, and Johann Hari- as well as social scientists like my brother and Amy Cuddy- do a good job of weaving these studies into stories that help us gain insight into our culture and ourselves. What these writers do is point to the data as signposts rather than facts. They use data to help us help ourselves. People who are asking for more stringent standards do so because they want the data to be more reliable, and by extension taken more seriously. This process raises very serious questions about the reliability of “data” not only in regards to social psychology, but in all realms of the mind and the body.
Dr. Sarno began to practice medicine before the complete takeover of the bio-physical approach to medicine that rose to prominence in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When he began his training, Freud’s ideas concerning the mind-body connection had not gone out of vogue completely. He was taught to practice via “close careful observation”, and when talking to his patients he came to see how powerfully people’s emotions were affecting their bodies. When he wasn’t able to help back pain sufferers heal with the standard care he had been taught – things like bed rest, physical therapy, heat and icing – he looked into the research that had been done to support these methods and found that there wasn’t really any. So he started talking to his patients with more purpose: looking for patterns and clues about their lives that might explain their pain. He soon realized that most of them were over-achievers, whom he dubbed “goodists”. They tended to be hard-working people-pleasers who unconsciously repressed their own feelings, needs, and desires in order to be good for other people. When he explained to them that this might create some internal conflict which led to the physical pain, many of them recognized the connection and they got better. Over the next decade, through more close careful observation, as well as trial and error, he developed a practice based around this knowledge. As he said, “Knowledge is the cure. I tell them what’s going on, and lo and behold they get better.” However, while his patients got better, he was increasingly looked down upon by his colleagues who were focused on surgery, pain pills, and physical therapy. When he pointed out that most of his patients’ pain didn’t correlate with the disc herniations they had been diagnosed with, his peers ignored him. He was out of step with the culture, so he kept to himself and built up a thriving, yet controversial, practice. Over the next 4 decades, he published half a dozen books, saw tens of thousands of patients and stayed out of the limelight. As his fame steadily spread, so did the skepticism. He was dismissed out of hand by a stream of science-oriented doctors because he didn’t do randomized control trials to prove that his method was working. “How do you control for emotions?” he asked, “You can’t!” In many ways, I believe that this truth is at the heart of the replication crisis in social psychology.
On some level, all art – and really all science – is about storytelling. When one sets out to do an experiment, she is asking questions in order to facilitate the collection of data. Once that data is collected, it is her job to tell a story from that data. This idea is less apparent when people are talking about particle physics than when they are talking about how people might react in a given situation, which is more the realm of social psychology. Social psychologists are more like writers than mathematicians. The best social psychologists are good at both writing and math. Like Dr. Sarno, they look to people’s stories – as well as their settings and their place in the world – to find out what makes them tick. In the early 90’s, business schools began to see the value that psychologists’ insights into human nature might bring to business, and started to build departments around their work. This was around the time that my brother entered the job market.
He’ll be the first to say that when he began doing research, the guidelines were much less rigorous. At that time, experiments might be run several times, tweaking the process along the way, until an effect was found that was significant. Researchers weren’t expected to submit all of the data they collected during that process, only the data that was significant. To be clear here, this was standard practice at the time. Given this fact, it isn’t surprising that many of these experiments are difficult to repeat and find a replication of results.
There’s an inherent tension between science and storytelling, yet they rely on each other to exist. If a story doesn’t “make sense” or reflect our own experience, it is less relevant to us. If we do an experiment and we gain no practical or useful knowledge from it – if we can’t tell a story from that data – then it won’t have much of an effect on our culture. At the same time, we want our stories, especially journalistic ones, to be true. We need to trust our stories or the fabric of our relationships, our culture, and our society starts to fray and fall apart. While truth and justice are integral to a functioning society, so is etiquette. I might chafe against rules, regulations, and systems, but society needs them. However, one thing that we can learn from social psychology is that we need a balance between having enough of these things, but not so much that it inhibits freedom, innovation, or experienced truth. One thing that becomes clear while looking at the story of Amy Cuddy is that a) there is some value in discussing the merits of shifting standards in regards to data reporting and calculation in social psychology and b) etiquette was sorely lacking in how she was treated and it’s quite likely that this has to do with other unconscious social processes (but that’s another story).
I don’t have any issues with the basic idea of the scientific method. However, from my experience with making a film about Dr. Sarno as well as in my own personal experience with systems in general, I believe there’s a tendency to over focus on the details and miss the bigger picture. If one zooms out and looks at Dr. Sarno’s work and the profound resistance he faced in regards to the basic idea that the mind and the body interact in ways they can often cause problems with our health, we see a profound level of blindness to a reality we all face. On one level, we all know that stress makes us ill. We know that stress makes our necks hurt and our stomachs upset. Yet we resist this story in ways that require great cognitive contortions. While it is important for us to gather numbers so that we might make informed decisions, it’s also important that we step back and examine why we are asking our questions in the first place.