‘The Quick Fix’ Review: A Bias Toward Easy Answers

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most of us like to think of ourselves as enlightened, thoughtful observers of the world around us, skeptical of irrational claims, crazy ideas and silly theories. It is only other people, members of eccentric subcultures in far-off places, who are susceptible to such foolishness. It is a flattering self-portrait. But is it true?

In “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills,” Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, chronicles several dubious enthusiasms that permeate our culture. Along the way, he tries to show why they are so widespread. His focus is on “the allure of fad psychology,” as he puts it, and on the ways in which “both individuals and institutions can do a better job of resisting it.”

We all remember the self-esteem programs that beguiled grade-school educators in the 1980s and 1990s. The idea was that, by handing out more prizes and encouraging self-affirming rhetoric, young people would do better in their studies and in life generally. But, as Mr. Singal notes, self-esteem failed to “ ‘unlock the gates’ of success.” Nor did it help to reduce—as promised—crime, teen pregnancy and a host of other social ills.

Then there was power-posing for women in the workplace: the claim that, by adopting assertive positions (legs astride, hands on hips) for two minutes before, say, going into a job interview, or while giving a presentation, a new confidence will be engendered as well as an improved status among otherwise dismissive men. A TED talk by an originator of power-posing and its chief evangelist, a Harvard psychologist, garnered 61 million views. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook was a fan. But it turned out that standing like Wonder Woman didn’t give women the promised testosterone boost and confidence they sought.

A MacArthur Fellowship-winning social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania championed a mental trait called “grit” (aka stick-to-itiveness). Teaching “grit” became a wildly popular way to build character or boost grades in school-aged children across the country. It didn’t deliver. As Mr. Singal notes, established concepts such as conscientiousness and IQ were far better at predicting performance.

Eventually the psychologists who created the test conceded that it had severe measurement problems. Among other things, it turned out that the IAT had notoriously low reliability, meaning that a subject could score “prejudiced” one day but not the next. And the test lacked predictive power or, as the creators acknowledged, was “problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination.” Nonetheless, the IAT has a vast reach. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of employees of corporations, foundations, universities, government agencies and police departments have taken the IAT—and have been told of the biases they possess but do not feel. After the killing of George Floyd, the popularity of the IAT exploded, despite the fact that it can’t predict the behavior that creates a racially unjust society.

What is the allure of these interventions? Humans will instinctively respond to a novel and simple—but not too alien—story about a subject of great social concern. What is more, fads are based on behavioral science conducted by researchers at esteemed institutions. Some of their colleagues grasp the exaggeration of their claims, but, as Mr. Singal writes, “it’s unrealistic to expect the average human resources manager or school principal or other institutional decision-maker to possess such skill and knowledge.”

On the supply side, psychologists have incentives to promote simple rather than complex theories. In a competitive academic field, a sexy press release can get one noticed. Even if fad originators were sincere at first, and most appear to have been, they often become too personally invested in what they are promoting. As Mr. Singal notes, they are “able to charge higher speaking fees, pursue lucrative consulting jobs, secure book deals, and enjoy the perks of minor celebrity.”

Academic journals, too, are keen to publish supposedly newsworthy findings. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see why a psychologist would be reluctant to re-examine her too-good-to-be-true results when doubts—her own and those of colleagues—begin to nag.

Each chapter of “The Quick Fix” presents accessible explanations of the research that was eventually shown to be “half-baked,” as Mr. Singal puts it. The problems, he shows, often derive from dodgy statistical analysis or faulty experimental design. Researchers, for instance, might use various statistical tests until one shows a sought-for result, or they might submit only positive results to a journal for publication, holding the negative ones back, a practice known as “file-drawering.” Mr. Singal also traces the social and political currents that helped propel certain trends.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

3 thoughts on “‘The Quick Fix’ Review: A Bias Toward Easy Answers”

  1. “it’s unrealistic to expect the average human resources manager or school principal or other institutional decision-maker to possess such skill and knowledge.”

    No. A first step upon hearing of some system is to ask, “How many times have the studies been replicated, and by whom?”

    • Whilst this should be obvious, the replication crisis engulfing the social sciences shows that a lot of scientists skip this step, so it’s a bit much to expect that mere civilians caught in the line of fire will ask the question.

      Having said this, it was never hard to to discover that IAT is notoriously unreliable, as would have been clear to anyone who repeatedly took the test: in fact, the results seem to be a bit like those you get using a home blood pressure testing machine, though for the latter you can almost always identify good reasons why the latest reading might be up or down whilst, if IAT worked, you’d expect the results to be stable. So I’d add another question: “Is the result of the system what current fashion wants to be true?”

      • Mere civilians? I ask the question all the time. Those who think it’s hard can try, “How many times has it been tested?”

        “I flipped a coin, and it came up heads. Now I know what happens when we flip a coin.”

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