Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chicken Little and the Ostrich

There is, it turns out, a whole literature out there on persuasion and information processing. On what makes people think carefully and systematically, and what pushes them to seize and freeze on arbitrary heuristics. On what makes us close-minded and stubborn versus open-minded and willing to consider alternative viewpoints.

Stress, for instance, increases close-mindedness—in high pressure situations, individuals tend to gravitate toward simple decision rules and groups tend to prioritize agreement over accuracy. Extreme positions tend to produce less acceptance and more counter-arguing than moderate positions, and threatening messages lead to defensive rather than open-minded information processing.*

If you had to distill this literature into one pithy take-home message, it might be this: If you go around shouting that the sky is falling, people will often stick their head in the sand.**
I think it’s this cyclical dynamic of shouting and head-burying that so often frustrates me about the unfolding conversation about best practices in psychological science and beyond. When I look around at where we are and where we’ve been, I often see a lot of smart, motivated, well-intentioned people eager for positive change. Most (maybe all?) of us can agree that our science isn’t perfect, that there’s room for improvement. And most of us share the same overarching goal: We want to make our science better. We want to maximize the information we get from the work that we do.

Sometimes, the air is full of thoughtful, nuanced conversations about the numerous possible strategies for working toward that shared goal. Other times, all I can hear is people shouting “PANIC!” and proposing a list of new arbitrary decision rules to replace the old ones (like the dichotomy-happy reification of p < .05) that arguably played a major role in producing many of our field’s current problems in the first place.

There is such potential here, in this moment of our evolving science, to move beyond cut-off values and oversimplification and arbitrary decision rules. There is change in the air. The ship has set sail. We’re moving.

What we need now is nuance. We need thoughtful conversations about the best courses to chart, the most promising routes, how to navigate around unexpected boulders. We need open-minded discussions that involve not just talking but also listening.

So let’s leave the sand behind, please, and let’s also quit telling people to panic. There’s a vast horizon out there. We’re in motion. Let’s stop shouting and start steering.

* See e.g., Kruglanski et al., 2006; Ledgerwood, Callahan, & Chaiken, 2014; Liberman & Chaiken, 1992; Sherif & Hovland, 1961; Sherman & Cohen, 2002

** H/T Eli Finkel for the bird-based metaphors.

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