The Public Benefits of Social Psychology


After spending the better part of this week talking and writing about what needs to be fixed about social psychology, I thought it would be worth highlighting two recent editorials that point out the things the field does well. Both editorials extol the virtues of random assignment (not this blog, but it’s ok if you want to read it that way) as a powerful technique to collect evidence of which social policies and interventions work and which ones don’t.

First, on Saturday, Dick Thaler (@R_Thaler) covered the successes of social psychologist David Halpern in The New York Times. Halpern and his Behavioral Insights Team have been applying the lessons of behavioral economics (which social psychologists like to take credit for, particularly when it’s this spectacularly successful) to British social policy.

Established two years ago, after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the team has been conducting randomly controlled experiments that have found ways to get people to behave better, saving themselves and tax payers a fair bit of money, and at very little cost.

Clearly, initiatives like all of these will allow the team to pay for itself many times over. But the most lasting impact will probably be that policy makers will consider randomized trials as a way to discover what works.

I hope that’s true. As recently as March of 2010, British economist Tim Harford (@TimHarford) lamented that randomized trials were “not common in the US, and downright rare in the UK.” Now they’re leading the way (here’s Harford’s recent follow-up).

Then, on Thursday, Tim Wilson (@TimWilson18) took to the pages of The Los Angeles Times with a bold defense of social psychology and the so-called “soft-sciences”. Wilson responds to the charge that the social sciences are unable to make precise predictions because “such predictions almost always require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved.” On the contrary, Wilson argues, not only do social scientists conducted these sorts of experiments, but society has benefited tremendously from their findings. Wilson concludes:

Human behavior is complex, and it is not possible to conduct experiments to test all aspects of what people do or why. There are entire disciplines devoted to the experimental study of human behavior, however, in tightly controlled, ethically acceptable ways. Many people benefit from the results, including those who, in their ignorance, believe that science is limited to the study of molecules.

It's really great to see Thaler and Wilson making such a strong case to a wide audience about the public benefits of social science, and social psychology in particular, especially when it's made so clearly and forcefully by two people who have contributed so much to the field.

(Also, be sure to check out their most recent books; Thaler's Nudgeand Wilson's Redirect, they're both great reads.)