2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Social Psychologist; Professor, New York University Stern School of Business; Author, The Righteous Mind
Psychologist, University of Virginia

The Baby Boomers Will Soon Retire

I am optimistic about the future of social science research because the influence of the baby boom generation on the culture and agenda of the social sciences will soon decrease. Don't get me wrong, many of my best friends are boomers, and technically I'm one too (born in 1963). I am grateful for the freedom and justice that the activists of the 1960s and 1970s helped bring to the United States. But if there is a sensitive period for acquiring a moral and political orientation, it is the late teens and early 20s, and most of those whose sensitive periods included the Vietnam war and the struggles for civil rights seem to have been permanently marked by those times. Many young people who entered Ph.D. programs in the social sciences during the 1970s did so with the hope of using their research to reduce oppression and inequality. This moral imprinting of a generation of researchers may have had a few detrimental effects on the (otherwise excellent) science they produced. Here are two:

1) Moralistic antinativism. The deep and politicized antipathy to 1970s sociobiology produced a generation of social scientists wary of nativism in general and of evolutionary thinking in particular. Nobody these days admits to believing that the mind is a blank slate at birth, but in practice I have noticed that social scientists older than me generally begin with a social learning explanation of everything (especially sex differences), and then act as though it is "conservative" (scientifically) or "liberal" (politically) to stick with social learning unless the evidence against it is overwhelming, p<.05, which it rarely is. But shouldn't we use p<.5 here? Shouldn't we always let nativist and empiricist explanations both have a go at each question and then pick the one that has the better fit, overall, with the evidence? I look forward to the day when most social scientists learned about the astonishing findings of twin studies in their twenties, and very few know who Stephen Jay Gould was. 

2) Moral Conformity Pressure. Imagine an industry in which 90% of the people are men, male values and maleness are extolled publicly while feminine values are ridiculed, and men routinely make jokes, publicly and privately, about how dumb women are, even when women are present. Sounds like a definition of hostile climate” run wild? Now replace the words male” and female” with liberal” and conservative,” and we have a pretty good description of my field —social psychology—and, I suspect, many other areas of the social sciences. I have no particular fondness for conservatives. But I do have a need for them. I study morality, and I have found that conservative ideas (about authority, respect, order, loyalty, purity, and sanctity) illuminate vast territories of moral psychology, territories that have hardly been noticed by psychologists who define morality as consisting exclusively of matters of harm, rights, and justice. If social psychology had been a morally diverse field, we would have done a much better job of studying the full expanse of human morality, and we'd be in a much better position right now to understand the morality of radical Islam.

Will younger social scientists be more morally diverse than the baby boom generation? Maybe not. But if they make it through their sensitive periods without seeing themselves as part of a revolution, they just might be more open to diverse ideas about the origins of mind, the scope of morals, and the workings of society.