August 13, 2008

A social science about what could be

A long time ago I read something about social science which intrigued me. It was a statement by a social scientist, I believe it was Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, but I am not sure, which was something like: "Social science is too much focused on what is. We need a social science which is about what could be." This is such an intriguing thought. Social science is often aimed at identifying differences, associations, patterns and mechanisms in the real world as it is. Sometimes, this makes it a conservative force.

Take the case of intelligence tests. Psychologists may discover an association between intelligence test scores and certain aspects of work performance. And they may discover group differences between groups in their scores on intelligence tests. And they may discover that scores on intelligence tests appear to be quite stable over a lifetime. We may then conclude things like: 1) intelligence can not/hardly be developed, 2) it is an important predictor of work performance, 3) certain groups score lower than other groups.

It seems hard to argue with this logic, doesn't it? Indeed. And that is why this view on intelligence has been dominant for so long. But then take a look at some recent research on the so-called stereotype vulnerability.
Researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995) had African American and white college students take a very challenging standardized test. There were two conditions in which the test was presented: 1) The control condition: in this condition the test was presented as these tests are always presented - as a measure of intellectual ability and preparation. 2) The experimental condition: in this condition the test was presented in a non-evaluative way. The test takers was told that the researchers were not interested in measuring their ability with the test but that they just wanted to use the test to examine the psychology of verbal problem solving. These were the results. 1) In the control condition the African American test takers, on average, scored much lower than the white test takers. 2) For the white test takers there was no difference in their scores between the control condition and the experimental condition. 3) For the African American test takers there was a big difference between the control condition and the experimental condition. They solved about twice as many problems on the test in the experimental condition. Moreover, there was no difference between the performance of the black test takers and the white test takers. This type of experiment was replicated many times and in many ways with the same type of results (examples).

We need a social science about what could be...... Mmm.... that we have detected certain differences, and that we don't know yet how to bridge them does not definitely mean they are unbridgeable. That we have detected characteristics in people (or organizations) which usually stay stable over long periods of time does not prove that these characteristics are unchangeable. Still, I think, this is what we tend to conclude. Before you know it, social science becomes a conservative force which holds us back. A force which slows down innovation and puts us in a fixed mindset thereby creating its own reality (if we no longer believe something is possible, we stop trying and it will not happen).

A social science about what could be sounds important and attractive. But the hard question is: what does a social science about what could be look like? I think positive psychology is part of the answer, but I think there is more.


  1. More good food for thought Coert. I have been reading recently about the Biology of Belief - and it speaks to the old nature vs nurture argument in psychology by saying that we all have various biological potentials and limitations within us (our genetic nature), but what becomes of us depends on what the environment triggers - for better or for worse.
    So part of that science of hope needs to study the environmental conditions that bring out the best in everyone. "Yes, we can" is so exciting because like the solutions focus approach it opens us to new possibilities.

  2. I'll venture an answer to the hard question. :)

    Such a social science will study the potential of a person both as an individual and as a part of a group.

    Positive Psychology is just the beginning. One quick note about Positive Psychology... as you already know, they arrived to much of their conclusions by studying deviants, the kind of people that would have been discarded from statistical analysis because they were to far off from the group. They studied the exceptionally happy ones.

    Another aspect worth mentioning is something I read on your blog (I think) some time ago. IQ is not an indicative of success, rationality correlates better with success than IQ. A less "smart" but more rational person gets by easier. And this reminds me of something a teacher told us a long time ago in an Inventions course: To make an invention you need an IQ of about 70. The course focused on TRIZ and is the only course I regret not being part of till the end (it got canceled after 3-4 classes)

    Maybe something like the TRIZ Matrix could be created for Social interaction/situations.

    Another domain that could provide a lot of help is interpersonal interaction optimization. Socionics provide tons of materials for this already.

  3. Hi Peter,
    - this: 'both as an individual and as a part of a group' reminds me a bit of self determination theory which both emphasizes the individual (autonomy and competence) and the level of which the individual is a part (relatedness), whether that be a group or something more abstract (feeling related to nature, for instance)

    thank you for your links

  4. Coert,

    This is an interesting idea. I think the procedures of SF provide a guide to "a social science of possibility." Here's how. We would define a situation we want to improve such as we want people to be able to solve conflicts in which they have differing points of view.

    Then we define what the ideal would look like. The ideal outcome would be that people would come to useful agreements and/or create new options that allow them to overcome conflicts. Also, that a process to do this would be easy to facilitator or teach to people even in highly charged situations.

    Then we investigate to find a process that meets these criteria.

    This is a bit similar to what happens when a person uses Theory of Constraints to solve problems as well.

  5. Hi Rodney, thanks. I agree that SF has a lot to offer and sounds like a promise for a science of possibility. The topic of conflict resolution would indeed be a good example. The challenge I think is to make good and convincing research designs.


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner