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Thursday, December 30, 2004

Sound Bite Psychology

Quick Question

The preeminent role for psychologists in the 21st century is:

a. explaining how the mind works.
b. providing new procedures for self control.
c. show how psychology can end human suffering and provide world peace.
d. create lots of sound bites for consumers on the go.

If you said 'd', you were right. Long ago, before computers bequeathed to us a world so bountiful that only a person with a manic lifestyle could appreciate, we had three TV channels, one car, a stay at home spouse, four kids, and a library with maybe ten books. We were unhappy then, but we didn't know it. Now, in this new world of bliss with so much to see and do, we really don't have the time to ponder anything that requires our conscious attention for more than two minutes.

Enter the sound bite.

It comes in many forms. In popular psychology, it is known as the 7 habits (Covey), 12 life laws (Dr. Phil), or 4 rules of power (Tony Robbins). For academic psychologists whose idea of a short concise summary is a preface to a journal article written in a language akin to ancient Greek, this poses a problem. How do you deliver your arcane wisdom to the public so they can understand the import of decades of wisdom in a phrase. Why a sound bite of course.

It is a two sentence summary, posted on some web portal, providing a filler paragraph in the lifestyle section of the newspaper, or making a fun fact for the nightly news. The sound bite is how academics let the world know about their life's work. Of course, something is lost in translation, and all we get to know are facts that seem screechingly obvious, unimportant, or redundant. But that's ok, since in this day and age we need to be constantly reminded about the facts of life. So we learn again and again (distilled from the latest study of course) that broccoli is good for you, exercise helps you lose weight, and that people without families tend to be depressed.

But if sound bites are what we 'think' science is all about, it leads to the conclusion that collections of sound bites represents wisdom for the ages. This is of course psychology of the self help kind, a psychology that can make what ails you into a nice well rounded metaphorical morsel that does not need any more explaining. Besides the usual self help suspects like Dr. Phil, academics have been getting on this bandwagon by neatly dividing human nature into simple bits and pieces that seem obvious, but are comfortably beyond doubt because they are beyond proof.

So obesity, bad breath, and voting Democratic is a disease, and everything else is an instinct that evolved because our ancestors survived by procrastinating, lusting after their neighbor's wife, and not paying their income taxes. Soon however, I predict that practitioners of the sound bite will be dividing into schools of thought that will become the 21st century equivalent of the 20th century Freudians and behaviorists, and 19th century empiricists and rationalists. Thus one should look forward in the next few years for these following trend setter schools of thought:

Center for knowledge of stuff we can't do anything about
-being born in winter increases the likelihood we will freeze.
-we will all die soon, and in the meantime will have to pay taxes

Institute of the Blitheringly obvious
-drinking and driving don't mix
-eating too much causes weight gain

Foundation for the promotion of unprovable concepts
-evolutionary psychology

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