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Friday, March 25, 2011

The Elephant in the Living Room

“In applying a method, we need to be as sure as we can that the method itself does not either determine the outcome in advance of the empirical inquiry or artificially skew it. A common method for achieving this… is to seek converging evidence using the broadest available range of differing methodologies. Ideally, the skewing effects of any one method will be canceled out by other methods. The more sources of evidence we have, the more likely this is to happen.” (Lakoff and Turner, 1999) [i]

"… has been increasingly the task of specialists. Today there are few scholars who can call themselves mathematicians or physicists or biologists without restriction. A man may be a topologist or an acoustician or a coleopterist. He will be full of the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy."  Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics (1961)[ii].

“Psychological theory today is a patchwork, much like the mosaic of principalities that eventually became Italy and Germany circa 1870. A major goal for all theorists must be to integrate what exists rather than to neglect or denigrate the rest of psychology. Connecting theories conceptually exposes our mutual blind spots and can lead to new and bold insights.” Gigerenzer (2008)[iii] .

As the story goes, "A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: 'It is like a pillar.' This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently.”(Wikipedia)

In this story, the blind men were not trying to figure out how the elephant got there, or how it evolved, lived, or even how it breathed. They were just trying to figure out what it was. A simple task, if they just compared notes. But why didn’t they? They interpreted the elephant from the perspective of where they stood. Vantage points of course can have costs, and each blind man may have been more comfortable with his expertise at the rear of the elephant than at its trunk. Moreover, to venture a guess as to what its trunk was like would have been unspeakably rude. Thus each of the blind men would keep to his own perspective or method, and regard the perspective of his blind fellows to be outside his expertise, and consider his own prospective interest in such matters as an unwarranted breach of privacy. So goes the parable, which might indeed be a parable about modern psychology.

Blind Men’s Bluff

Consider this modern day elephant in our living room, taking an elephant size grab of our psychological space. It is of course the all in one entertainment and information center, which streams to you non stop all the information you need to entertain you, enlighten you, inform you, and help you make the mundane and vital choices you need to get by.

But you still don’t know what to make of it, because like the elephant, it just looks differently depending upon the perspective you take. So you have a thousand channels to choose from, but don’t choose any. The social psychologist within you calls the box a purveyor of choice tyranny. As you bounce back and forth your work and the endless distractions the box has to offer, your memory fails you, and the neurologist within you explains the box from the vantage of memory. The box interests you and gives you the urge to want more, and the affective neuro-scientist within you looks at the box from the perspective of the percolation of neurochemicals. The box makes you tense and nervous, and the learning theorist within you views it from the perspective or reward or reinforcement. Finally, you see a commercial for the box on TV, and the consumer within you sees the wellspring of happiness and progress.

Of course, all of these perspectives are valid, and merge into a synthesis that reveals the true nature of the technological animal you are dealing with. You just have to take a few steps back and open your eyes, a luxury the blind men never had.

[i] Lakoff and Turner (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh
[ii] Weiner, Norbert (1961) Cybernetics
[iii] Giegerenzer, G. (2008)  “Why Heuristics Work.” Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3(1), 20-29

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