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Monday, May 30, 2011

Branding in Psychology

Some years back, a bunch of guys got together one evening and stomped out a pattern in a wheat field using nothing more than some string (for measuring) and a few pieces of board (to press down all that wheat). From the air, the design looked otherworldly, and it thus became notorious and interesting because of all those otherworldly explanations (space aliens, psychic forces) that could account for it. No one paid much attention to the fact that a bunch of guys could do this with only a few  impromptu hand tools. Rather, the space aliens got all the press, and continued to get the press even when the guys confessed to their prank. It goes to show that common sense is not where the hype and money is, since after all sensible thinking is free and easy to all. 

The point is that although people could easily have created crop circles, a bunch of space aliens could also have created crop circles. So unless those circles left a mark (e.g. a cotton tag saying 'Kilroy was here') that couldn't have been the work of Mork from the Planet Ork, the crop circle argument would revolve endlessly on the unlikely (to say the least) possibilities that it wasn't due to a group of guys  out on a lark.

Who, me?

The reason of course is simple. Occam's razor, which accepts the simplest (albeit not simpleminded) solution as invariably the right one,  doesn't hold if you have razor blades to sell. Thus, although a human cause is the most likely cause by far, common sense and common causes are not quite marketable things. If you are an academic type trying to make a name for yourself, space aliens are a better route to attention, funding, publication, and most importantly, tenure!

When we turn from bad science to bad social science, we find as well that bad psychology more often than not does not take the obvious explanation but rather the complicated one. Moreover, even if you can vouch for the obvious facts of behavior through simple prose or replicate them with simple procedures, you're still going to find some nay sayer who adduces it all to obscure psychic, neural, or other mentalistic forces, and will ignore your objections to boot. But even if the facts were plain and evident to all, it can still be bramded with a special name, and made to seem important and new.

In advertising terms, marketers have a word for it: 'branding'. Branding is why you buy Bayer aspirin, Perrier spring water, and Exxon gas, even though you know the generic equivalents are just as good. Branding is also why you listen to stock  market analysts and self-help gurus, even though you know that the advice you get is no better than what you can get from  a dartboard or your mother, and for that matter for free.

Branding is all over the place in psychology, and the true crime is that psychologists are loath to admit it. At least you can look on the label of ingredients or read  Consumer Reports to know if  you're being conned. Take psychotherapy for instance. Repeated studies have again and again demonstrated  that a talking cure for the common problems of living is no more effective than the advice you can get from a relative or a trusted friend. Nonetheless, the myth is still propogated that psychologists possess some arcane wisdom that others don't that can guide us through the travails of life.

Other examples include the postulation of unique mental states from intrinsic motivation to 'flow' that have a separate detached existence in the human psyche, like some sort of ghost in the machine. This  'mysterian' trend in psychology exalts in the mystery of human behavior, and finds profit in making as much of it as mysterious as possible. Since we busy folk don't have the time or inclination to investigate these mysterious forces to make sure they're true or not  (Scott Adams of 'Dilbert' fame  had a word for those folks of easy intellectual virtue: induhviduals), we believe and buy into the glossy and ubiquitously marketed concepts that make common sense into something special, unique, and copyrighted!

So what's a poor consumer to do? Sadly, mysterian psychological states have no FDA label, no warranty expressed or implied, and most importantly, no real explanation that is based on real, tangible, and observable neural events that make them be.  Brewing up concepts (meditative consciousness, flowing state, intrinsic award) that are untethered to real neurological states, mysterian psychologists get away with it through an intellectual sleight of hand that substitutes metaphor for reality. But there is hope. In the case of biology, in spite of branding and good word of mouth, patent medicine, faith healing, bloodletting, and assorted medical quackery lost their market when common folk grasped the simple metaphors that describe how bodies work. In contrast to biological reality, psychological reality is a brain 'in action' that up to now has resisted the easy metaphors that have rendered complex concepts such as disease and infection so easy to grasp. With the rapid advance of neuroscience, new metaphors are arising that describe how brains work, and thus the same revolution will happen, and many psychological concepts in vogue today will be tossed out into the intellectual junk heap.  But even then of course, for crop circles, psychotherapy, or even disease, knowing the true explanation will never extinguish the romance of space aliens and alien psychological forces, and the public need for those charlatans who will tell us about them, for a  fee. 

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