Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Worthwhile Social Science

The fascinating arch of narrative. A longitudinal study that looks at 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 1930's. Perhaps Harvard men tend to be more unpredictable because of the expanded opportunities in life that they have relative to the average Joe, but that's one thing that struck me most about the study. Another is the sometimes tragic complexity of human existence and relationships. It's a long read, but if you do get to it, I hope you will post your own observations/comments.


Kevin said...

I appreciate Bock's premise: people are too focused on disease and not enough on health. There are lots of interesting parts to that long article; I've clipped about 20.

Something makes me smile merely at the job of a "happiness scientist". It's almost oxymoronic, as if it were "serious frivolity," or facetiously hinting at that common case where analyzing happiness makes it elusively flitter away.

"They were normal when I picked them," [Bock] told Vaillant in the 1960s. "It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up."That made me laugh, but it suggests an interesting tangent to such studies, namely, how accurately do psychologists evaluate mental state or predict behavior?

“Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”While I hope that morality is more than the mere social branding Vallaint portrays, his view makes sense to me. Our choices have some purpose and benefit, even when the net outcome is clearly harmful or irrational. Then again, that opinion may also be a manifestation of my desire (and perhaps a premise of the entire field of psychology) to apply reason to even our irrational decisions.

Distortions can clearly serve a protective function. In a test involving a set of pictures, older people tend to remember fewer distressing images (like snakes) and more pleasant ones (like Ferris wheels) than younger people. I found that interesting. While the principle is not surprising, the prominence of distortion or self-deception can be. I was surprised at the end when we find that Vaillant himself displays remarkable repression (e.g. of his third wife and other items to the point that others worried he had Alzheimer’s). It makes me wonder if he isn't exacerbating his distortion by embracing it as our natural coping mechanism.

The reflective review of Vaillant was a nice touch to the article, as if he were part of the study, with his personal and professional life being in strangely stark contrast.

I'm tempted to quote several more parts of the article, but I'll leave it there since it's taken me a while to just post this much. Thanks sharing it, MB.


MamasBoy said...


I especially found your point about how accurately social "science" can measure such things as happiness. Is it our lack of ability to quantify or even qualitatively describe people's mental states, or does the act of trying to measure someone's mental state alter it. There are several options here that I can think of, and I'm not sure what factors are widely applicable or important.

It seems to me that highly intelligent people (such as would attend Harvard) would be much more adept than most at seeing through questions and thus distorting a test, reducing it's confidence intervals or rendering the results useless.

2) It seems to me that young people with their whole lives and careers ahead of themselves would have a tendency to be overly optimistic and idealistic. As people become more jaded, they have less of a tendency to hide things or deny them.

3) This type of ongoing survey and questioning would (for me at least) stimulate regular introspection, potentially changing my character over time. I wonder how much of that came into play here.

A related question came up on a progressive blog calling for the end of the traditional family.

It seems to me that the kinds of voyeuristic, reality shows so incredibly distort reality that trying to draw any conclusions about the particular people on the show (let alone the broader culture) is pointless. Call it the Heisenberg uncertainty principle at work in social science. At some point, measuring the state of somebody's mind will change that person's mind.

While the Harvard study was much less intrusive and the effects would be much more subtle (or possible nonexistent), I do wonder if something like that could have come into play.

Well, I'm blathering now, so I'll shut up.


MamasBoy said...

BTW: Thanks for all your points, even though I could only comment on one.

Kevin said...

Sorry about the horrible formatting in my comment. I'm not sure why that happened.

I agree with you, MB, particularly about Jon & Kate. Fame and/or notoriety creates an enormous challenge in and of itself.

You're right, it is like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Continuing your list, the article also noted that the study made them feel elite, and was probably sold to them that way in order to retain their participation:

"The original study social worker, Lewise Gregory Davies, helped him goad the subjects to stay in touch, but it wasn't a hard sell. The Grant Study men saw themselves as part of an elite club.