‘What we found may surprise you’: In defense of the counterintuitive

Given that a lot of this blog is going to be devoted to covering interesting social-science findings, I was intrigued by American Scholar psychology blogger Jessica Love’s post on “The Allure of the Counterintuitive“. Riffing on a recent study on age and memory, she writes: But it is just this irksome spin that makes the ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
612707_130308_mindblown2.jpg
612707_130308_mindblown2.jpg

Given that a lot of this blog is going to be devoted to covering interesting social-science findings, I was intrigued by American Scholar psychology blogger Jessica Love's post on "The Allure of the Counterintuitive". Riffing on a recent study on age and memory, she writes:

But it is just this irksome spin that makes the study such fodder for the popular press. Indeed, had the researchers not spun it this way, the press (and, alas, I include bloggers like myself) might have done so for them. Why read “Social Connections Evoke a Variety of Strong Emotions” when you can read “What Makes Us Happy Can Make Us Sad“? Why click on “Intelligence No Cure-all for Cognitive Bias” when you can go to “Why Smart People Are Stupid”?

We love our counterintuitive findings. And for fields such as psychology, they’re almost a necessity. If new conclusions already gel with our beliefs, goes the common refrain, why was precious taxpayer money ever wasted on the study in the first place? (I find the prospect of a society populated by commenters on most social science articles chilling.) Never mind that because our beliefs are not immune to prevailing worldviews, what we find intuitive has almost certainly been shaped by the past observations of—you guessed it—social scientists. And never mind that despite the ease with which new findings morph into old news, many established psychological phenomena still aren’t intuitive.

Given that a lot of this blog is going to be devoted to covering interesting social-science findings, I was intrigued by American Scholar psychology blogger Jessica Love’s post on “The Allure of the Counterintuitive“. Riffing on a recent study on age and memory, she writes:

But it is just this irksome spin that makes the study such fodder for the popular press. Indeed, had the researchers not spun it this way, the press (and, alas, I include bloggers like myself) might have done so for them. Why read “Social Connections Evoke a Variety of Strong Emotions” when you can read “What Makes Us Happy Can Make Us Sad“? Why click on “Intelligence No Cure-all for Cognitive Bias” when you can go to “Why Smart People Are Stupid”?

We love our counterintuitive findings. And for fields such as psychology, they’re almost a necessity. If new conclusions already gel with our beliefs, goes the common refrain, why was precious taxpayer money ever wasted on the study in the first place? (I find the prospect of a society populated by commenters on most social science articles chilling.) Never mind that because our beliefs are not immune to prevailing worldviews, what we find intuitive has almost certainly been shaped by the past observations of—you guessed it—social scientists. And never mind that despite the ease with which new findings morph into old news, many established psychological phenomena still aren’t intuitive.

The counterintuitive has its place. But our love affair comes at a cost. It leaves little room in the public consciousness for social scientific work that is incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions—those fragile social and mental habitats upon which decisions turn. In other words, it leaves little room for most of social science.

IR scholar Steve Saideman adds:

The convention for job talks and other presentations is to present a conventional wisdom, with or without straw-people, and frame one’s argument as being counter-intuitive.  If one can sell this, then woo hoo!  But as the author of the piece cited above points out, previous science (or social science) establishes what is essentially the intuition.  The current intuition would be that bureaucracies matter more than the national interest, that collective action is difficult and generally under-provided, that Americans do not care too much about specific foreign policies but have pretty stable preferences, that they will rally around the flag albeit relatively briefly when force is used, that security dilemmas cause arms races, and so on.

This gets to the heart of the matter–we are in the business of persuasion.  Our job is to persuade the listener/reader that our argument is interesting, that it is logical, that it is original (here is where the counter-intuitive thing really lives), that the research is well-designed and executed, and that the findings and conclusions are important/interesting.  So, in many cases, the person who is most persuasive/best at marketing their ideas will prevail.  That may not be the smartest person, that may not be the one with the most exhaustive or innovative research.  However, if one does everything right, then the work will be easier to market and persuasion will be easier.  If one does everything wrong (not a very interesting question, lousy sense of where it fits, poor research design, executed poorly), marketing is less likely to work (but has been known to happen).

Thanks to the #slatepitches meme and a backlash from some quarters against the success of writers like the Freakanomics duo and Malcolm Gladwell (Andrew Sullivan links to Love’s post under the headline, “The Gladwell Effect”), “counterintuitive” as a concept has gotten a bit of a bad rap.

I understand the frustration of scholars who feel professional pressure to blow readers’ minds in order to get widespread recognition for their work, but I’m not really sure what a solution would be. Another way of saying something is counterintuitive is to say that it challenges the way a reader understands a given topic. Another word for that is “news.” Work that confirms the conventional wisdom is certainly valuable and worthy of support, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect it to get the same attention from the public — or, I would guess, from professional colleagues — as work that finds something shocking or unusual.

There are exceptions. The U.S. Holocaust Museum study, reported in the New York Times last weekend, which found that slave labor sites and concentration camps were far more numerous in Eastern Europe than had been previously understood, didn’t exactly challenge the conventional wisdom on the Holocaust — it was an immense human tragedy — but expanded public understanding of an important historical event. 

For the most part, however,  people are going to be more interesting in reading things that surprise them, whether we’re talking about economics papers or the local news. 

I’d argue that the problem is less that the popular media is drawn to the counterintuitive, than that reporters — and I have no doubt I’ve been guilty of this myself — often have underdeveloped bullshit detectors when a finding is “too good to check.” That’s how we end up with the gay cavemen

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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