Guest Blog by Jamil Zaki*

Earlier this year, Senator Tom Coburn published a report called “Under the Microscope,” in which he criticized the funding of any research he couldn’t immediately understand as important. Of particularly dubious value, in Coburn’s opinion, are the behavioral and social sciences—including my own field, psychology. Following his report, Coburn proposed eliminating the National Science Foundation’s funding for these “human” sciences, writing: “…do any of these social studies represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie as astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics and oceanography?” Mo Brooks, the chair of a congressional panel considering such cuts, echoed this opinion. Brooks explicitly claimed that the human sciences have yet to prove their worth.

Given that people’s thoughts and choices, by definition, play the single most powerful role in shaping our society, why does studying the human mind seem like such a dispensable endeavor? One reason may be that people often feel as though they understand their minds already, and that the study of people and cultures can’t tell them anything new. Topics such as social networks, emotion, memory, and race relations sound less scientific than the study of cellular structure, protein folding, or electromagnetic force. These latter topics seem as though they will uncover insights inaccessible to our intuitions, whereas the human sciences might not. This couldn’t be further from the truth: examinations of the human mind often dredge up huge surprises. In fact, a broad message emerging from the last 50 years of psychological research is that forces outside of our awareness drive many of our most critical mental operations—our moral judgments, preferences and the like. Acknowledging these forces and putting them to work has the potential to change—and even save—lives. Here are four ways the human sciences can help us on a broad scale, and reasons we cannot live without the rigorous investigation of our own minds.

1. Insights from psychology can reform social programs: Oftentimes, social programs are based on misguided notions about the psychological sources of healthy behavior. Consider conformity, which has gotten a bad rap for over a century. The party line is that conformists are weak, and that their combined lack of backbone leads to everything from witch-hunts to financial bubbles to teenage smoking. Groups such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the long-running lesson program led by police officers, emphasizes that resisting peer pressure is critical to living drug- and violence-free lives. Youth voting campaigns have also appropriated this intuition, and encourage their audiences to buck the sorry trends set by their peers. These strategies frame healthy behavior as an individualistic step away from the crowd—and they rarely work. Instead, research by social psychologist Robert Cialdini (an emeritus professor at Arizona State University), Yale University political scientist Alan Gerber and others shows that a more efficient strategy is to frame positive behaviors such as voting and responsible use of energy as something that others are doing, and harness the power of conformity to encourage such behaviors. This insight suggests critical changes to several large-scale programs. D.A.R.E., for example, receives huge amounts of government funding, and—more importantly—has reached tens of millions of children in the U.S. alone, despite no evidence that it does any good, and some evidence that it does some harm. Simple changes inspired by the human sciences could vastly improve the efficacy of such programs.

2. Behavioral research can improve education. Motivating children is among educators’ most important jobs. Our culture approaches this job through the intuition that behavior is best motivated through reinforcement. We pay people for work, give children prizes for high test scores, and honor charitable donors on the assumption that these external validations will make people try harder and enjoy their work more. Although most of us wouldn’t want to stop being paid, my colleagues Mark Lepper and Carol Dweck at Stanford describe ways in which particular forms of praise can backfire. Lepper showed that praise in the form of rewards can “overjustify” otherwise enjoyable activities: if I like math and you pay me for doing it, I will eventually conclude (perhaps implicitly) that I am only doing it for external rewards, and as a result will enjoy it less. Dweck showed that certain forms of praise induce a problematic “fixed mindset:” the idea that intelligence is fixed at birth rather than something that can be developed. If you tell me that I am good at math, I may start to believe that aptitude at math is a stable trait, and that my innate ability means that math will always come easily to me. When I face new challenges—say, moving from arithmetic to algebra–I might read my initial difficulties as a threatening sign about my innate abilities. Instead of piquing my interests, more difficult work may cause me to decide that I am no longer a “math person,” and give up on the subject. Dweck has developed simple methods for encouraging people to adopt healthier ways of thinking, for example by praising children for effort, rather than skill or ability. (For more on Dweck’s tips and science see, “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids,” by Carol S. Dweck, Scientific American Mind, December 2007/January 2008.) These methods produce clear benefits in children’s’ long term motivation to learn, but they must be understood to be effectively put to use.

3. Research can vastly improve the lives of people suffering from illness. Mental illness exerts an enormous public health burden, in addition to deeply damaging the lives of patients and their families, yet most psychiatric disorders remain partially or poorly understood. The last few decades have produced enormous research-based changes in the way we understand these disorders. In many cases, we have shifted our focus away from engrained notions about separate psychiatric illnesses as non-overlapping, and towards the commonalities between them. For example, although depression, self-injury, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder seem vastly different at the surface, they may not be the diagnostic islands we once imagined them to be. Instead, research indicates that they share key transdiagnostic phenomena (a kind of clinical “active ingredient”), such as difficulties in regulating emotional responses. Psychologists are increasingly focusing on the cognitive and neural bases of these phenomena, and on novel treatments aimed not only at the symptoms characterizing a particular illness, but also on the hidden cognitive ingredients that underlie these symptoms. This approach opens the door to potentially transformative forms of individualized medicine: treatments that are based on a profile of each patient’s cognitive quirks, as opposed to relatively rigid (and often stigmatized) diagnostic labels.

4. Evidence can guide us towards better lives. Most of us do not suffer from a psychiatric disorder. Yet empirical research can help us, too, by telling us how to maximize our well-being. A growing cadre of researchers in the human sciences has cataloged the effects that all sorts of behaviors have on our happiness. Some of their results may be patently un-shocking (if interesting): people are happier when they exercise, when their minds are focused on the present as opposed to wandering, and when they spend money on other people as opposed to themselves. What is surprising is how bad people’s intuitions about happiness seem to be. We systematically fail to correctly predict what will make us happy: for example, believing that wealth predicts psychological well-being more than it actually does, and that spending money on ourselves will make us happier than sharing it. In many cases, these flawed intuitions can drive weeks, months, or even years of striving towards goals that, in the end, provide disappointing returns. By rigorously studying happiness, researchers can provide new and powerful evidence that can guide individuals towards more fulfilling pursuits. On a larger scale, such data can enter community, and even national, conversations about how to improve psychological well-being as opposed to just material wealth, on a large scale.

One of the most exciting aspects of human sciences research is that its results are often of immediate use to laypeople—teachers, parents, policy makers, spouses—requiring no fancy equipment to implement. What is required: understanding the data. People do not need to believe in propulsion physics for NASA to launch shuttles; people do not need to understand drug action mechanisms for their medicine to be effective. But in the human sciences, ordinary people—and especially policy makers—need to internalize lessons learned from our fields to implement them. So my colleagues and I are in the unique position of needing to explain what we’ve done not only for the purposes of getting future work funded, but also so our work can be as useful as possible. To improve health and society, the spoils of psychology and its sister fields must reach a wide audience and overturn the misguided notion—embodied by people like Tom Coburn—that the human sciences have nothing useful to say. Here’s hoping this helped.

*Jamil Zaki is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Brain Science. Beginning in July 2012, he will be a professor of psychology at Stanford University.