Category Archives: Methods and Philosophy

“Our love is dead, according to science!” What does science tell us about marriage?

Can science really predict divorce? Can science really tell you how to select the “right” partner? A recent post by Chris Matyszczyk brought a sarcastic and ironic view about the finding of a marriage study. Chris claimed, according to this study, the perfect wife is five years younger than her husband, is from the same cultural background, and is at least 27 percent smarter than her husband. 

Sounds ridiculous? Yes. If people try to over-generalize certain research findings to general population in any situation by ignoring its specific subjects and applicable context, or make prediction based on correlational studies, it’s possible that they will always obtain disappointing or ridiculous results.  Then, how should we think about the scientific findings on complicated human phenomena, such as marriage? What does science tell us about marriage? 

Gottman & Notarius (2002) reviewed the advances made in the 20th century in studying marriages. The first published research study on marriage dealt with one major research question, “What is fundamentally different about happily and unhappily married couples?”  Following that, with the development of more sophisticated measures and methods, some grim and interesting findings began emerging from research on marriage. For example, in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, Burgess’ longitudinal study (Burgess & Wallin, 1953) found that, for most couples, marital satisfaction was high right after the wedding and then began a slow, steady, and nontrivial decline thereafter. Another example is Hicks and Platt’s (1970) decade-review article on marital happiness and stability which concluded that “perhaps the single most surprising finding to emerge from research is that children tend to detract from, rather than contribute to marital happiness”. Then, research in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the realization of many secular changes in the American family, including the changing role of women, social science’s discovery of violence and incest in the family, and the beginning of the study of cultural variation in marriages et al.

In sum, marriage as an ultimate human condition has been intriguing to both scientists and common people for a long time. However, when we try to understand and interpret research findings on marriage, we need to be very careful about their applicable conditions and limitations. For example, as we know, psychological studies have relied on samples of convenience that have limited generalizability. Although based on the evidence we have so far, marital relations haven’t yet succumbed to delightfully efficient approaches, scientific findings keep shedding light on the mystery of human marriage.

Why your wife should be 27% smarter than you

John M. Gottman, Clifford I. Notarius. ( 2002), Marital Research in the 20th Century and a Research Agenda for the 21st Century. Family Process, 41, 159-197.

Mad Scientists: Can we ever revisit Milgram’s diabolical studies?

By Erica Zaiser

Every student of social psychology remembers studying Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment. His studies shaped future thinking about authority, extreme group behavior, and morality. Many of those same psychology students, captivated by the lure of such exciting and revealing studies, would have also learned that you can no longer actually do that kind of research anymore.

The BBC recently reenacted the Milgram experiment for TV and now, the French have added their own twist. The BBC recently reported on a French TV documentary, which showed that under the guise of a game show, contestants were willing to send an electrical shock to other contestants– sometimes at dangerous levels. These types of TV “experiments” are not subject to the same ethical considerations social psychologists are. Of course, this also means they are also not subject to the same expectation of scientific rigour.  It’s always somewhat exciting to see confirmation (even in a highly unscientific setting) that what was shown by Milgram in the 60s may  still hold true today. However, the potential harm to participants from that type of experiment justifies the ethical limitations preventing such research.

Is there a middle ground?

Some psychologists have found that they can still re-do old experiments but also reduce potential harm to their participants by moving the experiments from the physical world into a virtual world. Two researchers in France used virtual reality to re-examine Milgram’s ideas. Like Milgram, they found that participants showed more obedience when they couldn’t see the victim and they also found that participants felt less distress when the victim was from North Africa than when he was of their same ethnic background.  Virtual reality has opened up a way for psychologists to do research on extreme behaviour, but minimize harm to participants.  Perhaps both psychologists and participants can benefit from future use of virtual reality as a medium for experiments.

Read more: Reopening the study of extreme social behaviors: Obedience to authority within an immersive video environment

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The evolution of language

Doctor John Dolittle satisfied a nagging curiosity for young readers: What are animals saying? Even scientists can appreciate the premise behind Hugh Lofting’s children books, though not many likely seek the secret language of squid. For social psychologists, the evolution of language has been a fascination at least since the pragmatists.

The New York Times reports efforts to decipher early traces of language development among non-human primates. The review comes over 30 years after a Times reporter allegedly used sign language to communicate with a chimpanzee. More recently, scientists differentiated alarm calls by vervet monkeys, each one indicating a specific predator. Others suggested that baboons understand social hierarchy based on the order of sounds among their peers. And Campbell’s monkeys seem to add suffixes to alarm calls to signify whether a threat has been directly or indirectly observed.

Given that many non-human primates are physically able to generate human language sounds, the findings beg the question: How do we develop language while our relatives fail? Or in the words of the article author, Nicholas Wade, “What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts?”

George Herbert Mead suggested that language development stems from a child’s ability, through early role-playing games, to take on the role of the other. The development of the self relates to the ability to recognize how others’ actions affect one’s own. Contrary to Wade’s suggestion that non-human primates simply cannot communicate their thoughts, Mead suggests that communication is at the root of, and in some sense precedes, human thought.

While the presence of primitive communication does not necessarily mean that Campbell’s monkeys are able to think like humans, we can still learn about language development by observing, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, how the words are used.

Banksy vs. the ‘viewer’s maxim’

Banksy flower throwerIn some of my previous news edits, I have discussed how Harvey Sacks’ (1995) Membership Categorisation Analysis is a useful methodological apparatus for social psychologists wishing to examine the deployment of identity categories and the practices that get them produced. In this news edit I want to briefly outline one element of the ‘viewer’s maxim’ and suggest, some pieces of Banksy’s satirical graffiti trade on challenging its ‘relevance rules’.

Sacks argued that the everyday use of categories rely on some ‘relevance rules’. One of these is ‘that it proposes that for an observer of a category-bound activity, the category to which the activity is bound has a special relevance for formulating an identification of its doer’ (Sacks, 1995: 259). In other words, the identity (category) of the doer can be ascertained from seeing a category-bound activity being done.

Suppose you were to observe a person throwing flowers. You might expect the identity of the flower thrower to be a member of the category ‘romantic person’ or perhaps a ‘festival goer’ (e.g. The Lotus Throwing Festival in Bang Phli, Thailand). It is probably unlikely that you would expect to see a person dressed like the one in Banksy’s ‘flower thrower’ (see inset picture), presumably a member of the category ‘rioter’.

Since specific activities tend to be associated with particular category members, for the ‘viewer’s maxim’ to work, observations of these in practice necessarily produce expectations of normative behaviour. When a disjuncture occurs between activity and doer, we hold the doer accountable for their non-conformative behaviour. Of course with artwork, we can only question the motive of the artist for challenging what we expect to normatively see.

square-eyeSocial Psychology and Discourse

square-eyeThe Handbook of Discourse Analysis

square-eyeThe New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory