Psychology 2016: A Year in Review

From Sunita Sah’s, “The Paradox of Disclosure” July 8th, 2016

In 2016 I’ve had the good fortune to work with a talented and endlessly interesting group of psychologists to help them share their research with the public. As the year winds down I thought I’d revisit some of my favorite articles of the past year.

I’m posting these, one a day, on Facebook from now until December 31st, so that’s 15 articles — I’ll throw in a few extras here, updating as I go along. If you’ve got research you’d like help sharing in 2017 don’t be shy about getting in touch.

  1. December 17th. I thought I’d start with a piece from all the way back in February by Jillian Jordan, Paul Bloom, Moshe Hoffman, and Dave Rand called “What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?” They argue that moral outrage acts as a “costly signal” that shows other people that you are trustworthy. Look for a new article from Jillian and company on why we hate hypocrisy that’s based on the same framework early next year. And don’t forget to check out Paul Bloom’s new book, Against Empathy, if you haven’t already.
  2. December 18th. Here’s another story from February by Kristina Olson and Katie McLaughlin in the Los Angeles Times, “How to Raise Happy, Healthy Transgender Kids.” They make the point that despite what you usually hear transgender kids are not doomed to a childhood of trauma and mental health problems. They focus on cases in which parents accepted their kids’ gender identity, something that is starting to happen with increasing regularity.
  3. December 19th. In the third installment of the look back at 2016 I’m going to bend the rules a little and include multiple articles that tried to make sense of the US election — good thing we sorted that out! Way back in the primaries Todd Rogers and Adan Acevedo wrote about how the Clinton and Cruz campaigns were (mis)using behavioral science to get out the vote in “In Iowa, Voting Science at Work.” After the primaries ended, Yarrow Dunham and Dave Rand predicted that Sanders’ supporters would come back into the Clinton fold, building in part on some classic social psychology research. They now have supporting data, so contact them to learn more. In October, Carey Morewedge explained why it is rational to vote against your candidate of choice, so that even if you lose at least you don’t walk away empty handed, but that people are nevertheless reluctant to do so. I probably should have followed his advice. Melissa Ferguson wrote about whether it was too late for Clinton and Trump to change voters’ impressions of them. Erez Yoeli, Moshe Hoffman, and Dave Rand explained how to get your friends to vote. And Michelle Gelfand wrote about Trump culture.
  4. December 20th. Having just finished Michael Lewis’ Undoing Project, “How to Stop Overprescribing Antibiotics” strikes me as a perfect example of the legacy of Kahneman and Tversky in helping us to use a better understanding of the way the mind works to make the world work better in important ways. It’s probably not a coincidence that Craig Fox, the lead author, was a student of theirs.
  5. December 21st. Next we veer toward philosophy but narrowly avoid a collision. In “Whose Life Should Your Car Save?” Azim Shariff, Iyad Rahwan, and JF Bonnefon discuss how, in the coming age of self-driving cars, we should program them to respond in potentially fatal situations. People will agree that, as a policy, cars should not give much greater value to the life of the driver than to those of innocent pedestrians — but if it’s their car they change their minds. In short, people think cars should behave ethically but they refuse to buy the ones that do, leaving car makers with a dilemma.
  6. December 22nd. The prolific Katherine Kinzler deserves her own entry, having written three Gray Matter articles this year, one for NYT’s Well, and most recently an article for Quartz. In March she wrote “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals” about how kids raised in environments where people speak different languages learn early on how to consider others’ perspectives in figuring out who speaks what language to whom. In August she described her research on the surprising social aspects of kids’ food selection and how much they learn from watching people eat in “Babies Watching People Eat” and in October she explained “How Kids Learn Prejudice” with a tour of research including findings by Yarrow Dunham, Kristin Shutts, Kristina Olson, Melissa Ferguson, Jeremy Cone and others. Katie also teamed up with Justine Vanden Heuvel, Cornell’s resident oenologist, to consider cultural differences in how kids are introduced to wine in “Do Children in France Have a Healthier Relationship With Alcohol?” Finally, following the election, she wrote “A Cornell psychologist explains how to raise kids well in the age of Trump” in which she again brings together a wide range of findings to explain how to prepare kids to be good citizens. I don’t have a plaque to give out, but maybe if you write a lot of great articles next year you could be the winner of the first annual Katie Kinzler award for helping the public better understand the world using psychological research. Don’t get your hopes up, though, chances are Katie will win it.
  7. December 23rd. Disclosing a conflict of interest — like when doctors reveal that they have received gifts from the pharmaceutical industry — is supposed to reduce bias. In “The Paradox of DisclosureSunita Sah explains why it often has the opposite effect. Patients feel more pressure to follow advice following disclosure because rejecting their doctor’s advice implies the advice was tainted. Doctors, for their part, give more biased advice after disclosing, because now the patient has all the information and can adjust their decision accordingly. There are some ways to improve the problem that Sunita explores, but this is a great example of a solution that seems great on the surface but when you unpack the psychology of how it plays out in practice may not lead to its intended consequences. Sunita also co-authored an article in The Conversation on the benefits of blinding prosecutors to the race of suspects when making pre-trial decisions like whether or not to prosecute.
  8. December 24th. Given that tonight is Christmas Eve it seems appropriate to highlight this recent article in Scientific American Mind by Amit Kumar, Jesse Walker, and Tom Gilovich that explains why people tend to be more grateful for experiences than for things. Also, here’s an article on gift giving taboos you can consider breaking by Mary Steffel and Nora Williams that was originally published last December but was so good they just published it again.
  9. December 25th. In “What Should You Choose: Time or Money?” Hal Hershfield and Cassie Mogilner weigh a trade off everyone has to balance at one time or another. Here’s the answer their research led them to: “In our pursuit of happiness, we are constantly faced with decisions both big and small that force us to pit time against money. Of course, sometimes it’s not a choice at all: We must earn that extra pay to make ends meet. But when it is a choice, the likelihood of choosing more time over more money — despite the widespread tendency to do the opposite — is a good sign you’ll enjoy the happiness you seek.”
  10. December 26th. In “The Problem with Slow Motion” Eugene Caruso, Zach Burns, and Ben Converse explain how the psychological effect of watching an action in slow motion can have very real consequences. When we see behavior unfold slowly we presume it’s more intentional — we think the actor had more time to make a conscious choice — than if when we watch it at regular speed. That can lead to a longer suspension in the NFL or it can mean the difference between a charge of first and second degree murder. And just knowing you have this bias doesn’t allow you to undo its effects.
  11. December 27th. Following the election, Jess Tracy wrote about dominance vs. prestige as paths to power, building on the research in her new book, Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success, in which she explores the positive and negative sides of pride. She makes the case that while hubristic pride can be problematic, authentic pride can be a positive and important motivator of behavior. Speaking of power, Michael Kraus also wrote an article for Quartz about the research he and his colleagues have done that shows that power reveals people’s personalities, while a lack of power leads people to adjust their personalities to meet the demands of the situation they’re in. This also seems like a great opportunity to thank Sarah Todd at Quartz who did a great job editing a number of psychology articles this year, including the two above and more coming tomorrow.
  12. December 28th. Earlier this year Slovic launched, a website dedicated to help people understand the cognitive obstacles that prevent us from responding to the needs of others even, and sometimes particularly, in the face of great tragedy. In this Quartz article, he and Nicole Dahmen explain that although empathy can trigger a brief outpouring of support, ultimately it is not sufficient to overcome our biases. Also in Quartz, Aradhna Krishna makes an important point about the unforeseen side effects of widely publicized hate crimes in recent months. Research on social norms tells us that when we perceive behavior to be common it makes it seem acceptable, so when the New York Times publishes This Week in Hate, it does the important task of exposing these crimes, but may unintentionally be making them appear more normal (for more on the psychological underpinnings of this process be on the lookout for an article in Gray Matter early next year by Adam Bear and Josh Knobe). One solution Krishna proposes is to also publicize cases of people standing up to hate crimes just as vocally.
  13. December 29th. A lot of psychologists, myself included, have made the case that although people are really good at believing what they want to believe, that’s a hard to trick to pull off once you catch yourself doing it. Emily Rosenzweig disagrees and makes an excellent case that people have no problem accepting conclusions they know they generated in a biased way. It’s a really interesting read and has me mostly convinced — the rest is probably bias, not that I care. Also in Scientific American, if you missed it earlier today, Ben Converse and Marie Hennecke have an article just in time for New Year’s that explains why we have such high hopes for next year and such low ones for today. Special thanks to Michael Lemonick, Opinion Editor at Scientific American, who has edited several of the articles on this list, with more to come next year.
  14. December 30th. I’m a co-author on this one, but all the credit goes to Seamus Power who has done a pretty amazing job unpacking the Irish response to fiscal austerity from a cultural and social psychological perspective using both qualitative and quantitative methods. In this article for The Guardian, Seamus explains why the Irish people did not join their Spanish and Greek neighbors in protesting austerity measures following the economic collapse of 2007. His interviews led him to the conclusion that there was a collective sense of responsibility that dampened the motivation to protest that resonated with the cultural belief that “you reap what you sow.” Several years later, however, as the economy began to rebound, surprisingly protests in Ireland started to pick up steam. The economy was doing well, but despite having suffered austerity the benefits were not shared evenly. At the heart of Seamus’ analysis is the idea that it is the subjective experience of the economy, not just objective economic conditions, that predicts how people will behave.
  15. December 31st. It’s New Year’s Eve so why not go out with a bang? Some of my favorite op-eds to work with are the ones that connect research to real world problems. Here are a few that do just that — and if you’re interested in more, you’re welcome to check out my work with the Behavioral Science & Policy Association. Sapna Cheryan wrote two articles on how we can encourage more girls and women to pursue their interests in computer science, making the case that we should, “take the pressure off women to change themselves to fit within masculine cultures. Instead, the pressure should be on society to make computer science a field in which all students feel equally welcome.” Daniel Yudkin and Jay Van Bavel wrote about the roots of implicit bias, explaining their research that finds that implicit bias is based on a reflex to favor the ingroup over the outgroup. The good news is that this bias can be overcome with some time to think through our initial reflex (the bad news is that this second step is optional). Ashley Whillans described her new research that showing that spending money on others can be good for your health. For the first time, she and her colleagues document a causal link between generosity and reduced blood pressure among patients previously diagnosed with high blood pressure. Matteo Galizzi and George Loewenstein wrote about policies aimed to reduce obesity, comparing the effectiveness of more heavy handed policies like sugar taxes to lighter touch approaches like mandatory labels and ultimately arguing for a comprehensive approach. Sarah Guminski wrote about Jana Gallus’ research about what drives people to volunteer for Wikipedia as well as about the promise of Social Impact Bonds that aim to finance socially beneficial undertakings and pay out when the programs achieve certain defined goals.

You can say a lot of things about 2016, but not that it wasn’t interesting. Thanks to all the writers and researchers that made it interesting for me, and hopefully for the many people with whom they shared their work. Here’s to an even better 2017 — hopefully I’ll have to start the year-end review even sooner this time around. Happy New Year!

Social psychologist and dad. Editor at the Behavioral Scientist & SPSP blog. Director of Communications for BSPA. Teach at Chicago Booth. Twitter: @davenuss79

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store