My research goes all over the place. My research stems from work that I've done with my wife, Naomi Eisenberger, on how we experience social pain, and I did that for several years. Now I a lot more of my questions focus on social thinking—how we understand other people and ourselves, and how our brain seems to be strongly predisposed to get us into the mindset for thinking about other people. It's not just one of many different programs we can call up. We can do that, too—I'm going to think about algebra now, I'm going to think about history—but one of the things that's really intriguing to me is that it seems like the brain, of all the things it could choose, seems to choose by default bringing up a way of thinking about the world socially, and perhaps getting us ready to walk into the next moment of our lives to think socially. That's pretty surprising, and it's something I don't think we would have known without looking at the brain. There's an argument to be made that we don't actually know that yet, but there's some really intriguing hints to suggest that that's what the brain is doing.
There's a whole line of work looking at how there's a specific set of machinery that is designed for thinking about the minds of other people. If you're playing poker with someone and you're trying to figure out if they're bluffing or not, what you're really trying to do is peer inside their mind and figure out, despite what they're showing on their face, despite what they've bet, what they really think, what they really believe. And we do it there. We do it when we're trying to empathize with a child who's suffering, or someone halfway around the world who's suffering that we see on TV, we're trying to mentally travel into their world and understand the world as they see and experience it.
We have lots of machinery that seems to be dedicated for that, suggesting it's really important. It helps us in enumerable ways in our daily lives, but it seems to have this tendency to come on and have a certain kind of primacy over other kinds of thinking. That's really interesting and that's one of the major thrusts of the work we do, and we have various different explorations there.
The other major thing that we are focusing on these days is thinking about how messages spread, and that could be in various different ways. That can be in the old notion of persuasion—showing you advertisements, what makes an advertisement sticky, what makes an ad that you see on TV make you change your behavior. We're bombarded with constant advertisements from people trying to get us to go see this movie, or buy this beer. In the case of the work we do—it's usually public health—getting people in Los Angeles to use sunscreen, helping people to quit smoking. People who are overweight and at risk for diabetes and cancer, how do you increase their daily activity levels? And so we're really interested in that.
You might think that the things that get people to change their behavior are things that are memorable, that they can use their analytical brain to set down a long-term trace, or even just emotional, but surprisingly what we see is the brain regions that seem to be involved in successful persuasion. We can predict who will use more sunscreen next week based on how their brain responds to an ad today. The brain regions that seem to be critical to that are brain regions involved in social thinking, in thinking about yourself and thinking about other people. So this seems to be more about our identity and the identities that we're capable of trying on. If I can't try on the identity that you're suggesting to me—being a sunscreen-using person, or a nonsmoker, or something like that—the ad is much less likely to stick. At least that's what we think is going on there. So we're interested in that straight-up kind of persuasion.
In the modern world, often what you're really more interested in is making messages spread, go viral, what's sticky, what has buzz. There again, we don't see the parts of the brain that are involved in analytical thinking or memory, we see the parts of the brain that are involved in thinking about other people's minds—the social brain. If I want to persuade you of something, what I need to be thinking about is not the merits of the thing itself that I'm trying to persuade you of, but rather how are you going to experience whatever I say to you? What am I going to say to you that makes you think it will be cool for you to be the guy to tell the next person, and so on, in the game of telephone that we play with new jokes, or new stories, or old stories. We've seen this work, suggesting that it's the more social parts of the brain that seem to be involved in helping to spread information virally. We can predict which messages, which advertisements will spread and get people to go on Facebook and tell their friends about a movie trailer that they just saw. We can predict that reasonably well from looking at their brains when they don't realize it.
You can also think about it from the context of increasing education. Education is all about the spread of messages, and we're very interested in that as well. How do we use what we're learning about the social brain and the fact that it helps people make messages more sticky? How can we use that to enhance education in, say, eighth grade? This, to me, is a national crisis. That's when we lose kids. I have a seven year old. All of his friends love school. Then they hit puberty and they have no interest in school any more. They tune out. They're interested in their friends. The teacher becomes the enemy. I think part of it is that we're not necessarily tapping into what are some more evolved historical ways to get people to learn better. Historical learning was all about story telling, and not just story telling, but knowing that you yourself would be responsible for telling that story to others. There's old behavioral work, and work that we're doing that looks at the ways in which we can get someone to think of themselves as a storyteller, to actually learn science and math better than if they think of themselves as an end receiver, who will never have to do anything other than take a test.
This is an opportunity, among many others, to really change the way certain kinds of education may be done. Obviously, the nation is very worried about having more well-trained scientists, and mathematicians, and engineers, and so on.
Those are some of the big questions that we can answer with data. There're always the questions that I have trouble thinking about how to answer with data. That's why I became a psychologist and not a philosopher, which was my original path in life. I think there're questions that we don't do a good job of answering with data because we don't know how to get close to the question. So those questions are still on my mind 35 years after I first was exposed to them from various philosophers, but I don't know that we're any closer to answers.
There's a huge problem in our society with educational interests and attainment dropping off. In every metric that comes out we're falling behind lots of the other industrialized countries of the world. They're either catching up faster than we're moving, or they've already moved past us in math, science, and reading. I think some of these things are predictable.
We are a much more comfortable country than we were 50 years ago. When you're multiple generations into immigrants in a country that the kids are more comfortable than the parents, who are more comfortable than their parents, there is an easing off. Perhaps maybe you start to emphasize personal happiness or your children's personal happiness more than you emphasize more societally mandated metrics of success, which usually benefits society more than the individual, in my opinion a lot of the time. There're a lot of doctors who do a lot of good for other people, and who aren't very happy being doctors, and I think that's part of what the social contract really is. You agree to do stuff that's going to help us, and you'll be compensated, but you might have made a different choice if you knew how all this was going to play out.
In a place like all the BRIC countries, and China, in particular, there's so much aspiration, there's so much expectancy that the next generation is going to take China to even greater heights than they already seem to be reaching. I don't think we expect that of our children, and I don't know that we should. I'm not sure that almost young adult adolescent phase of nationhood is necessarily the greatest thing. It does lead to, in America's case, inventions and inventiveness. It doesn't seem to be that way in China so much. It leads to a lot of activity, but it also leads to a lot of unhappiness. It leads to a lot of midlife crises and so on, and I'm not sure that's the ultimate goal, to get the country to be the most productive. I'm not really interested in gross domestic product as a real indicator of how my family is doing.
I was raised in the shadow of both my parents being young hippies in the sixties and early seventies, and so a lot of my life is either a continuation or a reaction. What they were doing was a response to growing up in the early fifties, and so on. I just think you can see those things recapitulated either in new immigrant groups coming to America or in other countries.
In terms of raising my child I do think about it quite seriously, and I'm a bit more authoritarian than I might have guessed. The data suggests that young children do need sort of authoritative guidance. I'm always happy to admit that I know a small, small portion of what can be known, and that he already knows things I don't know and will ultimately possibly know far more than me. I don't try to portray myself in any way as flawless, but I do say this is the rule, and you have to do this because you have to do it, and that's part of my job.
I spent a lot of time visiting drug rehab family group meetings at an earlier point in time in my life and it was fascinating to watch the guy who ran those, and to watch the kids. It was all boys. The boys who came in, you would think these were kids who had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, and there were some, but many of the kids were the kids who had grown up on the right side of the tracks and had never been told no their entire childhood. So now, as young adults, they didn't know what to do with themselves. They had no direction, they had no incentive, and they had no self-control. So they got into drugs, and they were fooling their parents.
The guy who ran this facility was authoritative. He was authoritarian, and he basically said, "I care for you more than you understand, but doing that means not doing what's best for you today, it's about figuring out how to get you to be someone who can go live for the next 50 years."
The world of psychology these days is a strange one. When I got into psychology, and, of course, as a graduate student you probably just don't know some of the things that are going on, but when I got into psychology the internet didn't really exist yet. It just seemed like there were a lot of people turning the final screws on what their advisors had done, and their advisor's advisors. I work in social psychology, where technically that's about understanding other people and how they function, but a whole lot of social psychology is really just about understanding our own everyday experiences.
Clinical psychology studies maladaptive experiences—when you're too anxious or too depressed. Cognitive psychology studies isolated parts of mental processing—memory, reasoning. Social psychologists, for whatever reason, tend to be the folks who want to understand how we get along in everyday life. It's not always about social stuff, you can still be a social psychologist and study things that aren't social at all. For instance, how do you change your own attitudes? That's a social psychological thing. It should be a cognitive thing, but it's not. It's social. There are these tribes, and whatever members of the tribe do, that's still part of social psychology.
When I got into the field it didn't seem like there were any career-threatening giant debates going on, and now it just seems to be all over the place. Every 20 to 30 years my field of social psychology seems to go through another crisis. There was a crisis in the fifties, where somebody published a paper and it killed the most exciting area of research in social psychology for 20 years.
Then in the seventies there was something actually called "the crisis of social psychology." Now there's "the replication crisis," which is a replication crisis in science, if it's even a crisis. It's just that we need to be reminded sometimes that when you see the first flashy study published in science or psych science, it's just an anecdote. It's a scientific anecdote, and we should go collect some more. It can be a really exciting one that you want to tell all your friends about, but it's one little tiny piece of data. We've perhaps taken to assuming those things were facts, and then we're shocked when those things don't replicate in study number two.
There's a lot of stuff going on where there's now people making their careers out of trying to take down other people's careers. The replication isn't necessarily an unbiased process, as it's presented. There are camps, and suddenly now failing to replicate someone else is really seen as an indictment, in many people's eyes, of the person who did the original research, rather than saying there's expectancy effects. If I expect not to replicate someone's work, that's going to influence how I design my study, the measures I look at, it's going to influence how I interact with my participants. I've heard stories about participants saying that they've been told, "Oh, you're just in a replication effort, so it doesn't matter if you know more than you should." There are things going on, and it is troubling to me.
I haven't been targeted in those, but watching John Bargh, whose work I've admired for 20 years, be attacked in that way is hard to watch, and other folks in that camp as well.
These days the person who I think has most been in the crosshairs of the whole replication world that's bubbling up in social psychology is Simone Schnall. She's a professor at Cambridge. She's done work on what's called "embodied cognition," which is getting at the idea that certain kinds of concepts that we have might be linked to other representations that we might not expect. So the idea of being morally dirty may somehow be linked to our concepts for being dirty in the literal sense.
There are studies suggesting that washing your hands can affect your sense of being moral or immoral, and so on. These studies are very interesting. They're very counterintuitive, which I think leads lots of people to wonder whether or not they're legitimate, and that's a reasonable thing to wonder about whenever you see something that sort of confounds intuition. That's the way science works. I've never run studies in that area, so I don't really have a real horse in that race other than it's really interesting stuff. When it's really interesting I kind of always hope it turns out to be true, because that's more interesting, but we don't know. She's done work that seems to me to be a very good. Other labs around the world, not just she herself, but other labs have replicated versions of the work that she's done. That seems reasonably compelling to me, and then there's this ongoing replication effort. I do have some issues with the process of selecting who's going to do the replications—what their qualifications are for doing those things, have they done successful work in that area previously—because if they haven't shown that they can successfully get other priming effects, or other embodied cognition effects, how do I know that they can do this? I wouldn't go and try to do chemistry. I don't know anything about doing chemistry. There are issues like that.
There are issues with screening out people who have expectations that run against the original hypotheses, because we've known for 60 years that those expectations are going to guide results, and that needs to be taken into account. Be that as it may, her study was replicated in this effort, and it was unsuccessful; it didn't replicate her results. Some of what was done seemed very good. They got in touch with her. They tried to work with her to make sure that they were replicating her methods, and I think that the early steps in the process seemed great. Then at a certain point they seemed to have said you're out of the process, and the journal that was publishing all this work had pre-accepted all the paper. They didn't go through peer review, and that is very troubling. It's very troubling when the people who have the power to damn the original research aren't getting peer reviewed. I don't think they should have been reviewed by Simone. I'm a journal editor; I can always get someone else who's impartial and doesn't care which way the results come out to review these things, but it needs to be reviewed.
Had it been reviewed maybe it would have come out just the way it was, but with something this sensitive it's important to get the process right, and I think there's some recognition that the process wasn't right. What happened was that this all blew up on Twitter, something that couldn't have happened 30 years ago in one of these scientific crises. It spreads out into the world, the neuro-skeptics and can grab a hold of this and spread it, and it can spread in an uninformed way, and it can get nasty. People say things that they wouldn't say if they were in the room with each other, necessarily. Maybe they would, and they act as if they don't realize they're being watched, but they are, and so both sides have said things that maybe shouldn't have been said. And now there's this deeper motivational division, and there are people taking sides.
My first impulse—because I've been attacked before by folks who didn't understand the way we do our neuro-imaging work, and they didn't really take the time to get to know what we were doing—was to be very defensive for anyone whose work was unsuccessfully replicated, because I saw some of the personal ambition come in on the other side of trying to create a career out of a failure to replicate someone. Not create a career, enhance a career. And that concerns me. It will be interesting to see how this goes forward. Anyone who says that replication isn't absolutely essential to the success of science is pretty crazy on that issue, as far as I'm concerned. Making a public process of replication, and a group deciding who replicates what they replicate, only replicating the most counterintuitive findings, only replicating things that tend to be cheap and easy to replicate, tends to put a target on certain people's heads and not others. I don't think that's very good science that we, as a group, should sanction.
If we're going to do it as a group, we should perhaps have a set of nominated studies every year that should be replicated. Those studies should be assigned to labs that say, "I'll take whatever study you assign to me, and here are my qualifications," and we assign them to the qualified labs. We get them to give their predictions before they're assigned anything so we know what their predictions are, we know what their expectancy effects might be, and then maybe we do it that way.
Or maybe we do it the old-fashioned way, which is when studies are interesting people go replicate them, because they want to go build on them. If they don't work, then that brings attention to them not working.
When it's come to the replication crisis, as it were, in social psychology, what's made it distinctive from past issues in social psychology is the way that it's being played out on social media. Everyone quickly goes to these sound bites, and the sound bites are all exclamations. They're rarely genuine questions. They're rarely really thoughtful. This leads to an escalation on both sides very quickly. I said things that I probably shouldn't have said, things that I certainly wish I hadn't said, even just on Facebook, thinking that only my friends and colleagues would see those things and then suddenly it turned out that one person passed that on to the other camp, and suddenly I'm in the crosshairs when I didn't imagine that I'd possibly would be. It's a very leaky, fast-moving process.
Then there is this tendency for each of us to take to our blogs. I have a blog, lots of my colleagues have blogs, and they are unfiltered, they're unedited. When John Bargh was first criticized because a paper had come out not replicating his most famous priming study, I wrote a blog about it and it got a fair bit of attention. It is rewarding in a way that writing a book isn't … the fast and easy high versus the slow, perhaps long high. Writing a blog and getting attention, and even getting the other side riled up, is a way to \get that quick, fast burst that is, and can be, somewhat addictive, and bad for everyone involved.
On the other hand, blogging is a way to try to share science in a way that makes it interesting to a much broader audience, without having to wait for a book to come along to synthesize 200 different studies. Like everything—every weapon and every technology that's ever been developed—there's good and there's bad, but in the replication effort issue we've all, myself included, been responsible for some of the bad outcomes.
At this point we haven't done any studies on social media addiction or the high that comes from engaging in social media processes. We're looking to get a full-sized typing keyboard that you can take into the MR scanning environment, and at that point you can have touch typists who can't see their fingers, but could still fully engage with a Twitter feed or Facebook, and so on. We're very, very interested in seeing what happens when we see different kinds of people re-Tweeting something that we've re-Tweeted, or their responses to our Tweets.
For anyone who's engaged this is something that can take on a real big part of your life, and be very, very rewarding. There's a new thing that just came out in some biological journal called the Kardashian Index, in which you plot the number of times your scientific papers have been cited against the number of Twitter followers you have, and if you are an outlier on the Y Index, it may mean you have too many Twitter followers relative to the amount of science you're producing. So if Danny Kahneman has a whole lot of Twitter followers, that's okay, because he's been cited more than anyone else, but if you're a graduate student it's not okay, because you should be producing more science and not talking about it.
I don't buy that, but it sort of speaks to this idea that there is appeal to being famous for being famous, that the Kardashians seem to have. On Twitter you can become that, both because you're the right kind of DJ for the information and really do a good job of spreading certain kinds of ideas, but also because you can have a lot of fun going after people. There are a lot of people out there who love seeing anyone go after and take down anyone else in science. We're in a phase right now where there's a lot of taking down, and I don't think that's as useful as the constructive idea generation, which almost never comes out of such fights.
When I think about the next five years and what I want to accomplish, there's two different goals. The one goal is to try to develop more basic science in areas that are underdeveloped. For instance, here is a relatively radical area: If you look at the brain while it's dreaming, the regions of the brain that are most likely to be active are the social regions of the brain. We're learning some things that suggest that the social regions of the brain may be involved in developing and putting into memory new social information. Perhaps a big part of what sleep is about is making us more socially at ease with the social world that we live in during the day. No one has looked at this in any way.
That's something that we would like to go look at, and that would just be very, very basic science in a new area that hasn't been looked at. On the other hand, I am very, very interested in how we take the work that we and others have already done and figure out a way to go do something that's useful now or in the near term that can change the way we do education with kids, change the way that people in the military get training about other cultures, or get training about just the basic procedures of doing things so that anyone can learn to do their job better.
I'll tell you about my new favorite idea, which like all new favorite ideas, is really an old idea. This one, from the 1960s, was used only in a couple of studies. It's called "latitude of acceptance." If I want to persuade you, what I need to do is pitch my arguments so that they're in the range of a bubble around your current belief; it's not too far from your current belief, but it's within this bubble. If your belief is that you're really, really anti-guns, let's say, and I want to move you a bit, if I come along and say, "here's the pro-gun position," you're actually going to move further away. Okay? It's outside the bubble of things that I can consider as reasonable.
We all have these latitudes around our beliefs, our values, our attitudes, which teams are ok to root for, and so on, and these bubbles move. They flex. When you're drunk, or when you've had a good meal, or when you're with people you care about versus strangers, these bubbles flex and move in different ways. Getting two groups to work together is about trying to get them to a place where their bubbles overlap, not their ideas, not their beliefs, but the bubbles that surround their ideas. Once you do that, you don't try to get them to go to the other position, you try to get them to see there's some common ground that you don't share, but that you think would not be a crazy position to hold.
There's the old Carlin bit about when you drive on the road: anyone going faster than me is a maniac and anyone going slower than me is a jerk. That that's the way we live our lives. We're always going the right speed, and everybody else is missing the boat. We don't take into account that I’m going fast today because I've got to get to the hospital, or I'm going slow today because I know I had something to drink, and I shouldn't have, so I'm going to drive real slow. We don't take those things into account. We just think whatever I'm doing is the right thing, and we have to recognize there's this space around those, and if we can find that overlap we can get some movement. And so that's not a nudge idea, per se. It's really about finding when people are in a mental space where they're more open to other ideas, and what is often going on there is you're trying on identities.
William James said long ago that we have as many identities as people that we know, and probably more than that. We are different with different people. I'm different with my son than I am with you. We have these different identities that we try on, and they surround us. With some friends I can be more of a centrist, and with other friends I might be more of a liberal, depending on what feels like it would work in that moment, and they can all be authentic positions that I really believe at different points in time. I'm really interested in looking at that as a mechanism of persuasion when it comes to regular old persuasion, when it comes to education, when it comes to public health, and when it comes to international issues as well. It's finding that latitude of acceptance and finding out how to use it successfully.