adam_alter's picture
Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Marketing, Stern School of Business, NYU; Author, Irresistible
Intellectual Convergence

Suppose a team of researchers discovers that people who earn $50,000 a year are happier than people who earn $30,000 a year. How might the team explain this result?

The answer depends largely on whether the team adopts a telephoto zoom lens or a wide-angle lens. A telephoto zoom lens focuses on narrower causes, like the tendency for financial stability to diminish stress hormones and improve brain functioning. A team that uses this lens will tend to focus on specific people who earn more or less money each year, and any differences in how their brains function and how they behave. In contrast, a team that adopts a wide-angle lens will focus on broader differences. Perhaps people who earn more also live in safer neighborhoods with superior infrastructure and social support. Though each team adopts a different level of analysis and arrives at a different answer, both answers can be right at the same time.

For decades and even centuries, this is largely how the social sciences have operated. Neuroscientists and psychologists have peered at individuals through zoom lenses, while economists and sociologists have peered at populations through wide-angle lenses.

The big news, of late, is that these intellectual barriers are dissolving. Scientists from different disciplines are either sharing their lenses or working separately on the same questions, and then coming together to share what they've learned. Not only is interdisciplinary collaboration on the rise, but papers with authors from different disciplines are more likely to be shared and cited by other researchers. The benefits are obvious. As the income gap example shows, interdisciplinary teams are more likely to answer the whole question, rather than focusing on just one aspect at a time. Instead of saying that people who earn more are happier because their brains work differently, an interdisciplinary team is more likely to compare the role of multiple causes in formulating its conclusion.

At the same time, researchers within disciplines are adopting new lenses. Social and cognitive psychologists, for example, have historically explored human behavior in the lab. They still do, but many prominent papers published this year also include brain imaging data (a telephoto zoom lens), and data from social media sites and large-scale economic panels (wide-angle lenses). One paper captured every word spoken within earshot of a child during the first three years of his life to examine how babies come to speak some words faster than others. A second paper showed that research grant agencies favor male over female scientists by examining the content of thousands of grant reviews. And a third analyzed the content of 47,000 tweets to quantify expressions of happiness and sadness. Each of these methods is a radical departure from traditional lab experiments, and each approaches the focal problem from an unusually broad or narrow perspective. These papers are more compelling because they present a broader solution to the problem they're investigating—and they're already tremendously influential, in part because they borrow across disciplines.

One major driver of intellectual convergence is the rise of "big data," not just in the quantity of data, but also in understanding how to use it. Psychologists and other lab researchers have begun to complement lab studies with huge, wide-angle social media and panel data analyses. Meanwhile, researchers who typically adopt a wide-angle lens have begun to complement their big data analyses with zoomed-in physiological measures, like eye-tracking and brain imaging analyses. The big news here is not just that scientists are borrowing from other disciplines, but also that their borrowing has turned over richer, broader answers to a growing range of important scientific questions.