Synthesizing and Implementing Research

22 Feb

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, guest columnist Jonah Lehrer–author of How We Decide (2009)–describes the “benefits of not paying attention.”

Jonah Lehrer describes our decision making processes in his new book, How We Decide

His general point is that “not focusing” can lead to some benefits–mostly for “creativity” (a term that, as it happens, has at least three finite meaning within psychology). When describing these findings, Lehrer focuses on one particular study where researchers exposed people to varying amounts of stimuli while they completed tasks. The key finding, as Lehrer describes it, centers on individuals’ ability to “filter out” information:

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)

These findings are part of huge body of psychology/creativity research. To put them in perspective, we have to know a (very small) bit more about prior creativity research. From 1950-70, psychologists concentrated on personality traits of creative individuals. In other words, they sought to explain creativity in terms of individual traits. By the 1970s and ’80s, though, creativity research had shifted. It became process-oriented. This approach was called “cognitive psychology.” It posited that creativity occurred in “stages”–almost linearly. While the “stages” theory is not dead, many psychologists have abandoned the notion of linearity in creative thought.

So what Lehrer picks up on is one part of one theory of creativity. But it also relates to the psychological research us bloggers at Law & Mind have been discussing. Our most recent discussion, for example, focused on casuistry: the unconscious process by which we marshal principles in favor of the conclusion we want to reach. We’ve also talked about System Justification Theory and legal socialization. All of these relate to mental processes–processes about how we think and why we reach certain conclusions. More importantly, these are parts of much larger body of psychological research–as is the study Lehrer discusses.

It is this fact–that the findings Lehrer discusses are just one very small piece of several pies–that I want to emphasize. Because such a broad amount of research exists, sometimes we lose sight of just how small or large a study or its implications can be. Part of this seems to be the result of journalism: it’s always the case that news articles simplify and sensationalize–they must, not just because media outlets want people to read their stuff, but also because most journalists are untrained in any discipline. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the reporting to which Lehrer contributes seems lacking (even though he has training in neuroscience and psychology). More fundamentally, though, I think this article–and news coverage of science generally–illustrates two difficulties of psychological research: synthesis and implementation. By synthesis I mean either of two things: (1) how to describe a small finding within the context of a large body of research comprised of hundreds and thousands of small tests; or (2) how to summarize the large body of research in a coherent and meaningful way. By implementation I mean how to use in a practical way the synthesized research.

I think Lehrer’s WSJ has trouble with synthesis, at least partly because of limited space. But for now I want to focus on the problem of implementation. Lehrer’s short interview from CBS News illustrates this.

In the video, Lehrer talks about the implications of decision-making research. “What advice do you have for us mere mortals, in our decision making?” asks the interviewer. One unhelpful tip from Lehrer: “Practice and learn from your mistakes.” He also suggests”[t]rying to structure your thought process to the task at hand. Sometimes trust your gut, sometimes be rational.” Of course, these platitudes are just question-begging: How should we learn from our mistakes? When do we trust our gut? Now, my guess is that Lehrer has better answers than those he gave–it was a CBS interview, after all. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to describe how to learn from mistakes and when to trust our gut–simply because our “mistakes” are not always identifiable, and because “our gut” is often a reflection of our implicit attitudes, which can often be wrong or skewed. (I’m always concerned with sensationalist journalism: trying to distill complex ideas into soundbites (e.g., as the reporter asks, “How do we choose who[m] we marry?”).)

But I have a nagging suspicion that this is just part of a larger problem: how do we make sense of the mounting psychological evidence on decision-making or attitudes? Put simply, what do we do with the findings? Answering that quesiton, it seems to me, requires a tremendous amount of (1) thought and (2) knowledge of psychological research and the areas on which we want to impress these findings. The summation of many psychological studies tell us, for example, that “priming”–showing us certain kinds of words–can influence our behavior. What we should do with that information is up for grabs. I don’t have the answer, but I think we should devote more effort to thinking about how to use this information in a practical way to benefit society. That will require scholars from different disciplines to converge, as Professor Jon Hanson is constantly trying to make happen.

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2 Responses to “Synthesizing and Implementing Research”

  1. riopierce February 19, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    I am thankful, in fact utterly grateful, that any time I am distracted by something (which is almost all the time) I can now know that it’s because I’m a ‘eminent creative achiever’ rather than just someone who’s easily distracted.

    Wait, so where was I? Oh right, the larger point of your post is very well taken. It seems a general habit in academic scholarship that it’s easier to critique the current system than to provide constructive recommendations for a better future. (See the conclusion section of many law review articles for glaring examples.) I wonder if this tendency is particularly notable in mind sciences research. If your research says that X tendency is a fundamental habit of a human’s brain, it may become much more difficult to make, with any degree of true conviction, suggestions for how the fundamental IS may be transformed into the better, but very far away, OUGHT.

    Even relatively simple steps, in practice, can be remarkably difficult to implement. For instance, there have been several recent studies which discuss the positive effects of meditation on the human brain in a remarkably short period of time. Meditation provides a fair amount of mental bang for a relatively small time buck, and yet I imagine many people, including myself, hear of such studies, make a vow to implement a daily meditation practice, and then fail utterly to implement it.

  2. Michael Lieberman February 20, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Great post, and I too find myself wondering about what I can take away from studies I read about. One internal debate I have is how best to apply some of these mind science insights to legal practice. Many theories that we discussed on this blog and in class have implications on ways to manipulate others’ cognitive reaction to information. Is it proper for an advocate to exploit knowledge of this manipulability in making arguments to juries? To push further, would it even be IMPROPER to NOT exploit this knowledge, given our requirement for “zealous advocacy”?

    Maybe it is the language I myself am using (manipulate, exploit), but something about taking advantage of unconscious psychological processes feels dirty to me. Perhaps it also runs counter to my desire for objectivity – I want jury verdicts to be based on objective facts rather than emotions, and using psychological “tricks” threatens objectivity. Of course, I probably need to face the fact that jury decisions (and perhaps, NO decisions) are made solely on objective grounds as is…

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