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What do we do when science contradicts itself?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | August 25, 2011

Have you ever been annoyed by flip-flops in the scientific literature? Many people, for example, feel this way when it comes to nutrition science: diet advice, it sometimes seems, changes almost as fast as hardware from Apple.

It can make one wonder about– even doubt– the usefuleness of science.

And so it was last week, when my colleague Jason Marsh at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center referred me to a recently published article that contradicts the findings I talk about in this blog post about the relationship between empathy and prejudice. My post summarized findings by researchers at the University of Manitoba showing that empathy and perspective taking can backfire in real-world intergroup interactions, because seeing the world through another person’s eyes activates negative metastereotypes (stereotypes about one’s own group) that other people may be judging you by.

The Greater Good Science Center, as it turned out, had just published this post summarizing a paper by researchers at the University of Cologne and Northwestern University, showing– yikes– that perspective taking leads to reduced expressions of prejudice. In one of their studies, the researchers found that perspective taking led to greater approach behaviors in an intergroup interaction, which then led to more favorable ratings by a member of the out-group. This is noteworthy because the research I had reviewed earlier suggested just the opposite: namely, that it is precisely in the real context of face-to-face intergroup interactions that empathy backfires (again, because in this context people worry about the stereotypes other groups are seeing them through).

So, what gives, what’s the bottom line? Is one of these two camps wrong? Is empathy good or bad for real-world interactions? Or should we just throw our hands up in the air and stop listening to psychologists altogether, who can barely seem to agree with one another?

Clearly, you won’t find me advocating that we stop listening to psychologists; I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I didn’t believe in the value of the enterprise. What I do advocate, however, is that we appreciate the complexity of the human psyche, and respect the fact that it doesn’t give up its secrets easily. The road to understanding is full of zig-zags, and these studies on empathy are a case in point.

Rather than throw my hands in despair, what this discrepancy in the research findings motivates me to do is to try to understand the conditions under which empathy is likely to activate these negative metasterotypes versus not. In the research i reviewed, for example, the participants knew they were going to interact with an Aboriginal Canadian to discuss a movie about injustices towards Native Canadians. You can imagine how one might feel some anticipatory anxiety in this context. By contrast, in the study reviewed by the Greater Good Science Center, participants in the perspective taking condition first wrote an essay about the life of an African American person in a photo, and then spoke with a different African American person about their psychology courses. In other words, the topic of the discussion was unlikely to activate these metasterotypes, allowing the positive effects of empathy to shine through.

I don’t know if that difference is really what accounts for the different findings in the two studies, but it’s a start. In other words, it’s a hypothesis (or an idea you can test– as my friends in the kids’ show Dinosaur Train would say). And we need further research to arrive at the answer.

Thus lies the value of science– conflicting findings, rather than being something to be angry with, help us arrive closer to important, more fine-grained conclusions. In this case, rather than asking, is empathy good or bad for intergroup interactions, the more important question may be “under what conditions does empathy activate metastereotypes?” because these metastereotypes may be key to whether perspective taking takes a positive or negative turn.

Now if I could only understand whether cholesterol is good or bad for me!

Cross-posted from Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton’s blog on the  Psychology Today website.

Comments to “What do we do when science contradicts itself?

  1. When physical science people are being cheeky they like to say that the difference between our work and that of social scientists is that we reach our conclusions _after_ the experiment.

    Social science often seems to assert a particular understanding of a phenomenon (or set thereof) and then look for a way to illustrate (or falsify) that understanding through experiment. This is out of touch with the spirit of experimental method, so it leaves a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth of consumers of academic products.

    The cure is not (just) to put in the effort to better operationalize and contextualize social science research,
    but to stand back from the now-centuries old notion that all learning must evolve/progress physics-ward.

    When dealing with the subtleties of social interactions, we need to resist the urge to be didactic and comprehensive. Are we trying to come up with Fundamental Laws of intergroup interactions, guys? Aren’t perceptive, actionable observations enough?

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