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Social Psychology's Bright Future

An optimistic take on the field's future.

Key points

  • Social psychology emerged from its 1970s crisis into a golden age, and it could emerge from the current crisis into another.
  • It is not necessary to study all social behavior all at once.
  • Illuminating online interactions offers a promising arena to contribute to knowledge.
  • Big data can also help reconnect the field with actual behavior.

This post lays out my best hopes for the future of social psychology, the field to which I have devoted my adult life. It is a companion to another post that lays out my worst fears for the same field. The combination exemplifies my intellectual style of trying to contemplate important issues carefully “both sides from the inside.”

Social psychology sees itself as in crisis, which means serious problems and a cloudy future. It is the second crisis I have lived through in social psychology. The field emerged from the first crisis (in the late-1970s) into a kind of golden age in the 1980s and 1990s. There is no reason to think it cannot again emerge from the current crisis with another flowering. How might that happen?

One response to the crisis has been a change in methods and methodology. It is eliminating large areas of study. But that is not necessarily a disaster. There is no need for a discipline to study everything at once. If we restrict our focus to what we can study with the new methodological paradigm, the field can still flourish.

Perhaps our research will downplay actual behavior and live interactions for a while, and the field will focus mainly on social judgment and hypothetical responses. Data will be collected online via computers and keyboards, rather than in live interactions with undergraduate research participants as was once the main method.

It is unfortunate to leave out so much, especially live social interaction—but the field can thrive by doing well at whatever its current methods are good at. Perhaps there is no going back to the kind of research from the creative early days of social psychology (as in Milgram, Darley/Latané, Festinger-Carlsmith, Aronson/Mills).

But so what? There are plenty more things to study. How people think they would respond, and how they evaluate imaginary situations, are important topics to explore.

To be sure, it is a big and unsafe leap from what people say they think they would do to what they actually do. We should never pretend we are studying what people actually do—while we only study what they say that they imagine they would do. But the two are certainly correlated to some degree.

All social science methods have flaws. And just understanding what people think they would do contributes valuable information, even if it were to have hardly any relation to what they really do.

Indeed, if social psychology studies come to be run almost entirely online, then it is easy to complain that it misses out on plenty of important social interactions, such as when two people are in the same room talking (or fighting, or kissing, or playing a game, or nurturing their children, or plotting against enemies). Again, though, there is no need for social psychology to study everything right away.

Moreover, there is a huge silver lining to social psychology’s retreat to focusing on online responses. In the modern world, a great deal of social interaction is by way of computers and quasi-computers (e.g., smartphones). For social psychology to illuminate only how these interactions proceed could be a valuable contribution to science and society, even if we temporarily abandon studies of live person-to-person social interaction.

There are movements in the field to dismiss and discredit the past. Some people say that the research done with “small” samples and so forth is so flawed that it should be ignored. Although I respect the diversity of opinion, I have to think dismissing the field’s heritage is not a healthy development (for social psychology or indeed almost any field). The researchers I mentioned in a previous paragraph were innovative leaders. The bright future of social psychology should probably embrace its past, not reject it.

Meanwhile, there are exciting new possibilities that may enhance the future ability of social psychology to contribute powerful new insights into human social life.

The most exciting promise I see lies in big data. If I were a young researcher studying for my Ph.D. in social psychology, I would make sure to learn how to do big-data studies. That would include how to find and access these datasets and how to integrate them statistically so as to provide powerful tests of novel hypotheses.

Learn the skills that enable you to work with the masses of information available out there. Indeed, it is becoming possible to think of a young social psychologist going on to have a very successful career without ever collecting any original data.

The biggest drawback to big data is that real-world data tend to be confounded. Real life is complex and lacks the unambiguous elegance of a controlled laboratory study.

My solution to this is a hybrid. Perhaps the best future papers will combine big-data analyses to establish that some phenomenon occurs in the real world with the kind of intense, controlled lab study that social psychologists ran in the 1960s-1990s.

To illustrate: Nobody today would publish the Milgram studies, because of the small sample size. And no one would conduct a Schachter and Singer-style study with 50 or 100 participants per cell, because it would be too difficult and time-consuming.

But suppose a research team was able to get a big-data pattern fitting the hypothesis, even if confounded, and then combine it with a small-N lab study. This would be compelling. And doable.

Other reasons for optimism about social psychology’s future include institutional inertia and student appeal. No matter how badly social psychology was to shoot itself in the foot, there will be plenty of faculty positions in the field. There are giant international organizations that will not cease to exist. It is hard to imagine psychology departments eliminating social psychology in the way that, say, animal learning (all those “rat labs”) disappeared. The ongoing popularity of social psychology courses with undergraduate students guarantees that university budgets will continue to make positions available for professors to teach these courses.

So yes, social psychology is going through a difficult period, although I think the term “crisis” is overblown, as is typical of collective exaggerations of problems (Tierney & Baumeister, 2019). But the field is not doomed. It will survive, and if it finds its way to reconnect with its rich legacy while embracing powerful new methods, it can have another golden age. The 2030s might well see it.

More from Roy F. Baumeister Ph.D.
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