Did You Know It All Along?

Excerpt from: David G. Meyers, Exploring Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994, pp.15-19.

Anything seems commonplace, once explained.
- Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes

Do social psychology's theories provide new insight into the human condition? Or do they only describe the obvious? Many of the conclusions presented in this book will probably have already occurred to you, for social psychology is all around you. Every day we observe people thinking about, influencing, and relating to one another. For centuries, philosophers, novelists, and poets have observed and commented upon social behavior, often with keen insight. As English philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead noted, "Everything important has been said before."

Might it therefore also be said that social psychology is only common sense in different words? Social psychology faces two contradictor criticisms: One is that it is trivial because it documents the obvious; the other is that it is dangerous because its findings could be used to manipulate people. Is the first objection valid: does social psychology simply formalize what any good amateur social psychologist already knows intuitively?

Cullen Murphy (1990), editor of The Atlantic, thinks so. So far as he can detect, the social sciences turn up "no ideas or conclusions that can't be found in [any] encyclopedia of quotations. . . . Day after day social scientists go out into the world. Day after day they discover that people's behavior is pretty much what you'd expect." Nearly a half century earlier, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., (1949) reacted similarly to social scientists' studies of American World War II soldiers as reported in the two volumes of The American Soldier -- "ponderous demonstrations" of common sense knowledge, he said.

What were the findings? Another reviewer, Paul Lazarsfeld (1949), offered a sample with interpretive comments, a few of which I paraphrase:

  1. Better educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than less educated soldiers. (Intellectuals were less prepared for battle stresses than street-smart people.)
  2. Southern soldiers coped better with the hot South Sea Island climate than Northern soldiers. (Southerners are more accustomed to hot weather.)
  3. White privates were more eager to be promoted to noncommissioned officers than Black privates. (Years of oppression take a toll on achievement motivation.)
  4. Southern Blacks preferred Southern to Northern White officers (because Southern officers were more experienced and skilled in interacting with Blacks).
  5. As long as the fighting continued, soldiers were more eager to return home than after the war ended. (During the fighting, soldiers knew they were in mortal danger.)

One problem with common sense, however, is that we invoke it after we know the facts. Events are far more "obvious" and predictable in hindsight than beforehand. Baruch Fischhoff and others (Slovic & Fischhoff, 1977) have repeatedly demonstrated that when people learn the outcome of an experiment, that outcome suddenly seems unsurprising -- certainly less surprising than it is to people who are simply told about the experimental procedure and the possible outcomes. People overestimate their ability to have foreseen the result. This happens especially when the result seems determined and not a mere product of chance (Hawkins & Hastie, 1990).

Daphna Baratz (1983) tested college students' sense of the obvious. She gave them pairs of supposed social findings, one true (for example, "In prosperous times people spend a larger proportion of their income than during a recession" or "People who go to church regular tend to have more children than people who go to church infrequently"), the other its opposite. Her finding: Whether given the truth or its opposite, most students rated a supposed finding as something "I would have predicted."

You perhaps experienced this phenomenon when reading Lazarsfeld's summary of findings from The American Soldier. For actually, Lazarsfeld went on to say, "every one of these statements is the direct opposite of what was actually found." In reality, the book reported that poorly educated soldiers adapted more poorly. Southerners were not more likely than Northerners to adjust to a tropical climate. Blacks were more eager than Whites for promotion, and so forth. "If we had mentioned the actual results of the investigation first [as Schlesinger experienced], the reader would have labelled these 'obvious' also. Obviously something is wrong with the entire argument of obviousness. . . . Since every kind of human reaction is conceivable, it is of great importance to know which reactions actually occur most frequently and under what conditions."

Likewise, in everyday life we often do not expect something to happen until it does. We then suddenly see clearly the forces that brought it to be and feel unsurprised. After Ronald Reagan's presidential victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, commentators -- forgetting that the election had been "too close to call" until the campaign's final few days -- found the Reagan landslide unsurprising and easily understandable. When the day before the election, Mark Leary (1982) asked people what percentage of votes they thought each candidate would receive, the average person, too, foresaw only a slim Reagan victory. The day after the election Leary asked other people what result they would have predicted the day before the election; most indicated a Reagn vote that was closer to the Reagan landslide.

Jack Powell (1988) found a similar knew-it-all-along effect after the 1984 Reagan triump over Walter Mondale. Finding out that something had happened made it seem more inevitable. As the Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard put it, "Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards."

If this hindsight bias (also called the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon) is pervasive, you may now be feeling that you already knew about it. Indeed, almost any conceivable result of a psychological experiment can seem like common sense -- after you know the result. You can demonstrate the phenomenon by asking half a group to predict the outcome of some current event, such as an upcoming election. Ask the other half, a week after the outcome is known, what they would have predicted. For example, when Martin Bolt and Jon Brink (1991) invited Calvin College students to predict the U.S. Senate vote on controversial Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, 58 percent predicted his approval. A week after his confirmation, Bolt asked other students to recall what they would have predicted. "I thought he would be approved," said 78 percent.

Or give half a goup one psychological finding and the other half the opposite result. For example, tell half:

Social psychologists have found that, whether choosing friends or falling in love, we are most attracted to people whose traits are different from our own. There seems to be wisdom in the old saying "Opposites attract."
Tell the other half the truth:
Social psychologists have found that, whether choosing friends or falling in love, we are most attracted to people whose traits are similar to our own. There seems to be wisdom in the old saying "Birds of a feather flock together."
Ask the people first to explain the result. Then ask them to say whether it is "surprising" or "not surprising." Virtually all will find whichever result they were given "not surprising."

As these examples show, we can draw upon the stockpile of ancient proverbs to make almost any result seem to make sense. Because nearly every possible outcome is conceivable, there are proverbs for various occasions. Shall we say with John Donne, "No man is an island," or with Thomas Wolfe, "Every man is an island"? If a social psychologist reports that separation intensifies romantic attract, Joe Public responds, "You get paid for this? Everybody knows that 'absnece makes the heart grow fonder.'" Should it turn out that separation weakens attraction, Judy Public may say, "My grandmother could have told you, 'Out of sight, out of mind.'" No matter what happens, there will be someone who knew it would.

Karl Teigen (1986) must have had a few chuckles when asking University of Leicester (England) students to evaluate actual proverbs and their opposites. When given the actual proverb "Fear is stronger than love," most rated it as true. But so did students who were given its reversed form, "Love is stronger than fear." Likewise, the genuine proverb "He that is fallen cannot help him who is down" was rated highly; but so, too, was "He that is fallen can help him who id down." My favorites, however, were the two highly rated proverbs: "Wise men make proverbs and fools repeat them" (authentic) and its made-up counterpart, "Fools make proverbs and wise men repeat them."

The hindsight bias creates a problem for many psychology students. When you read the results of experiments in your textbooks, the material oftens seems easy, even obvious. When you later take a multiple-choice test on which you must choose among several plausible conclusions, the taks may become surprisingly difficult. "I don't know what happened," the befuddled student later moans. "I thought I knew the material." (A word to the wise: Beware of the phenomenon when studying for exams, lest you fool yourself into thinking that you know the amterial better than you do.)

The I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon not only can make social science findings seem like common sense but also can have unhealthy consequences. It is conducive to arrogance -- an overestimation of our own intellectual powers. . . .

The point is not that common sense is predictably wrong. Rather, common sense usually is right after the fact; it describes events more easily than it predicts them. We therefore easily deceive ourselves into thinking that we know and knew more than we do and did.