Why you can never trust anyone (even a Nobel Prizewinner)

My favorite professor in college was Robert Sapolsky.

Yes—the baboon and zebra guy.

As someone who was studying neuroscience, I was used to attending classes that could put even the biggest science nerd to sleep. One can only hear the word ‘capacitance’ or ‘acetylcholine’ so many times…

But Robert had a way of humanizing the material and making it approachable. He would string together obscure biology findings to elegantly describe everyday scenarios we were all familiar with, and he would show us how neuroscience could be used to solve big, juicy societal problems and revamp outdated institutions (like the criminal justice system).

Senior year I was lucky enough to be accepted into his ~10-12 person upper-level seminar. It was the most challenging class of my college career.

Each week we would learn about a new neurological disorder. Robert would run us through the discovery of the disease like it was a detective-story. He would tell us what the original researcher saw in the lab (or the field) and have us piece together the evidence and suggest new experiment ideas until we arrived at the present day state of things.

Then, over the next week, we would all have to write out an essay that looked at the most up-to-date research on the illness and suggested some ideas for future exploration.

Those were... tough.

And Professor Sapolsky was kind of old school (in the best way). He would send us weekly scores on our essay AND our class participation. And, at the end of the semester, he even gave each of us our ranking in the class.

I’ll never forget his course. It was the highlight of my college experience.

Which is why I was so excited when I heard about his new book: “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst”.

It’s an 800-page tome, so I’ve been readying myself for the grueling journey ahead.

But a review by one of my favorite up-and-coming behavioral researchers, Stuart Ritchie, has dampened my enthusiasm a bit.

According to Ritchie, Sapolsky “gives a free pass to some truly risible research” in the psychological sciences, such as priming, implicit bias, etc.

As Ritchie writes:

The problem comes when the discussion turns to psychology studies. Sapolsky is a subscriber to the theory that unconscious influences matter a lot to our behaviour: ‘We are constantly being shaped,’ he writes, ‘by seemingly irrelevant stimuli, subliminal information and internal forces we don’t know a thing about.’ This leads him to praise many studies that most of us who do psychology research would rather forget. Take the study from 2008, popular with ‘Broken Windows’ theorists, which found that people were more likely to steal money when there was litter lying around. Sapolsky cites it, but doesn’t mention the stinging scientific criticism that followed, with one response paper decrying its ‘mediocre methods and substandard statistics’.

Another: Sapolsky repeatedly cites a study where brain scans found that the ‘fear centres’ in white people’s brains lit up when they saw a black face, but lit up even more when rap music was also being played in the background. Upon reading this study, I found it had a total of 23 participants, and some extremely borderline results. Another: a 2006 study, one of Sapolsky’s ‘all-time favourites’, uncovered the ‘Macbeth Effect’, where participants who had just read aloud a story about unethical deeds were more likely to pick up some antiseptic wipes as they left the lab (presumably so they could do the whole ‘out, damn spot!’ thing). But a much bigger study by Oxford academics in 2014 failed to find any such effect.

This just goes to show: even great minds can make mistakes (and uncritically accept shoddy research).

Even when we’re reading stuff by top researchers and Nobel prizewinners we have to be careful--we have to think critically.

Sapolsky isn’t the only intellectual titan to cite discredited & dubious research, Daniel Kahneman also shares that honor (as I’ve written about many times before).

There are few things that can derail your understanding and your effectiveness (on marketing projects, design projects, weight loss efforts, etc.) more than an inaccurate mental model or idea--so make sure you stay vigilant as you explore the wide world of behavioral science.

-Jason

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Jason Hreha