Hold on to your hat!

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O NE MORNING RECENTLY I OPENED UP A GREAT METROPOLITAN NEWSPAPER to the science pages and read an article all about a study whose conclusions hit me right between the eyes. “The flippant lines that some men use to impress women,” the account of the research began, “may actually ruin their chances of landing a date.” For this new study a psychologist at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, asked local Lotharios to approach unattached women in bars and deploy a clever or flippant conversational opener, such as “Bet I can out drink you.” He found that a positive response was elicited only about 20 percent of the time. Four out of five women “turned away or asked the men to leave.”

Talk about upsetting the conventional wisdom. From the same newspaper on another day: “While gifts can be simple tokens of affection and caring, they can also offer telling clues to the relationship of giver and receiver, social scientists say.” And on another day: “Therapists find that when people spend time on themselves they reduce stress, increase their creativity and feel less resentful of the big demands others place on them.” And yet another: “New studies show that confronting people with the fact that they will die makes them cling tenaciously to their deepest moral values.” And another: “Imbalances of power in a relationship can intensify jealousy, therapists say.”

There are those who find fault with sociology, psychology, and other social sciences for too often merely discerning the obvious or confirming the commonplace. That the social sciences do this with some frequency is hard to dispute. A recent survey (by me) of recent social-science findings, the results of which are being reported here for the first time, turned up no ideas or conclusions that can’t be found in Bartlett’s or any other encyclopedia of quotations. The findings cited above, for ex-ample , had all been widely anticipated, by centuries and some-times millennia. “When you look at the gift, look also at the giver”— Seneca. “The nurse of full-grown souls is solitude”—James Russell Lowell. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonder -fully”—Samuel Johnson. “Envy always implies conscious inferiority wher-ever it resides”—Pliny the Elder.

NO, ORIGINALITY IS NOT THE STRONG SUIT OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES . But is that fact really cause for censure? Or is it, rather, the very glory of the enterprise? Perhaps alone among the disciplines at universities, the social sciences turn up reassuring evidence that life is often just the way it seems. 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. All mature adults possess a mental template of social reality; social science tells most of us that the template is accurate and working fine. This is an enormous comfort.

MOST OTHER KINDS OF RESEARCH ARE NOT COMFORTING AT ALL. Astrophysics, for cxample, is focused on a domain so inhuman in scale that reports of new findings all lead to one conclusion our planet is lucky to have been created, lucky to have escaped destruction, and —laughably irrelevant. Then, Quantum mechanics? The scale here, too, is incomprehensible, and the message— that our notion of a classic, deterministic world is childish—is unnerving but apparently true. Reports from more comprehensible fields are no more reassuring. Earth science? A recent article in the British journal New Scientist indicates that a major and hitherto unsuspected cause of atmospheric warming is the methane produced by cattle whose numbers have doubled during the past four decades. Medicine? One never has to look far for disturbing news . A recent item in The New Fngland Journal of Medicine reports the out-break of a kind of herpes known as herpes gladiatorum, which has spread through skin-to-skin contact among college wrestlers wearing a new, abrasive kind of cotton-and-polyester practice shirt. History? A day doesn’t go by when illusions are not destroyed about some beloved man or woman, or some event or achievement of which humanity was proud.

So I accept the banality of much social science, embrace its results, and look forward to headlines like: “Hard work pays off more often than laziness, researchers contend.” “Love a key variable in marriage, therapists believe.” “Maverick theorist links immorality, guilt.” Above the level of an atom and below that of a universe, it is heartening to learn, some rules still hold.

Gullen Murphy


The ATLANTIC Magazine

June 1990. (Pg. 22-23)

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