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Abstract

A balanced approach that considers human strengths and weaknesses will lead to a more flattering set of empirical findings, but will distract researchers from focusing on the mental processes that produce such findings and will diminish the practical implications of their work. Psychologists ought to be doing research that is theoretically informative and practically relevant, exactly as they are doing.
racy, would enhance our field greatly if they more quickly asked
what policies or interventions would make people more accurate
in their judgments and wiser in their actions. For myself, I am al-
ways struck by how quickly economists, computer scientists, and
political scientists get to these issues in their talks, and how often
such thinking is devoid in our own, with a few notable exceptions.
Talking about how to create positivity, rather than congratulating
whatever positivity is out there already, should be a task enjoyed
equally by researchers, whatever their view of human compe-
tence. It would also make our field no less theoretical, but that
much more interesting, sophisticated, and prestigious in the eyes
of the world.
Balance where it really counts
Nicholas Epley,
a
Leaf Van Boven,
b
and Eugene M. Caruso
a
a
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138;
b
Department of Psychology, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO
80309-0345. epley@wjh.harvard.edu vanboven@colorado.edu
ecaruso@fas.harvard.edu
http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~epley/
http://www.psych.colorado.edu/~vanboven/
Abstract: A balanced approach that considers human strengths and weak-
nesses will lead to a more flattering set of empirical findings, but will dis-
tract researchers from focusing on the mental processes that produce such
findings and will diminish the practical implications of their work. Psy-
chologists ought to be doing research that is theoretically informative and
practically relevant, exactly as they are doing.
If ideas come in and out of fashion, then those presented by
Krueger & Funder (K&F) mark the return of the bell-bottom.
Similar critiques of the errors-and-biases approach to social cog-
nition have a history almost as long as the approach itself. Many of
our reactions to K&F’s criticisms have been well articulated be-
fore (Gilovich & Griffin 2002; Griffin et al. 2001; Kahneman &
Tversky 1996). We will not repeat that history by pointing out re-
curring misconceptions, but will focus instead on K&F’s prescrip-
tion about what psychologists ought to study and what they ought
not.
K&F suggest that social psychology is “badly out of balance”
(sect. 4, para. 1), “that theoretical development of social psychol-
ogy has become self-limiting” (sect. 4, para. 1), and that a solution
to this theoretically limited imbalance is to slow the rate of error
discovery. Although a more “balanced” approach contains all of
the loaded connotations that imply an improvement over a
thereby “unbalanced” approach, there are two reasons we doubt
it will produce as much empirical yield as it does rhetorical flour-
ish. First, because people in everyday life typically know what peo-
ple do (Nisbett & Kunda 1985) better than why they do it (Nisbett
& Wilson 1977), psychologists are of the most practical and theo-
retical value when they focus on mental processes (why and how),
rather than simply on mental outcomes (what). The real value of
science is its ability to make inferences about unobservable
processes, a value that would be lost by simply accounting for what
people do well and what they do poorly. Second, to the extent that
psychologists wish to improve psychological well-being and hu-
man functioning, documenting human strengths may be less pro-
ductive than documenting human shortcomings.
Redressing the right imbalance. K&F suggest that a balanced
approach will lead, among other things, to “an improved under-
standing of the bases of good behavior and accurate judgment”
(target article, Abstract). We agree that theoretical understanding
of the bases of behavior and judgment is the most desirable goal
of psychological research, but worry that “fixing” the imbalance
between accuracy and error will not further this goal. Rather, it
would create a more problematic imbalance between a focus on
mental outcomes versus mental processes.
Tallying social cognitions that are “biased” or “unbiased,” “right”
or “wrong,” or “good” or “bad,” places judgmental outcomes at the
focus of attention rather than the mental processes that produce
them. Focusing primarily on outcomes of any kind whether pos-
itive, negative, or neutral inhibits theoretical development, be-
cause outcomes of complex mental processes are inevitably con-
text-dependent and therefore superficially inconsistent. In a
psychological science balanced between processes and outcomes,
such apparent inconsistencies are part of healthy scientific
progress, prompting theoretical and empirical reconciliations.
Focusing on mental outcomes is also problematic, because the
way an outcome is framed often determines whether it is “good”
or “bad.” “Negative” research on conformity, for example, could
just be positive research on “affiliation”; “disgust” can be reframed
as “elevation” (Haidt 2003); and “stereotyping” as efficient “cate-
gorization.” Even the widely influential research program on
heuristics and biases pioneered by Kahneman and Tversky as-
sumed that the heuristics people used to guide everyday judg-
ments were generally beneficial an assumption polemically con-
firmed by Gigerenzer and colleagues in their research on “fast and
frugal” heuristics. In other words, the same mental processes can
lead to mental outcomes that are sometimes “ludicrous” (Tversky
& Kahneman 1971, p. 109), and at other times can be the very
things that “make us smart” (Gigerenzer et al. 1999).
A focus on judgmental outcomes may create a rush to reframe
previous research on human shortcomings as human strengths, or,
worse, to “rediscover” mental processes that usually produce ac-
curate judgments but occasionally lead to bias and error. Such a
focus may lead some to believe that new insights have been
gleaned when they have not, but this new gloss is unlikely to ad-
vance psychologists’ understanding of the human condition.
Pursuing mental problems. Even a discipline balanced be-
tween mental processes and mental outcomes will gain more from
an unbalanced focus on human shortcomings than on human
strengths. K&F suggest, “everyday social behavior and cognition
includes both appalling lapses and impressive accomplishments”
(sect. 1, Introduction), but it is those appalling lapses that create
the greatest psychological impact, and therefore are the more in-
teresting to economists, lawyers, politicians, public policy makers,
or anyone who matters beyond our experimental laboratories.
Humans are much more sensitive to shortcomings and mistakes
than to strengths and accomplishments (Kahneman & Tversky
1979; Rozin & Royzman 2001; Taylor 1991). Failing hurts more
than succeeding feels good. A few moments of self-reflection will
make clear that a single colleague’s slight, lover’s insult, or nego-
tiator’s misstep can ruin a day, a relationship, or a reconciliation.
It is harder to think of analogous compliments, sweet nothings, or
creative compromises. Mental shortcomings, in this regard, seem
somewhat analogous to physical pain; they serve as a clear signal
that something is wrong or needs to be fixed. It is therefore no
more erroneous for psychologists to focus on alleviating the men-
tal shortcomings of their participants than for physicians to focus
on alleviating the pain of their patients. Just as we would encour-
age our colleagues and students to attend to their broken leg
rather than their unbroken arm, so too will we continue to en-
courage them to work in areas where their work can best improve
the human condition.
Concluding thoughts. Waves of research come and go, and we
doubt this clarion call for research on judgmental accuracy will
create any more whiplash among researchers than any of its pre-
decessors. K&F may be correct to hearken a regime change, but
we hope the change will be to develop broader theoretical mod-
els, rather than simply add a new set of human strengths to the ex-
isting list of human shortcomings. Psychologists don’t so much
need redirection to the study of human strengths as they need to
focus on the mental processes underlying mental outcomes, main-
taining balance where it really counts.
Commentary/Krueger & Funder: Problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition
BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2004) 27:3 333
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