Streetwise Professor

January 8, 2019

Psychologists Should Be Humble: They Have a Lot to Be Humble About

Filed under: Uncategorized — cpirrong @ 7:49 pm

The American Psychological Association has determined that masculinity is indeed toxic:

Thirteen years in the making, [the APA’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men] draw on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.

. . . .

The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors. For example, a 2011 study led by Kristen Springer, PhD, of Rutgers University, found that men with the strongest beliefs about masculinity were only half as likely as men with more moderate masculine beliefs to get preventive health care (Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 52, No. 2). And in 2007, researchers led by James Mahalik, PhD, of Boston College, found that the more men conformed to masculine norms, the more likely they were to consider as normal risky health behaviors such as heavy drinking, using tobacco and avoiding vegetables, and to engage in these risky behaviors themselves (Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 64, No. 11).

When evaluating documents like this, I find it useful to refer to Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions. He argues that a particular dichotomy, between what he calls the constrained and unconstrained visions, can explain a large amount of the variation in opinions on seemingly disparate and unrelated subjects. Sowell does not oversell the idea, but to paraphrase George Box’s statement about theories, all dichotomies are wrong, but some are useful. Sowell’s is definitely useful.

The APA’s new Guidelines are firmly in the unconstrained vision. They consider most human behavior to be the product of social constructs, which are somewhat arbitrary and malleable. They can be deconstructed, and then reconstructed, by a gnostic elite–in this case, psychology researchers and therapists. The enlightened reconstruction results in better social outcomes.

In contrast, the constrained vision views most human traits as stubborn facts that are resistant to change, and believes that attempts to change them are likely disastrous. These traits are at root the result of millions of years of biological evolution, augmented in the more recent past by social and cultural developments that accommodate the evolved species to social life, including social life in modern “extended orders” (to use Hayek’s term, in contrast to more limited, tribal groupings). In the case of masculinity, biological imperatives relating to reproduction predispose men (and the males of many other species) physically and mentally towards competition and sometimes strife. Cultural and social conventions and norms constrain these impulses, and channel them into more social and socially productive directions.

Including, I might add, competition for status and prestige that results in extraordinary accomplishment. Men are high variance, with a greater frequency of outcomes at extremes than women, in almost any variable that you want to measure.

These phenomena are complex, and interact in deep and poorly understood ways. The constrained vision always keeps Chesterton’s Fence in mind. Men socialized into “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression” are “unhealthy”? Well, why did socialization take such a perverse turn? And why did it take such a perverse turn virtually universally, across cultures and across time? Could it be that perhaps these traits perform some deeper function, related to biologically selected male traits, and that undoing these cultural norms may lead to horrible outcomes?

In other words: how do you reconstruct testosterone? And, since you can’t, how can you be sure that the allegedly toxic traits that you presume that you can manipulate via therapy are not the very things that keep the testosterone in check? How do you know that you are not playing Sorcerer’s Apprentice when you meddle with these things?

The hubris in the unconstrained vision is particularly stunning in this case, as the APA itself criticizes heavily the previous “androcentric bias” of the psychology profession. So in other words, previous psychologists were deeply flawed. But you can totally rely on the current generation. Because research.

Well, the previous (now apparently discredited) psychologists based their claims on research too. But even more telling: the reproducibility crisis in psychological research is more acute than in any other subject (with over 50 percent of psychological studies being non-replicable). (If you Google “reproducibility crisis” top Google suggested fill-in is “reproducibility crisis psychology.”)

What’s more, many of the unreplicable studies involve relatively simple experiments, rather than those that purport to identify causal relationships in complicated social and behavioral phenomena.

In other words, perhaps the worst way to convince me of the correctness of a claim about psychology is to cite modern research.

Some blind spots are evident in some of the research cited in the link. It spends some time discussing the interactions between masculinity and race:

These dynamics play out in the prison system as well. As of 2014, black men made up 37 percent of the male state and federal prison population and were more than 10 times as likely to be incarcerated in state or federal prison as white men. Hispanic men were also overrepresented, making up 22 percent of the prison population despite making up only about 8 percent of the general U.S. population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015).

Well, if you want to examine a society dominated by females and notably lacking in traditional male figures, just look at the minority inner city communities that supply the prison population discussed in this quote. These dots are, of course, not connected by the APA.

Relatedly, variations in things emphasized by the APA, such as murder and suicide, across countries, races, ethnicities, and time are huge, which suggests that many other factors are at work, and that a reductionist focus on the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is woefully inadequate.

The presumptuousness of this endeavor is breathtaking, and is therefore a particularly pronounced example of the unconstrained vision in action. As someone firmly rooted in the constrained vision, I say: don’t mess with what you don’t understand, and don’t pretend to understand when recent experience–which you recognize–demonstrates the fallibility of your discipline. Psychologists should be humble: they have a lot to be humble about.

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14 Comments »

  1. Nice post!

    Comment by SimonS — January 9, 2019 @ 2:46 am

  2. May I just say, in an ‘umble, grovelling, half-feminised way, “fuck off, APA”?

    We in Britain probably say “fuck off” too often; I suspect that you in the USA perhaps say it too rarely. Especially to trick-cyclists.

    Comment by dearieme — January 9, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

  3. @dearieme–I do my part to keep up! It’s a staple of my vocabulary.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 9, 2019 @ 6:54 pm

  4. I feel bad for all the women that want to transition to being male. What’s the point with the way society wants to feminize men? This whole attack on maleness has shades of Joe Haldeman’s classic, Forever War, where for the betterment of society all me were raised to be homosexual in ageneration or two.

    Comment by Luis DeCamoes — January 9, 2019 @ 8:37 pm

  5. @Luis–It’s beyond bizarre.

    I think of the things I did growing up, that were just accepted as “boys will be boys.” Now I’m sure I would have been medicated and put into therapy until I got my mind right. Boys aren’t allowed to be boys, and increasingly men aren’t allowed to be men.

    It will not end well.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 9, 2019 @ 9:45 pm

  6. Prof

    Your Nature link is broken – has an errant “%20.” on the end.

    https://www.nature.com/news/over-half-of-psychology-studies-fail-reproducibility-test-1.18248

    gets you there.

    Comment by Green as Grass — January 10, 2019 @ 10:30 am

  7. @Green–thanks. I’ll fix.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 10, 2019 @ 10:45 am

  8. All of your criticisms of the APA guidelines that you list seem to be self evident no-brainers. How is it possible for so many psychologists to believe such tripe as to re-orient the entire field? What is clear is that the entire field has been infested with people that start with the premise that concepts such as masculinity are not part of human nature but the results of social constructs.
    This is a very post-modernist (marxist) idea prevalent in the universities at present, and there is a lot of push back on this philosophy rising in society from many directions, for obvious reasons. That the APA would put this kookyness forward as a blueprint for societies’ mental health at this time is perhaps suicidal or even criminal.
    I suspect that the braintrust of the APA is not interested in psychology, but politics.

    Comment by Gordon — January 10, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

  9. Vegetable avoidance? Anyone who has watched the Hollywood documentary “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” will know this is a life-saving strategy.

    Comment by zut alors! — January 11, 2019 @ 5:06 am

  10. I love it. The R^2 value of a research study falls below 0.5 when replication is attempted! Gives me great confidence in their ‘research’ conclusions. ON a separate note – this APA study makes me want to beat the living shit out of someone, preferably female. But – no worries, I’ve have been appropriately socialized not to engage. Hey – here’s a thought. Maybe that was the intended result of the study? To further masculinize the neutered population who read this drivel!

    Comment by doc — January 11, 2019 @ 12:25 pm

  11. @doc–Unintended consequences! Which is a very constrained vision concept.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 11, 2019 @ 1:08 pm

  12. Wide generalizations are always suspect (how’s that for generalization?), so painting ALL masculinity toxic is just …infantile.
    However, I must say – SOME men are toxic indeed. Not in stoic and competitive, but aggressive, bottom-feeding, back-stabbing, win-by-any-means, jackal-biting ways. Why, on this very thread there are at least two.

    Speaking of scientific research: in the widely circulating Jordan Petersen videos (f.i., here he often stresses, that scientists and clinical psychologists are now in consensus that nature amounts to 95% of human behavior, and nurture has a very poor effort-to-result ratio. Consensus! Apparently, his scientists and APA scientists circles do not mingle…

    Comment by Tatyana — January 12, 2019 @ 7:20 am

  13. Tatyana:

    Make it three (3) now.

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vlad — January 12, 2019 @ 10:48 am

  14. V: naturally, with a name like that

    Comment by Tatyana — January 12, 2019 @ 3:44 pm

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