Totalitarian Scientists

I have read many, if not most highly influential articles in the history of psychology, but once in a while I stumble upon an article I didn’t know. Here is one of them: “The Totalitarian Ego
Fabrication and Revision of Personal History” by Tony Greenwald (1980). Back in the days, Toni Greenwald was a revolutionary, who recognized many of the flaws that prevent psychology from being a real science. For example, in 1975 he published a critical article about the tendency to hide disconfirming evidence. This article is mentioned in the 1980s article.

The 1980s article was written during a time when social psychologists discovered cognitive biases and started to examine why humans often make errors in the processing of information. One influential hypothesis was that cognitive biases are actually beneficial for individuals, which led to Taylor and Brown’s (1988) claim that positive illusions are a sign of mental health.

The same argument is made by Greenwald (1980), and he compares the benefits of biases for individuals to those for totalitarian regimes and scientific theories. The main function of biases is to preserve either the ego of individuals, the organization of a totalitarian regime, or the integrity of a theory.

The view of biases as beneficial has been challenged. Illusions about reality can have dramatic negative consequences for individuals. In fact, there is little evidence to support the claim that positive illusions are beneficial for well-being (Schimmack & Kim, 2020). The idea that illusions are beneficial for scientific theory is even more questionable. After all, the very idea of science is that scientific theories should be subjected to empirical tests and revised or abandoned when they fail these tests. Greenwald (1980) first seems to agree.

But then he cites Popper and Kuhn to come to the opposite conclusion.

At least in the short term, it is beneficial for individuals and scientific theories to protect them against disconfirming evidence. It is only in the long-run when hard evidence forces makes a theory untenable that individuals or theories need to change. For individuals these hard facts may be life experiences that are not under their control. It may take years before it becomes clear that a marriage is not worth saving. However, scientists can avoid this moment of painful reckoning as long as they can hide disconfirming evidence by avoiding strong tests of theories, dismissing disconfirming evidence in their own studies, and using their status as experts in the peer-review process to keep disconfirming evidence from being published. Thus, scientists have a strong incentive to protect their ego and their theories (brain-children) from a confrontation with reality. Thus, scientists who’s ego is invested in a theory, as for example Greenwald is invested in the theory of implicit biases, are the least trustworthy individuals to evaluate a theory; as Feynman observed, scientists should not fool themselves, but when it comes to their own theories, they are the easiest to fool.

Thus, scientists end up behaving like totalitarian societies. They will use all of their energy to preserve theories, even when they are false. Moreover, the biggest fools have an advantage because they have the least doubt about their theories, which facilitates goal attainment. The research program on implicit bias is a great example. The theory that individuals have unconscious, hidden biases that guide their behavior has become a dominant theory in social cognition research, despite much evidence to support it (Schimmack, 2020). Criticism was sporadic and drowned out by the forces that pushed the theory.

While this has been extremely advantageous for the scientists pushing the theory, these totalitarian forces are bad for a science as a hole. Thus, psychology needs to find a mechanism to counteract totalitarianism in science. Fortunately, there are some positive trends that this is happening. The 2010s have seen a string of major replication failures in social psychology that would have been difficult to publish when psychology was prejudiced against null-findings (Grenwald, 1975). Other changes are needed to subject theories to stronger tests so that they can fail before they have become to big to fail.

In conclusion, Greenwald’s (1980) article deserves some recognition for pointing out some similarities between ego-defense mechanisms, totalitarian regimes, and scientific theories. They all want to live forever, but eternal life is an unattainable goal. The goal of empirical research should not be to feed an illusion, but a process of evolution where old theories are constantly replaced by new theories that are better adapted to reality. Implicit bias theory had a good life. It’s time to die.

References

Greenwald, A. G. (1980). The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history. American Psychologist, 35(7), 603–618. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.35.7.603

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