Executive Director's Column

Between Timidity and Temerity

Somewhere between timidity and temerity is the right place for social and behavioral science. If we must lean one way or the other, it should be toward temerity.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

As a student of social psychology “growing up” in the early 1980’s, I can still remember the much-anticipated publication in 1985 of the third edition of the Handbook of Social Psychology.  It was a massive two-volume effort spanning more than 1500 pages, and I read it cover to cover.

Yet, it is two paragraphs in an early chapter of the Handbook that stuck with me most over the past 25 years.  I return to those two paragraphs often, buried deep in the second chapter written by the late Edward E. Jones (Major Developments in Social Psychology During the Past Five Decades).

In a brief section on relevance and funding priorities, Jones made the point that social scientists (in contrast to natural scientists) are “pressed into working on problems defined as urgent or important by those outside the profession”.  The risk we run is that those problems may be so complex and difficult that solutions and breakthroughs can easily fall short of expectations.

In times of economic distress, Jones predicts that “failure to fulfill these expectations [will be] used by Congress or the administration in power to justify funding restrictions or cutbacks”.  These words have an eerie relevance as the nation struggles with its biggest financial crisis of the modern economic era, and social and behavioral scientists fret over shrinking allocations of research dollars at the federal agencies.

So what are social and behavioral scientists to do?  One approach is to lower expectations – focus on smaller, narrower problems, and never promise more than can be delivered.  Some may believe that this approach is closer to what our colleagues do in natural science fields – focus on tractable problems for which results are certain to obtain and expectations are easily met.  I think of this as timid science – achieve progress by taking small, incremental steps.

Another approach is to ignore expectations and the possibility of failure.  Aspire to solving grand challenges, and demand support for the endeavor.  Those problems may or may not get solved, but many things will be learned in trying.  In contrast to timid science, I think of this as impudent science – achieve progress by setting sights way too high.  We may stumble and fall, but new knowledge is likely to be found along the way.

Timid science seems safe, if not boring.  But the world seems to be moving much faster, demands on science are growing, and timid science runs the risk of not keeping pace.

Impudent science is attractive, if not dangerous.  It gets attention and resources, but is precisely the kind of science that runs the risk of not meeting expectations and of failing.

Somewhere between timidity and temerity is the right place for social and behavioral science.  If we must lean one way or the other, it should be toward temerity.  Every field of science promises more than it can deliver.  And even when problems are solved, it usually takes much longer than anyone expected (consider the 150 years that mathematicians have spent trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis, and they are still going at it).

The world of science has changed considerably since Jones wrote his chapter in 1985.  Ten years into the 21st century, expectations for science are higher than ever before.  Science is being counted on to cure diseases, to solve the crisis of global warming, and to improve the quality of life.  And most fields of science offer themselves as providing solutions.  Talk about temerity!

Results from social and behavioral science can be used to eliminate disparities in health, increase vitality in aging, reduce global warming, improve productivity, control dangerous addictions, make transportation safer, improve children’s learning, and otherwise make the world and society a better place to live.

Is that temerity?  Perhaps so.  I don’t think it is the expectation of success or failure that needs to be managed, it is the expectation of trying that counts.  If social and behavioral science won’t step up to the plate, then who will?  We can’t wait 150 years to solve these problems.  Social and behavioral science offers the best hope, and that’s the expectation we should promote.