Category Archives: Psychobabble

Palmistry or Hand Wringing?

Monday’s All Things Considered (16 April 2012) reported on a study done at UCLA by Daniel Fessler, Colin Holbrook, and Jeffrey Snyder that illustrates why I am suspicious of claims made by supposed scientists who study human beings. The study itself can be read here.

For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing, I’ll summarize. Several hundred persons were lured in by ads on Craig’s List and other places and shown pictures of hands holding various objects–handguns, a caulking gun, a water gun, saws, drills, a paintbrush, and knives. These persons then had to guess the size and masculinity of the man whose hand was holding the object. The conclusion that Fessler and his fellows drew is that a gun makes a person seem larger. Consider the following points about this study:

1. In the interview, Fessler said that humans make an assessment of whether to “aggress” or not to “aggress” based on size. “Aggress” is the kind of word that appeals to people like Fessler. After all, his kind twisted “issue” to mean problem.

2. One would imagine that people trained in science would understand that anyone who will make a guess as to the size and masculinity of a man based solely on a picture of a hand with an object in it is someone whose opinions cannot be trusted on any subject.

3. In the interview, the All Things Considered reporter identified the handgun as a .45 caliber weapon. Look at the pictures used in the study here. The two handguns in those pictures are a Beretta 92 (or possibly a Taurus clone) and a Colt Python. The revolver is correctly referred to as a .357 Magnum in the study, but the Beretta is called a .45 there as well. Beretta 92s come in a variety of calibers, including typically 9mm and .40 S&W in America, but never in .45 caliber.

What this illustrates is that when a person’s career depends on analyzing human nature, he comes up with something, regardless of its connection to reality. Human beings are much more complex than this study accepts, and the social sciences will never understand us until they absorb a large dose of logic.

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Standards of Nonsensical Behavior

Yesterday (5 April 2011), I completed an ethics training module on-line at work. I didn’t want to do it, but the e-mail messages from the Department of Employee Aggravation were getting menacing. Ironically, the module was on the subject of conflict resolution. Cheerful images of black men looking thoughtful and Asian women waving pens in front of them popped up, while the four approaches to conflict and the nine steps to resolution spread across the screen. I clicked on the arrow to change the page as fast as the computer could handle and raced to the inevitable quiz. This raises a couple of points:

1. If you, my good readers, have to take such foolishness, when you come to the quiz, channel Oprah Winfrey to answer the questions. The answer that has the greatest degree of psychobabble and warm fuzziness is the correct one, from the perspective of the creators of the module. As an example, according to the one that I endured yesterday, the best approach to resolving conflict is a collaborationist one. Look up a man named Quisling for more on that method.

2. But of greater importance, what is the purpose of those modules? I imagine that the college can report to those who care that its employees have completed “training” in good behavior. I am glad that I didn’t have to work any harder to satisfy the requirements, but as a matter of principle, I dislike having my time wasted for me. I can waste my time on my own, thank you very much.

Since these modules clearly aren’t meant to achieve anything beyond putting a checkmark in a box, why not just check that box without asking me to do anything? Or if I must, I’ll check the box.

The better approach would be to eliminate all such foolishness. These training modules are a bandage. If they’re meant to patch a punctured artery, they’re far too little. If, on the other hand, they’re intended to assuage institutional hypochondria, they’re just plain silly.

Besides which, if you leave a bandage on too long, what lies beneath becames pale and smelly. . .