Ferguson & the New Phrenology

by Jonah Goldberg

Andy Ferguson’s Weekly Standard cover story on “The New Phrenology” is simply fantastic — and I’d say that even if he hadn’t called my book “dazzling.” You really should read the whole thing, but I wanted to emphasize one point that falls a little by the wayside in his essay. While I think there’s a lot of nonsense in this whole field — and Ferguson is masterful at demonstrating that fact –  let’s imagine for the moment that at least some of the studies are measuring something but the interpretations of that something are often wildly biased (See this video for an example of what I mean).

Here’s an excerpt from Ferguson’s discussion of a study that many (including Tom Edsall) say proves that the “rich and powerful” — i.e. conservatives — are hardwired to be more indifferent to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. Given the surplus of extremely rich and powerful liberals in this country, I’m tempted to say that liberal brains are hardwired to assume, contrary to all available data, that rich and powerful people are by definition conservative. Regardless, the real scientists allegedly tell us that the rich and powerful are insensitive and uncompassionate. “How do we know this?” asks Ferguson, because:

A paper called “Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others” describes a study put together by a team of social psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, a few years ago. Graduate assistants managed to collect 118 undergraduates, most of them under the age of 21. The kids agreed to participate in the experiment because they were given $15 or class credit for a psychology requirement. A skeptic might point out that the sample of participants was thus skewed from the start, unnaturally weighted toward either kids who badly need $15 or psych majors. And all of them, by definition, were the kinds of kids who want to go to college at Berkeley. Almost half of the participants were Asian American; only 3.5 percent were African American. Caucasians made up less than 30 percent.

The group the researchers studied is not, in other words, a demographic cross section of humanity. It’s not a ride through Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World.” It has no claim to the randomness that sampling requires. It is therefore an odd gang from which to extract truths about human behavior. Indeed, speaking as a former resident, I can attest that human behavior in Berkeley, California, is unlike human behavior anywhere else in the world. But the method by which these human truths were drawn was even less plausible. The setting the researchers constructed for their experiment was exquisite in its artificiality. To see how powerful people react in real life, the professors began by giving the kids a questionnaire asking them how powerful they felt. (“Agree or disagree: I think I have a great deal of power.”) The students were then divided into pairs and seated facing each other, two feet apart. Each student had a video camera trained on him and was wired to an electrocardiogram through receptors taped to his torso.

Then the students told each other traumatic stories from their personal experience, lasting no more than five minutes. The stories were supposed to be upsetting, or “emotionally evocative.”

After many regression analyses and much hierarchical linear modeling, the professors discovered that their conclusion matched their hypothesis: The “powerful” students—that is, the students who said on the questionnaire that they were feeling powerful that morning—showed less dramatic reactions to the stories than other students. Or, as the professors put it: “Our data suggest that social power attenuates emotional reactions to those who suffer.”

#more#Now, Ferguson’s arguments are all well-taken, but let’s pretend for a moment that the study actually measures something just not the thing the researchers and reporters claim. On its own terms, it doesn’t measure the attitudes of powerful people, it measures the attitudes of people with an unjustified sense of personal power. Asking a college kid if he thinks he has power is not a way of determining whether he has power, it’s a way of determining his inflated self-esteem. The actual rich and powerful don’t, as a rule, have an unjustified sense of personal power but a realistic one (and in my experience, a shocking share of them tend to be surprisingly humble). Maybe they’re insensitive, too. But this study doesn’t tell us anything about that.

Meanwhile, who does have an unjustified sense of their own personal power? Well, let’s see. If had to make a list, it would include: bureaucrats, TSA agents, government inspectors, traffic cops, Hollywood celebrities, intellectuals and journalists, just to name a few. I’m not saying this study really says anything about such people, but that interpretation makes more sense to me than anything about “conservatives.”

Oh and one last point about the interpretations of these studies. The core — hyper-liberal — assumption behind them is that the more liberal emotional or cognitive states are superior. In this study, it’s taken as a given that having more compassion is better than having too little. But that depends, doesn’t it? One can be too compassionate (or open-minded, or nuanced etc). This study could also demonstrate that “conservatives” get bored more quickly by pointless emotional bleating in lab conditions.

One of the key hints that these studies are conceived, conducted, and interpreted along lines sympathetic to liberals is that they are never seen as an indictment of the flattering self-image of liberals themselves. Anyway, for more on this and much else, I highly recommend “The New Phrenology.”

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