Counter point- Going the proverbial extra mile

Susan Hansen presents a counterpoint argument to Tom Stafford's February article
Going the proverbial extra mile In the February issue Tom Stafford examined an accusation often levelled at psychology. Susan Hansen thinks we need to take another look at what ‘common sense’ actually means in practical terms.

Going the proverbial extra mile

In the February issue Tom Stafford examined an accusation often levelled at psychology. Susan Hansen thinks we need to take another look at what ‘common sense’ actually means in practical terms.

As Stafford pointed out in the February issue, most modern psychologists are familiar with the accusation that psychology is just ‘common sense, dressed up with big words to confuse people’. However, we may not be quite so aware of the history and rhetorical force of this pernicious accusation within our discipline. Indeed, a brief review of the literature reveals that common sense has long occupied a rather uneasy position in psychology. Although dismissed in no uncertain terms as ‘science of nothing’ by B.F. Skinner (1978), and cited as evidence of the ‘limited’ logic of the layperson (e.g. Kelley, 1992), common sense is also often summoned as a warrant for further empirical enquiry (e.g. Heider, 1958); described as a ‘valuable but potentially dangerous resource’ for psychologists (Fletcher, 1984); and as a rich resource for old and new psychological theories (e.g. Carr, 2003). In fact, many of the early proponents of what have become foundational psychological theories held ‘common sense’ to contain, in Heider’s (1958, p.6) words, ‘fruitful concepts and hunches for hypotheses [that] lie dormant and unformulated in what we know intuitively’.Psychology’s uneasy relationship with ‘common sense’ is also in evidence in the opening pages of many textbooks. In their Introducing Social Psychology, Tajfel and Fraser (1978, p.21–23) ask whether social psychology can ‘only restate what we know already by making more explicit the knowledge and accumulated experience shown in our daily social behaviour’.
Aronson (1991, p.59) has also conceded that ‘often the results of scientific research are identical with what most people “know” to be true’, and that ‘conventional wisdom is often based upon shrewd observation that has stood the test of time’. He concedes that his readers may find themselves thinking, ‘That’s obvious – why did they spend time and money to find that out?’
As with Stafford, Aronson’s suggested first line of defence points to the persuasive force of counterintuitive discoveries, in that ‘many of the things we “know” to be true turn out to be false when carefully investigated’. He also introduces a range of biases in social cognition, much as Stafford suggests the use of the illusion of explanatory depth against charges of obviousness. Aronson offers the ‘hindsight effect’ (e.g. Fischoff, 1975), which refers to ‘our tendency to overestimate our powers of prediction, once we know the outcome of a given event’; and the confirmation bias (e.g. Dardenne & Leyens, 1995) which refers to our tendency to preserve that which is already established, to maintain our pre-existing knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and hypotheses. Such explanations are neat in that they serve not only to justify the study of the obvious, but also to introduce key (social) psychological ideas.
It is also of note that accusations of obviousness are not restricted to psychology. According to Harvey Sacks,
a somewhat defensive position about the layperson’s claims to already know what we’re talking about has long been instrumental to the formative efforts of many new fields of scientific enquiry:
A curious fact becomes apparent if you look at the first paragraph – it may occur in the third paragraph – of reportedly scientific treatises back to the pre-Socratics and ending up to at least Freud. You find that they all begin by saying something like this, ‘About this thing I’m going to talk about, people think they know, but they don’t. Furthermore, if you tell them, it doesn’t change anything. They still walk around like they know although they are walking in a dreamworld’. Darwin begins this way. Freud begins this way… and
I could provide a much larger list (Sacks in Hill & Crittenden, 1968, p.13).
Despite this widespread defensive tendency, the treatment of common sense in the contemporary psychological literature is not as straightforwardly dismissive as we might assume. Just as Stafford did in his piece, some other writers (e.g. Carr, 2003, p.11) tend to describe social psychological enquiry as including the ‘questioning of traditional proverbs, as well as other forms of folk-wisdom, such as common sense, by empirically testing the principles they espouse’. Carr notes that these tests often support the common suspicion that traditional wisdoms do not always hold water.
However, as Carr asserts, we should not dismiss the entire body of available ‘folk-wisdom’ on the basis of this conclusion. He argues instead, that certain apparently contradictory proverbs may, through empirical investigation, be revealed as valid within certain defined contexts, and explainable via particular psychological theories:
Most [old adages and proverbs] have a core of good sense within a range of applicability, however implicit that may be. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ and ‘opposites attract’ may appear contradictory, but … each offers reasonable advice for different stages of interpersonal relations. Each of them is thus valid in a particular social context (Carr, 2003, p.11).
Stafford and other social scientists tend not to approach proverbs in this way. Instead they treat them as flawed propositions, and as evidence of the conceptual confusion and intellectual chaos of the common sense of the everyday member of society. The categorisation of proverbs as propositions in turn allows us to treat the collection of available proverbs as a corpus of propositions analogous to those contained in bodies of scientific knowledge. This then allows the analysis of proverbial expressions – in the abstract, rather than in actual social usage – as inevitably inconsistent propositions. For every expression, there exists a proverbial counter-expression (psychologist Michael Billig (1987) sees this is compelling evidence for the dilemmatic character of common sense, as a flexible resource which allows for argumentation and disputation).
Sacks goes beyond the idea that proverbs can be correctly applied within particular social contexts, arguing that proverbs are, strictly speaking, always correct – as it is highly unlikely that a response to a proverbial expression will be ‘What’s your evidence for that?’ Drew and Holt (1988) note further that it is the very commonsensical nature, and apparent universality, of proverbial and idiomatic expressions that makes it likely that listeners will tend to respond by accepting or agreeing with them.
Of course, the applicability and relevance of a particular proverb for a particular conversation may be contested. As Sacks (1995, p.111) notes, proverbs ‘have the character of being potentially descriptive or relevant’, and are, essentially, ‘atopical’ phenomena. That is, their literal empirical content may have little to do with the topic of the conversation within which they are offered.
Further, Sacks asserts that proverbial expressions are a particular kind of utterance whose function is often to ‘do understandings’. ‘People do not hear proverbial expressions as referring to the thing that they can be heard to empirically be referring to’ (Sacks, 1995, p.426). That is, no competent cultural member mistakes ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ as being
a literal reference to the rules for the successful preparation of soup. Sacks shows just how it is that proverbial expressions work in social context, in demonstrating how people understand what a particular proverb is intended to refer to. He argues that it is the position of a proverbial expression within an utterance that allows people to locate the intended understanding. Idiomatic expressions are similar: Drew and Holt (1988, p.411) show how a phrase such as ‘left between the devil and the deep blue sea’ will often be used to sum up a story, complaint, or other social action, and move on to a new topic.
It is of note that the use of proverbs to indicate understanding extends beyond the everyday to some of our own professional settings. Antaki (2007, p.540) provides a thorough analysis of the use of idiomatic and proverbial expressions in the talk of mental health professionals during counselling sessions. He reports that these are ‘part of the practitioner’s armoury of devices’ and that they are often used therapeutically as, for example, a device to move discursively from one topic to the next; or to ‘offer [clients] new ways of interpreting distressing instances’.
By contrast, Latour (1987, p.70) gives the following (hypothetical) example,
to illustrate the disjuncture between proverbial expressions and scientific assertions:
‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ the mother said, holding out a glowing red apple to her son, expecting a grin. ‘Mother’, replied the child indignantly, ‘three NIH studies have shown that on a sample of 458 Americans of all ages there was no statistically significant decrease in the number of house calls by family doctors; no, I will not eat this apple.’
Such disagreement with the ‘truth’ of a proverbial expression is, according to Sacks, a rare phenomenon (but it does sometimes happen, as Kitzinger (2000) shows in her analysis of how people can resist an idiomatic expression). And indeed, Latour’s example is, even to the untrained eye, clearly invented. As Edwards (1997) has noted: ‘…proverbs are stable linguistic formulae, but indexically flexible in use. The analyst’s task is to examine how such formulations work…not to agree or disagree with them.’
So we have seen how discursive psychology provides a contemporary example of how to deal with accusations of obviousness, by considering what common sense may look like in actual use. As Derek Edwards (1997, pp.254–255) asserts:
Common sense looks like bad theory only because it is not theory at all. Its contradictions and inconsistencies are its virtues, not its faults, because vagueness and inconsistency are precisely what are required for flexible application to, and in, situations of use.
Perhaps then, what we each need is not (just) an emergency list of counter-intuitive findings, or contradictory proverbs, to strategically defend against such accusations, but rather to muster the more difficult, more honest and ultimately more generous admission that what is obvious and commonsensical has indeed been a largely unacknowledged resource for psychology. But it is not, in and of itself, any sort of faulty theory in need of rejection, rebuttal or replacement.

Susan Hansen is in the Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University. E-mail: [email protected].


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