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Knowledge for What?

Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings

by Bernard Berelson, by Gary A. Steiner
Harcourt, Brace & World, 712 pp., $11

The behavioral sciences are often met with disinterest, contempt, and even hostility. To sneer at sociology and psychology, to attack at least certain methods or findings of these enterprises, is thought by many people to show hard-headedness about human affairs or a deep sensitivity to the human spirit. The radical right perpetuates a confusion of “social science” with “socialism,” and from the left come warnings that we are only dehumanized by such research, and made increasingly subject to manipulation. The serious student of human behavior is caught in the middle.

The fact is, of course, that behavioral scientists do not have either enough knowledge or enough power to do much of anything to our way of life. In any case, what someone proposes to do with his knowledge does not settle what it is that he really knows. A scientific finding is one thing, and its application is quite another. The first question is what the scientific findings are, and whether they are indeed scientific.

That the behavioral sciences are not really science is today widely agreed to, though most commonly, I think, not by scientists themselves but by those who are alienated from the spirit and method of science, whatever its subject-matter. If science is viewed, not as a body of precise and indubitable propositions, but as a systematic attempt to learn more than we know and to become more sure of what we think we know already, then the behavioral sciences surely deserve to be taken seriously. No reader of this book can pretend that it teaches him nothing worth knowing about human behavior, or deny that at least it gives him a better basis for the convictions that in his wisdom he has arrived at himself. The authors do themselves an injustice in inviting their readers to a “willing suspension of disbelief”—Coleridge’s formula for the enjoyment of fiction. Whatever its shortcomings, behavioral science even now is more truth than poetry.

Bernard Berelson and Gary Steiner report over a thousand numbered findings about human behavior, what they regard as “important statements of proper generality for which there is some good amount of scientific evidence.” These findings are not, of course, “all there is” to the behavioral sciences; they have been selected as representative of methods and results. The findings are accompanied by the actual data, which are fairly and carefully reported, and by full citations to the original studies. Such an inventory does not make for good reading, but it is fascinating to dip into, and rewarding as reference.

It could be argued whether the selection really is representative. On the one hand, the most developed fields, like linguistics and economics, are omitted as being too specialized and technical. On the other hand, fields like psychoanalysis are largely ignored as insufficiently “behavioral” and “scientific.” We are told, for instance, that dreaming is important (“subjects kept from dreaming by being awakened whenever eye movements signaled the onset of a dream became irritable and anxious”), but no findings are reported about the nature of dream symbolism or its content.

More serious omissions are the fault of the behavioral sciences rather than of the selection made. There is a richness in human life “that somehow has fallen through the present screen of the behavioral sciences,” as the authors recognize. “This book, for example, has rather little to say about central human concerns: nobility, moral courage, ethical torments, the delicate relations of father and son or of the marriage state, life’s way of corrupting innocence, the rightness and wrongness of acts, evil, happiness, love and hate, even sex.” But the behavioral sciences are young (scarcely a hundred years old); we pay a price “for method, for system, for abstraction”; and science must insist on replicability and objectivity. Whether or not this defense is a justification, what is done should not be deprecated only because so much is left undone.

Moreoever, central human concerns are by no means wholly bypassed. Findings bearing on the issues of civil rights, for instance, are unequivocal. A resolution passed in 1961 by the American Anthropological Association declares that “all races possess the abilities to participate fully in the democratic way of life and in modern technological civilization.” Numerous studies conclude that there is no reason to believe in inherent racial differences in intelligence or temperament. What is at work is rather “a reinforcing spiral of built-in cause and effect: the disapproved group is deprived, and as a result of the deprivation it is further disapproved.” The characteristics of those with prejudice seem to count for as much as the specific traits of those they are prejudiced against: “people prejudiced against one ethnic group tend to be prejudiced against others.”

The findings also challenge any simple solution. Personal contact with members of minorities, for example, “does not automatically increase or reduce tensions: it can do either or neither”—we may be putting too much faith in what is called “opening lines of communication.” Getting more information about the minority may lessen prejudice, “but not to any great extent.” But information may be important in reducing discrimination if not prejudice: twenty years ago Gunnar Myrdal’s monumental study of An American Dilemma pointed out that Southern whites think that Negroes want sexual equality most and economic equality least, whereas the Negroes’ attitude is just the opposite.

Political behavior is another area of concern in which important findings are reported. For instance, there is probably a more solidary “business vote” than a “labor vote,” “in the sense that there is less deviation from the class vote among upper status groups.” What is passed on from parents to children is party affiliation rather than ideology (I infer that in the coming elections party defections may be less on both sides than many people expect). Political communications are likely only to reinforce existing positions, or at most to activate latent ones, rather than to make conversions. And the so-called “independent voters,” alas, turn out to be “the people with the least information and the least interest.

On the other hand, it is gratifying to read that many frequent condemnations of our modern urban and industrial civilization are without support from behavioral science findings. The incidence of psychosis has not increased in the past hundred years (at least for age groups up to age fifty). There are more book readers per capita than ever, and more readers of serious books. The findings counter “the dire alarms of those who feel that the modern media are ‘pushing people around’.” Apropos, “there is no evidence that subliminal stimulation can initiate subsequent action, to say nothing of commercially or politically significant action. And there is nothing to suggest that such action can be produced ‘against the subjects’ will,’ or more effectively than through normal, recognized messages.”

There are many other areas in which the findings contradict widely held beliefs, especially beliefs held by those who are most ignorant or most contemptuous of the behavioral sciences. For instance, exceptionally bright children are less likely than others to suffer from disturbances in personality or social adjustment. Favorable attitudes of workers towards their labor union are not “automatically correlated with unfavorable attitudes towards the company: rather the contrary.” And capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent to homicide.

Unfortunately, the impact of significant findings like these is very much weakened by the recurrence in the behavioral sciences—and in this inventory—of sheer truisms. Thus we are informed that “the growing child attains concepts in order of increasing abstractness and complexity”; that “within any field, the large majority of creative contributions is made by a small minority of contributors”; that “striving for stimulation, information, knowledge…appears to be a universal motive” (the opening sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, written in the fourth century B.C., reads “All men by nature desire to know”); that “occupational choice is much more restricted in the lower classes than in the upper”; that “people may know what is right and profess to believe in it and yet do what is wrong”; and that “within the cities, the slum areas have the highest incidence of criminal and deviant behavior.”

Yet even truisms are worth having established: the history of science provides countless instances of falsification of what everybody “knew” to be true. The shortcomings of behavioral science, as revealed in this inventory, cut deeper.

What Berelson and Steiner have especially succeeded in doing is to avoid mere jargon and high-flying speculations lacking an evidential base. They have not been equally successful in avoiding materials with a far more common fault of the opposite kind. A good deal of behavioral science is overly “scientific,” suffering, as the authors recognize, from “too much precision misplaced on trivial matters,” and in general emphasizing methodological purity rather than significance of results. The findings all have a recognizable form, but their content is elusive and disconnected, except for a few concluding pages that present the image of man which the findings sketch.

Basically, what is lacking is any hint of theory by which the findings might be organized or interpreted. It may even be fair to say that the behavioral sciences, as reported here, scarcely contain a single law: the findings are at best merely empirical generalizations, recording regularities so far observed but with no imputation of reasons for their regularity. There are plenty of purported laws and theories current about human behavior, but the authors are anxious not to go beyond the data. What they report is, they say, only the stuff or material out of which theories are built. There is no denying that determining what facts have been established is of crucial importance. But behavioral scientists might be reminded that there is such a thing as playing it too safe—scared money never wins. Too often it is the man of letters rather than the committed scientist who has the courage—and imagination—to interpret the facts of human behavior. Berelson and Steiner have “included a few humanistic quotations at the head of each chapter, to suggest the continuity among intellectual activities.” Would that behavioral scientists themselves exploited this continuity!

For all that, I share the authors’ assessment of the achievement they are reporting: “that, despite all the faults of youth and immaturity, the behavioral sciences have already made important contributions to our understanding of man and will make many more; that they are an indispensable approach to that understanding; that they have already affected man’s image of himself and permanently so; in short, that they are a major intellectual invention of the twentieth century…” Even if it were true that this invention, like others of our time, is used by those who have access to it to serve their own ends and not ours, we cannot for that reason turn our backs on it. That knowledge is power does not give the victims of power a stake in ignorance.

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