geoffrey_miller's picture
Evolutionary psychologist, NYU Stern Business School and University of New Mexico; author of The Mating Mind and Spent
Asking for directions

Guys lost on unfamiliar streets often avoid asking for directions from locals.  We try to tough it out with map and compass.  Admitting being lost feels like admitting stupidity.  This is a stereotype, but it has a large grain of truth.  It's also a good metaphor for a big overlooked problem in the human sciences. 

We're trying to find our way around the dark continent of human nature.  We scientists are being paid to be the bus-driving tour guides for the rest of humanity.  They expect us to know our way around the human mind, but we don't.

So we try to fake it, without asking the locals for directions.  We try to find our way from first principles of geography ('theory'), and from maps of our own making ('empirical research').  The roadside is crowded with locals, and their brains are crowded with local knowledge, but we are too arrogant and embarrassed to ask the way.  Besides, they look strange and might not speak our language.  So we drive around in circles, inventing and rejecting successive hypotheses about where to find the scenic vistas that would entertain and enlighten the tourists ('lay people', a.k.a. 'tax-payers').  Eventually, our bus-load starts grumbling about tour-guide rip-offs in boring countries.  We drive faster, make more frantic observations, and promise magnificent sights just around the next bend. 

I used to think that this was the best we could do as behavioural scientists.  I figured that the intricacies of human nature were not just dark, but depopulated — that a few exploratory novelists and artists had sought the sources of our cognitive Amazons and emotional Niles, but that nobody actually lived there.

Now, I've changed my mind — there are local experts about almost all aspects of human nature, and the human sciences should find their way by asking them for directions.  These 'locals' are the thousands or millions of bright professionals and practitioners in each of thousands of different occupations.  They are the people who went to our high schools and colleges, but who found careers with higher pay and shorter hours than academic science.  Almost all of them know important things about human nature that behavioural scientists have not yet described, much less understood.  Marine drill sergeants know a lot about aggression and dominance.  Master chess players know a lot about if-then reasoning.  Prostitutes know a lot about male sexual psychology.  School teachers know a lot about child development.  Trial lawyers know a lot about social influence.  The dark continent of human nature is already richly populated with autochthonous tribes, but we scientists don't bother to talk to these experts. 

My suggestion is that whenever we try to understand human nature in some domain, we should identify several groups of people who are likely to know a lot about that domain already, from personal, practical, or professional experience.  We should seek out the most intelligent, articulate, and experienced locals — the veteran workers, managers, and trainers. Then, we should talk with them, face-to-face, expert-to-expert, as collaborating peers, not as researchers 'running subjects' or 'interviewing informants'.  We may not be able to reimburse them at their professional hourly wage, but we can offer other forms of prestige, such as co-authorship on research papers.

For example, suppose a psychology Ph.D. student wants to study emotional adaptations such as fear and panic, that evolved for avoiding predators.  She learns about the existing research (mostly by Clark Barrett at UCLA), but doesn't have any great ideas for her dissertation research.  The usual response is three years of depressed soul-searching, random speculation, and fruitless literature reviews.  This phase of idea-generation could progress much more happily if she just picked up the telephone and called some of the people who spend their whole professional lives thinking about how to induce fear and panic.  Anyone involved in horror movie production would be a good start: script-writers, monster designers, special effects technicians, directors, and editors.  Other possibilities would include talking with:

  • Halloween mask designers,
  • horror genre novelists,
  • designers of 'first person shooter' computer games,
  • clinicians specializing in animal phobias and panic attacks,
  • Kruger Park safari guides,
  • circus lion-tamers,
  • dog-catchers,
  • bull-fighters,
  • survivors of wild animal attacks, and
  • zoo-keepers who interact with big cats, snakes, and raptors.

A few hours of chatting with such folks would probably be more valuable in sparking some dissertation ideas than months of library research. 

The division of labor generates wondrous prosperity, and an awesome diversity of knowledge about human nature in different occupations.  Psychology could continue trying to rediscover all this knowledge from scratch.  Or, it could learn some humility, and start listening to the real expertise about human nature already acquired by every bright worker in every factory, office, and mall.