Meehl on theory testing, never gets old.

The position of Popper and the neo-Popperians is that we do not “induce” scientific theories by some kind of straightforward upward seepage from the clearly observed facts, nor do we “confirm” theories as the Vienna positivists supposed. All we can do is to subject theories—including the wildest and “unsupported” armchair conjectures (for a Popperian, completely kosher)’— to grave danger of refutation…

A theory is corroborated to the extent that we have subjected it to such risky tests; the more dangerous tests it has survived, the better corroborated it is. If I tell you that Meehl’s theory of climate predicts that it will rain sometime next April, and this turns out to be the case, you will not be much impressed with my “predictive success.” Nor will you be impressed if I predict more rain in April than in May, even showing three asterisks (for p < .001) in my t-test table! If I predict from my theory that it will rain on 7 of the 30 days of April, and it rains on exactly 7, you might perk up your ears a bit, but still you would be inclined to think of this as a “lucky coincidence.” But suppose that I specify which 7 days in April it will rain and ring the bell; then you will start getting seriously interested in Meehl’s meteorological conjectures. Finally, if I tell you that on April 4th it will rain 1.7 inches (.66 cm), and on April 9th, 2.3 inches (.90 cm) and so forth, and get seven of these correct within reasonable tolerance, you will begin to think that Meehl’s theory must have a lot going for it. You may believe that Meehl’s theory of the weather, like all theories, is, when taken literally, false, since probably all theories are false in the eyes of God, but you will at least say, to use Popper’s language, that it is beginning to look as if Meehl’s theory has considerable verisimilitude, that is, “truth-like-ness.”

Meehl, P. E. (1978). Theoretical risks and tabular asterisks: The slow progress of soft psychology. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 46, 806–834. doi:10.1037//0022-006X.46.4.806

Can Theory Change What it is a Theory About?

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity B.F. Skinner writes, “no theory changes what it is a theory about; man remains what he has always been.” By this Skinner means that the underlying rules or processes that guide human behavior are constant, and that knowledge of these processes does not change their nature. However, throughout the social psychological literature we see suggestions of just the opposite—knowledge of a psychological process can change the psychological process. For example, Schmader (2010) provides evidence that simply teaching people about stereotype threat may “inoculate them against its effects.” The theory of social identity threat postulates that people are sensitive to contexts that threaten their identity, and when such a situation is detected people engage in ruminative conflict that can distract them enough to undermine their performance in that setting. Schmader is claiming that giving people knowledge of psychological processes predicted by theory changes the processes that unfold. This point raises several important questions: what is a psychological theory? Does psychological theory describe stable processes in the Skinnerian sense? Can we think of psychological theory in the same way that we think about theories of say physics or biology? If we believe theory must have some element of stability (e.g., if we believe light traveled at the same speed in the middle ages as it does today), and that theories exist out side of and are independent from our knowledge of their existence (e.g. the theory of special and general relativity existed before Einstein identified them, and his discovery did not change their quality), then can we classify social psychological theories as theories? My sense is no. Or maybe we need to modify our definition of what qualifies as a theory. Or perhaps our definition of stability in the processes that underlie phenomena and our belief that observation is independent from underlying processes needs modification.


Schmader, T. (2010). Stereotype Threat Deconstructed. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 14–18. doi:10.1177/0963721409359292



a thought on personal record keeping

The weight of what has gone undocumented can be burdensome. If you are like me, you may find the struggle to find a balance between experiencing and recording life taxing. However, I believe the record keeping process holds the potential to enrich what has been lived and release the pressure of experience, the pressure to hold onto memories. Writing relieves the mental strain required to remember, clearing the way for fuller experience of the current moment. But too much record keeping is like watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal through a video camera–You’re so busy recording what’s happening that you fail to truly experience the happening. Writing about past experiences is never an act of transcription nor is it an act independent of the present. The act recreates the memory, it attempts to reflect what was felt, and in doing so it reshapes your present moment.


impression management and open science

I love this Charles H. Cooley (1902, p. 320) quote on how self-presentational concerns have institutional and professional forms (including in science, gasp!)

If we never tried to seem a little better than we are, how could we improve or “train ourselves from the outside inward?” And the same impulse to show the world a better or idealized aspect of ourselves finds an organized expression in the various professions and classes, each of which has to some extent a cant or pose, which its members assume unconsciously, for the most part, but which has the effect of a conspiracy to work upon the credulity of the rest of the world. There is a cant not only of theology and of philanthropy, but also of law, medicine, teaching, even of science—perhaps especially of science, just now, since the more a particular kind of merit is recognized and admired, the more it is likely to be assumed by the unworthy.

The unveiling of fraudulent research among highly acclaimed scientists along with the advent of new computing and archiving technologies has driven a recent (depending on how you measure it) push from within the scientific community for more “open” practices. The debate around open science and reluctance in adopting its practices are rarely discussed in terms of interpersonal processes. However, discussions of open science are discussions about the presentation of scientific research to other scientists and the public. I think the relevance of impression management processes to calls for more openness in science is an area worth exploring in more detail. I’d like to write more on this, please post in the comments if you know of anyone who has written on this topic.


Coole, C.H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. New York, NY: C. Scribner’s sons.

thoughts on impression management, feminism, pronoun use, and social justice

Deegan (2013) critiques Goffman’s (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life as a model of patriarchal use of language and irony, “to perpetuate gender inequality” (p. 79). In Deegan’s conversations with the sociological giant, Goffman laments that he struggles to find a good alternative to the pronoun “he” and that feminists have missed the irony in his use of examples that stereotypically depict woman as subordinate. In turn, Degan suggests using “he/she” or gender neutral pronouns such as “congressperson”. She also makes a strong case for how irony in a patriarchal world perpetuates oppression. Such “joking around” fails to challenge repressive behavior and places the repressed in the awkward position of feeling obligated to laugh at a joke at their own expense, which validates repressive social structures. Irony used in this way is an impression management strategy used by the patriarchy to explicitly acknowledge social injustice while simultaneously reinforcing the power structure.

The feminist movement has made substantial strides since the 1970s due, in no small part, to rethinking how to use language in a way that questions established social hierarchy. This feminist approach to social change is paralleled in other social movements with similar results. Take, for example, the fight for marriage-equality. Whether it was strategic or a consequence of the legal and language structures of the time, the homosexual community adopted terms such as “partner” or “life-partner” to describe what they viewed to be a relationship of equivalent status to that of “husband” or “wife.” Similar to “congressperson,” “partner” is a more general noun that neutralizes the (often fast and strong) urge to code gender. The effect has three consequences for the role of impression management in social change. First, when conversations about relationship status are unavoidable, it helps the homosexual actor retain control and power over the observers’ impression of their relationship and sexual orientation. Generally, it is rude to pry further into their relationship, thus using “partner” to answer relationship questions maintains the “line” of conversation and the actor’s power. Second, the use of more general nouns subtly cues the audience to question the status quo. By neutralizing gender, the noun “partner” introduces a state of uncertainty in the mind of the observer, which naturally leads to questions such as “Am I using the right noun?” Or “Why did they say it that way?” These questions break the automaticity of oppressive assumptions about the relationship between sexual orientation, language, and status. The third consequence of adopting a more general noun is that it enables subtle displays of solidarity with the movement. Many heterosexual couples started using the noun “partner” to describe their wife or husband. Couples that use “partner” synonymously with “husband/wife” are both reshaping the meaning associate with the word and signaling that they endorse the movement. These couples are also normalizing this meaning of “partner,” which blurs the social order repressing the homosexual community.

This analysis sheds light on how strategies of impression management have social justice implications. How can other contemporary groups facing social repression, such as the transgender community, manipulate language and gesture to effectively manage and reshape the impression of others? In a recent conversation, a friend expressed annoyance with what he called, “political correctness” training. His employer required a discussion about changing perspectives on the use of gendered identifiers, such as “he/she”, in the direction of third more neutral term such as “they.” To my surprise, he lamented that this would completely change how we use language. The transgender community faces a different (and perhaps more difficult) set of challenges than those faced by feminists and marriage-equality advocates, but I suspect that the use of “they” or similar terms will follow a similar trend to the use of “partner” and “congressperson.”


Deegan, M. J. (2013). Goffman on gender, sexism, and feminism: A summary of notes on a conversation with Erving Goffman and my reflections then and now. Symbolic Interaction, 37, 71-86. doi: 10.1002/symb.85

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Where are data on gun violence?

Much of the recent coverage of gun violence in this country points to a lack of data available on the topic. The absence of these data, or at least the inaccessibility of them, points to inherent prejudice. In an age where we collect data on literally everything and use it daily to help explain phenomena and change our world it is telling that it is hard to find good data on gun violence, particular gun violence as it relates to race, sex, age and mental health.

There are some projects working to remedy this. I’d like to see the gun violence archive project expanded. The project started in 2014 as an offshoot of a crowdsourced initiative by Slate, which documented incidents of gun violence after Newton. We need a tool on this website to visualize the data they collect. Maps of incidents that can be tabulated by different variables would help bring to light the normality of gun violence and the prevalence of racially charged incidents. In light of recent events it is noteworthy that this project collects data on “officer involved shootings”. However the project fails to capture officer involved shootings of unarmed person(s). Instead the project counts the following categories under “officer involved shootings”…

  1. Officer shot
  2. Officer killed
  3. perpetrator shot
  4. perpetrator killed
  5. perpetrator suicide at standoff

This is problematic because the method of collection presumes that someone shot or killed by an officer is a perpetrator (someone who has committed a crime). While the project has an “armed” category described in their glossary it doesn’t collect data on “unarmed” incidents. Further, race/ethnicity, age, sex, and mental health status are conspicuously absent from the glossary for this project. These data should be collected!

The data we collect and how we collect it tells us a lot about what we value.

We need to value data on gun violence with an eye toward race, sex, age, and mental health. We need to translate data into graphics and stories to help explain what the heck is going on. And we need to use data and story to inform how we change. Otherwise, I’m afraid outrage will fade, and the status quo will resume until the next everyday tragedy goes viral.

FDA’s Proposed Rules on Food Labeling

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has extended the commenting period to August 1st, 2014 for the proposed rules on food labeling (Docket ID: FDA-2012-N-1210).

I’ve written previously on the proposed rules. Here is a quick summary:

I applauded 3 major components of the ruling:

  1. Label added sugars in addition to natural sugars
  2. Addition of column on label to include both per serving and per package
  3. Highlight “calories”, “serving size” and “percent of daily value” through changes to the size, style, and position of font

And I questioned 1 component of the ruling:

  1. Revision of serving sizes of foods that can reasonably be consumed at one-eating occasion and updating, modifying, and establishing certain reference amounts customarily consumed. For example, this component would require that both a 12 oz bottle of soda and a 20 oz bottle of soda be labelled as a single serving.

I argued that this is a mistake for the following reasons:

  1. Research shows that people consume more when the container is larger. If we use the quantity of food or drink that is “reasonably consumed at one-eating occasion” or “customarily consumed” as a measure of what is safe, as is the implicit role of the FDA, then we fail to consider how a larger container may increase what is ordinarily consumed to levels that pose a health risk.

I suggested that new rule should reflect what is safe rather than what is “customarily consumed”. And, if the FDA insists that we use the quantity an average person consumes as a measure of what is safe, then we should at the least account for external factors (such as container size) that increase the point at which our body tells us we’re satisfied.

I pointed to 2 potential unintended consequences of this rule:

  1. Companies might discontinue smaller container sizes
  2. Consumers might choose larger containers over smaller containers with increased frequency

I’m revisiting this issue today after scanning the comments submitted thus far.

I found one submission from Behavioral Science and Regulation Group at Harvard that resonates with my concern. We both note that “serving size” is an implicit endorsement to consumers of what is an appropriate or healthy quantity. While I suggest the FDA use a different measure of “serving size” that is more in line with a healthful serving, the Harvard group suggests to change the wording of “serving size” to reduce implicit endorsement of healthfulness:

As the FDA acknowledges in its proposed rule, more than half of consumers perceive the term “serving size” to be a recommended serving size, not an amount customarily consumed. For those people that would, in the absence of a serving size, have eaten a small portion, the inclusion of a perceived serving size recommendation could lead them to eat more than they otherwise would. This is because these consumers believe that the FDA has implicitly endorsed the serving size as healthy. Consuming larger portion sizes is related to increased calorie consumption. While the rule’s revision of the serving size volumes and increased use of “whole package” labeling is appropriate and important, it will also exacerbate this problem, because the perceived recommendations will typically be for even larger portions […]

We suggest that the word “serving” and the phrase “serving size” be changed to avoid an implied endorsement. Changing “serving” to a word that does not suggest the context of a meal, like “unit” or “quantity,” may mitigate the endorsement effect.

This group from Harvard also endorses the FDA’s changes that use visual cues to increase clarity for the consumer:

The result is a nutrition label that behavioral science indicates will decrease the time consumers spend finding information, improve readability, focus attention on the most important information, and make information easier to process and remember.


And they make a fabulous recommendation on how to help consumers “avoid too much” of ingredients that are known to pose a health risk:

The FDA can better communicate product healthfulness by grouping nutrients into mutually-exclusive evaluative categories and using color to highlight healthful ingredients or particularly high or low nutrient levels.

The comment is worth reading in its entirety (see comment  from Behavioral_Science and Regulation Group here).

It was not surprising to find that the comment period was probably extended in response to the numerous requests from industries that anticipate adverse affects from the ruling: Juice Product Association, Specialty Food Association, American Beverage Association, Council for Responsible Nutrition, Snack Food Association, and Grocery Manufacturers Association to name a few. Though there was one notable exception in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Many of these industry representatives jumped in to voice their concern. It seems the cranberry industry is particularly concerned about requirements to label added sugars. There were several representatives from various companies including Gary Dempze of Gaynor Cranberry Co., Inc. who says, “unlike other fruit, cranberries have little natural sugar and, therefore, have a uniquely tart taste. Cranberry products need to be sweetened so consumers can enjoy their health benefits.”

Other supportive comments come from Weight Watchers, the American Diabetes Association, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, and the American Dental Association to name a few of the big ones.

All-in-all it is fun to read through comments and see where different institutions fall on the issue. Give it a whirl.