What Aspects of Humans Do People Think Can Be Explained?

Source: Beao CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

The science of psychology aims to explain all kinds of aspects of the human experience all the way from low-level behaviors like reaching for an object or perceiving a shape to high-level elements like love, happiness, cooperation, and imagination. 

While scientists approach each of these kinds of questions, not everyone is so sure that science can explain all of the elements of human behavior.  A fascinating paper by Sara Gottleib and Tania Lombrozo in the January 2018 issue of Psychological Science explored people’s intuitions about what the science of psychology can and cannot explain.

Across several studies, the researchers asked participants to make ratings about a variety of topics that psychology studies ranging from low-level to high-level topics including aspects of morality and human emotion.  The studies were done both with participants drawn from online sources as well as with college students who are taking introductory psychology.

The first big observation involved ratings of scientific possibility and scientific comfort.  People’s judgments of how likely it is that science can explain a particular aspect of human behavior was highly correlated with how comfortable people are with science explaining this topic.  For example, people are much less comfortable with science explaining how people fall in love than with explaining depression.  They also think scientists will be better able to explain depression than how people fall in love.

The studies also dug deeper into the specific factors that predicted judgments of possibility and comfort.

The more that a topic involves introspection or consciousness, the less likely people think it can be explained scientifically.  People don’t have much conscious access to how they reach out and grab an object, so that seems like a good topic for scientific study.  People have a rich experience of falling in love, so that seems like a less good topic for scientific study.

The more that an ability is one that makes humans special, the less likely people think it is a good candidate for scientific study.  Perceiving shapes is something that many animals so, so that seems like a good topic for scientific study.  Making moral decisions is something that seems uniquely human, so that seems like it is not a good topic for scientific study.

Finally, there was a smaller relationship between aspects of psychology that people think are good ones to have and whether they can be explained.  In this case, though, the relationship was somewhat positive.  This relationship was weaker and emerges only when introspection and specialness are also being taken into account.  That is, if you were to equate whether an ability involves conscious access and whether it makes humans special, then there is a tendency for things that are good abilities to have to seem like better candidates for explanation than things that are not good. 

People’s judgments about what can be studied scientifically are not an indication of what can actually be explained, but rather people’s intuitions about what can be explained.  Some of this seems to be wishful thinking.  That is, there are things that people believe to be special about themselves or about humans in general.  The idea that these things could be explained scientifically is disconcerting.

At the same time, it is important to understand that even if there is a scientific explanation of the things that you hold most dear, that doesn’t change what it is like to experience those things.  If the factors that led people to fall in love were completely understood, that wouldn’t make the experience of falling in love any less beautiful.   

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