February 06, 2016

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All this we understand instinctively, as it were, without formulating it in words in our minds. The researches reported in Scientific American add little to it.

An academic psychologist collected information about the personalities of 400 volunteers for his experiment. These volunteers then reported how comfortable they felt while they were shown videos of actors apparently peering into their eyes for different periods of time. The experimenter found that, on average, the subjects of the experiment liked it best when the actors (or the videos of the actors) looked into their eyes for 3.2 seconds, though longer periods were supportable if the actor was interpreted as being friendly or trustworthy rather than menacing.

The article in Scientific American went on to quote the psychologist who had conducted the experiment: “€œGaze conveys that you are an object of interest,”€ he said, “€œand interest is linked to intention.”€

Have we fallen so low that we really need a psychologist to tell us this? Let us examine the value of his statement by denying it: “€œGaze does not convey that you are an object of interest, and interest is not linked to intention.”€ If experiments showed that the denial were true, for example that interest were completely divorced from intention when people look into one another’s eyes, they would indeed be worth doing and reporting, for they would tell us something that we never suspected. But elaborately to confirm banalities is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

No doubt psychologists perform experiments that are genuinely interesting (Milgram’s on obedience to authority come to mind). But the idea that psychology has cast any valuable light on the human condition or has assisted us in understanding ourselves is, in my view, preposterous, a modern myth.

Please buy Theodora Dalrymple’s new book ADMIRABLE EVASIONS: How Psychology Undermines Morality, Encounter Books


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