It is, for understandable reasons, difficult to hear, “What you’re doing is not what you think/say it is.” A message like this is not likely to evoke a friendly response. It is not likely to be seen as a friendly remark. In essence, the message is not denying the activity, “Yes, you are doing something.” But it is denying the interpretation assigned to the activity. This is my attitude toward the cognitive/experimental psychology of culture, though I must probably admit that these studies are, in my mind, closer to nonsense than to mis-interpreted activities.


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The first sign that there is a problem is the silence of the discipline with regard to its limitations. The silence I am speaking of is not an innocent silence. It is a silence that permits over-reaching and mis-application of the discipline and its methods.

If we don’t draw certain boundaries, motivated by the desire for justice, then we will not set in place mechanisms for detecting acts of injustice. Avoiding the discussion of such boundaries, therefore, tacitly permits acts of (epistemic, ethical, political, …) injustice.

If we never talk about the limits of cognitive/experimental psychology, we can pretend it has no limits. We can pretend that it can gradually expand to include/colonize all other parts of psychology, including social psychology, cultural psychology, or political psychology. By contrast, if we discuss the limitations of cognitive/experimental psychology, if we train ourselves to be mindful of the limitation of our methods, not as a fixed set of axioms (“Behold the limits or boundaries of our science! For all people, all places, and all time!”) but as an on-going topic of discussion, then we reduce the likelihood of over-reach and mis-application.

When I write, “cognitive/experimental psychology is blind to culture”, what I mean is that, from the very beginning and before its awkward and prejudiced approach to culture, cognitive psychology has deprived itself of the tools necessary for understanding cultural facts. If it had the tools, it would be a proper cultural psychology, appropriate to its subject-matter.

The critique I summarize in the second half of the video is also available in my book, Experimental Psychology and Human Agency (pp. 8-10). This is part of a larger critique of experimental psychology that began with a short commentary Phenomenology as critique, discovery, and justification and Behavior versus performance. My critique will apply, perhaps even more harshly, to the questionnaire approach to culture. Thus, I discourage you to read my critique of experimentation as an implicit endorsement of questionnaires/surveys and statistical models. I am most certainly not endorsing those.

If your knee-jerk response is, “There must be some value to this type of research if it is being published in prestigious journals and cited so often,” your response is understandable. I urge you, however, to drop (or at least supplement) your pseudo-religious attitude toward scientific establishment and authorities. Good science and its significance can be established on rational grounds, regardless of popularity and regardless of the current prestige attributed to a discipline. With that in mind, see if you can construct a rational justification of these experimental studies of culture.