While writing psychology textbooks I sometimes come across information so interesting and so humanly significant that I just can’t keep it to myself. Such feelings emerged as I tracked breathtaking cultural changes that have occurred over our past four decades—a mere eye blink of time to any historian. Among my observations: From 1960 to about 1993 we were soaring economically, especially at the upper levels, and sinking socially. To an extension of Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are we better off than we were 40 years ago?,” our honest answer would have been, materially yes, morally no.
Therein lies the American paradox. We now have, as average Americans, doubled real incomes and double what money buys. We have espresso coffee, the World Wide Web, sport utility vehicles, and caller ID. And we have less happiness, more depression, more fragile relationships, less communal commitment, less vocational security, more crime (even after the recent decline), and more demoralized children.
People are noticing. Seventy-six percent of Americans responding to a late 1998 Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation/Harvard University poll agreed that the country’s “values and moral beliefs … have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track”; only 21 percent see them as “generally going in the right direction.”1 What do you think? “Compared to 20 years ago, do you think it is harder or not harder to raise kids to be good people today?” If you are like 89 percent of Americans responding to this 1998 Gallup survey question, you think it is harder. And if you are like most Americans (when reflecting on the nation’s problems for a 1999 Gallup survey), you no longer say “it’s the economy, stupid”; you now see “moral problems” as the larger concern. Political leaders of both parties are sensing our desire to move beyond increasing material prosperity to buld, in Al Gore’s words, “an America that is not only better off but better.”
Here, it seemed to me, was profoundly important information for our national dialogue as we enter the new millennium. We cannot dodge the questions: What is the state of our culture? How are recent social trends impacting our well-being? Without trampling on our liberties, how might we reform our social ecology? What can we celebrate? What should we change?
Getting the “Big Picture”
As a research psychologist and writer, I am keen to inform the mind while arousing the heart. I therefore began this book not wanting to offer social commentary that was merely my own opinion. I instead wanted to share some of the surprising—and sometimes not so surprising—findings that shed light on the roots and fruits of cultural changes. Thus I wondered: by wedding scholarship with journalism, could I offer a compelling synopsis of America’s social recession and of the social renewal movement that, happily, is now under way?
Other authors have focused on certain specifics: the sexual revolution, the decline of marriage and father care, the state of the nation’s children, violence trends, media influences, character education, and the social consequences of faith. While I’ll be drawing more extensively on psychology, my ambitious aim is to build bridges between their efforts, to connect the dots, to offer a “big picture” overview of late 20th century social trends—including the harbingers of social renewal.
Our culture’s prospects for renewal are indeed brightening. We have seen a groundswell of public concern in the late 1990s, visible not only in the Million Man March, Promise Keepers’ rallies, and public opinion polls2, but also in the discovery of common ground shared by many liberals and conservatives. Despite culture wars over gay rights, abortion, taxation, national defense, and Bill Clinton’s behavior, there is shared concern for the social ecology that nurtures children and youth. The dialogue about American values has shifted from expanding personal rights to enhancing communal civility, from raising self-esteem to rousing social responsibility, from “whose values?” to “our values.” The supporting voices range from Jesse Jackson to James Dobson, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Charles Colson, and from Donna Shalala to William Bennett. E. J. Dionne, Jr., captures the optimistic mood: “The United States is on the verge of a new era of reform similar in spirit to the social rebuilding that took place during the Progressive Era … Rekindling a spirit of social reconstruction is both essential and a realistic hope.”3
A Psychological Science Perspective
So what is my peculiar take on all this? My perspective is not overtly political or ideological. My vocation, as one who distills psychological science for various audiences, is to pull together the emerging research and reflect on its human significance. As I report findings and draw conclusions, readers may at times feel irritated by this book’s seemingly “liberal” or “conservative” slant. I resist such labels. If it is “liberal” to report the toxic consequences of materialism, economic individualism, and income inequality, then the liberalism is in the data I report. If it is “conservative” to report that sexual fidelity, co-parenting, positive media, and faith help create a social ecology that nurtures healthy children and communities, then the conservatism resides in the findings.
My concern, then, is less with whether I am being a good liberal or conservative than with assembling an accurate picture of reality. In doing so, I rely much less on compelling stories than on research findings. As an experimental social psychologist—one who studies how people view, affect, and relate to one another—I’m not much persuaded by anecdotes, testimonials, or inspirational pronouncements. When forming opinions about the social world, I tell people, beware those who tell heart-rending but atypical stories. With apologies to Mark Twain, there are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and vivid but misleading anecdotes. One can marshal dramatic stories to support any contention, or its opposite. The truth of human experience, I believe, is better discerned by surveys that faithfully represent the population and control for complicating factors, and by careful experiments.
This scientific perspective is quite unlike the postmodern subjectivism that dismisses evidence as hardly more than collected biases. The scientific attitude yearns to put testable ideas to the test. Thus if we today think capital punishment does (or does not) deter crime more than other available punishments, we can utter our personal opinions, as has the U.S. Supreme Court. Or we can ask whether states with a death penalty have lower homicide rates, whether their rates have dropped after instituting the death penalty, and whether they have risen when abandoning the penalty. We can check our personal hunches against reality. In this book we will similarly put to the test much of the popular wisdom found in newspaper op-ed columns.
To be sure, pure objectivity, like pure righteousness, is an unattainable ideal. When questing for truth about controversial social issues we never leave our values at home. In looking for evidence, and in deciding what findings to report and how to report them, we are sometimes subtly steered by our hunches, our wishes, our values within. A book such as this cannot help marrying not only science with journalism, but facts with values. Values-R-Us.
Indeed, social scientific detective work can be conducted with passionate purpose and with compassion for those studied. Numbers may tell the story, but ultimately you and I are interested in real people. Statistics describe reality and concrete examples bring it to life. In this book I therefore aim to offer socially important facts, and to embody them with true stories (while hiding the scholarly details in end-of-book notes).
Although I belong to a profession hardly known for its piety, my sympathies also are colored by my religious faith. In the 20th century, several pioneering social psychologists exemplified a faith-motivated drive to apply scientific social psychology to social issues. Before entering the field, Theodore Newcomb, Rensis Likert, and Goodwin Watson all studied at Union Theological Seminary. Likert, Dorwin Cartwright, and Angus Campbell studied under Kent Fellowships from the National Council on Religion in Higher Education4. John Thibaut was at one time planning to be a worker priest. Gordon Allport was a devout Episcopalian who not only wrote a landmark book on prejudice, but also studied the psychology of religion. Post-war research on prejudice and authoritarianism was supported by such organizations as the American Jewish Congress.
Much as the boundaries between biology and chemistry are breaking down, so some of these pioneers in their later days have argued for an integration of psychology with sociology and economics. If social psychology is to be a “science of real and whole social human beings,” contends senior social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz5, it must appreciate the interplay of economic, cultural, and individual influences.
The footsteps of these tough-minded but tender-hearted social psychologists define the trail that I seek to follow. Like them, my inquiry is powered by a faith-driven optimism, even as I fittingly work at a place called Hope.
- Wrong track: Richard Morin, “Washington Post/Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Studies of Political Values,” presented at the Communitarian Summit, Washington, D.C., February, 1999.
- Public opinion polls: Asked “Which concerns you more, the nation’s moral problems or the nation’s economic problems?,” 53 percent of Americans said “moral problems,” 42 percent said “economic problems” (Gallup Poll, in Emerging Trends, March, 1997, Princeton Religion Research Center); 78 percent rated “the state of moral values in the country today” as “somewhat weak” or “very weak.”
- E. J. Dionne, Jr.: “Introduction,” Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998), pp. 13-14.
- History of social psychology: See chapters such as Bertram H. Raven’s “Reflections on Interpersonal Influence and Social Power in Experimental Social Psychology,” in Aroldo Rodrigues and Robert Levine, Reflections on One Hundred Years of Experimental Social Psychology (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
- Leonard Berkowitz: “On the Changes in U.S. Social Psychology: Some Speculation” in Aroldo Rodrigues and Robert Levine, Reflections on One Hundred Years of Experimental Social Psychology (New York: Basic Books, 1999)
Excerpted from The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty by David G. Myers, Yale University Press, 2000.
Copyright c 2000 by the David and Carol Myers Foundation. All rights reserved.