Chicken Soup Can’t Treat Depression. Welcome to My TED Talk.
A myopic but seductive worldview has caught on among many influential people — and it might be hindering our ability to solve real-world problems.,
Maybe chicken soup can treat depression.
That provocative claim was made not by a quack in a late-night infomercial but by John Bargh, a Yale social psychologist. He is an expert on “social primes,” the subtle cues that supposedly exert a major unconscious influence on our behavior. He has published research suggesting that, for example, exposure to words with geriatric associations like “wrinkles” primes people to walk slower.
In his 2017 book, “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do,” Dr. Bargh mentions a clinical trial in which severely depressed patients in a mental health facility appeared to improve after exposure to very high temperatures. He speculates that perhaps an outpatient approach involving soup could do the trick, too, since “the warmth of the soup helps replace the social warmth that may be missing from the person’s life.” Such remedies “are unlikely to make big profits for the pharmaceutical and psychiatric industries,” he writes, but they warrant further research.
Psychologists are welcome to research whatever they like. But if you have loved someone afflicted with treatment-resistant depression, as I have, this seems far-fetched: Every day, millions of depressed people drink coffee to no apparent salutary effect.
Dr. Bargh’s idea is one of the purest distillations of what I call “primeworld,” a myopic but seductive worldview. It suggests that human behavior is shaped rather easily by primes and other subtle influences — an irrational bias here, a too-pessimistic mind-set there — and that these influences can often be easily dispelled with low-cost psychological tweaks that target individuals to help solve societal problems. This understanding of society has flourished as a result of a general fascination with easily digestible pop-psychology nuggets — often delivered via TED Talks and best-selling books — that appears to have exploded in recent years.
But because it ignores the bigger, more structural forces that do far more to influence human behavior (from our exposure to early-life trauma to how much money we have to whether we grew up in a segregated neighborhood), it is flawed. Worse, it might actually be hindering our ability to solve real-world problems. And now, with a replication crisis felling once highly regarded psychological findings, it’s probably time to be a little bit more skeptical of these quick-fix ideas.
It isn’t just psychologists who profit from this approach: There’s an influential ecosystem of journalists, pundits and other professional “thought leaders” who benefit from page views, book deals or the exposure offered by a viral TED Talk. And these solutions, often framed as inexpensive and politically uncontroversial, are catnip not only to everyday consumers of pop science but also to policymakers hungry for quick fixes.
To be sure, there are kernels of truth to some of these ideas. At the margins, slight changes to our environment or a presentation of choices can affect our behavior. Some successful so-called nudges make people a bit more likely to save energy or a bit less likely to grab an extra doughnut in line at a college cafeteria.
But some psychologists have made much bolder claims — which are much less credible. For Dr. Bargh, for example, seeing cleaner streets spurs prosocial behavior in a manner that, he says, can help explain New York City’s great violent-crime drop that started in the 1990s. (That’s why he lauds “broken windows” policing.) He acknowledges there were other factors, but he also states flatly in his book that the city’s resurgence “was a result of a new culture of cues for positive behavior being instituted.”
This is a vast oversimplification of a complicated problem. Few criminologists believe that these sorts of cues for positive behavior can tell us much, if anything, about the great crime decline.
Other recent blockbuster ideas in psychology are also steeped in this ideology. Take mind-set interventions, which are designed to shift people’s mind-sets from “fixed” (“I failed the test — I’m just stupid”) to “growth” (“I’ll do better next time if I work harder”). “For 30 years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” said Carol Dweck, the originator of that idea and a professor at Stanford, in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” (ideas she echoed in a TED Talk that has been viewed more than 12.5 million times).
Perhaps better known is the implicit association test, which claims to be able to measure one’s level of implicit (or unconscious) bias via a brief computer test that involves comparing reaction time to different stimuli. Since the creators of the test also claimed that implicit bias can go a long way toward explaining persistent racially discriminatory gaps in the United States, the computer test is now one of the most common features of contemporary diversity trainings.
Since these claims were first made, though, a full-blown replication crisis has hit psychology, meaning that when researchers attempt to redo previous studies, they often find either a much less impressive result or none whatsoever. It turns out that the standard statistical methods long employed by psychologists (and other scientists) can easily produce false positive results. About 50 percent of published results from experimental psychology have failed to replicate, and the subfield of social psychology — the home base of most social priming, implicit bias and stereotype-threat research — tends to fare even worse.
Studies purporting to offer simple remedies to serious problems have been hit particularly hard. Mind-set interventions appear to be nowhere near as powerful as Professor Dweck initially advertised: A major, well-constructed 2019 study in Nature found some effect, but only a relatively small one and only for weaker students. (In a phone conversation, she pointed out that the Nature study was centered on a fairly minimalist mind-set intervention designed to be easily scalable and referenced larger effects found in earlier studies premised on more costly, time-consuming multisession interventions involving highly trained personnel.)
As for that fascinating social-priming magic embraced by Dr. Bargh, like people walking slower after seeing words with geriatric associations? “I don’t know a replicable finding,” said Brian Nosek, a psychologist and leading replication advocate, in 2019. “It’s not that there isn’t one, but I can’t name it.” The few social-priming effects that have survived this scrutiny tend to be small, inconsistent and not necessarily relevant outside of lab settings.
(In a series of emails, Dr. Bargh argued, as he has elsewhere, that his field’s replication tribulations have been overstated and pointed to some of the positive results.)
The implicit association test has experienced similar travails. It is still often a part of everyday diversity-training settings, but its creators long ago acknowledged that it is too noisy a test to be used to identify people as likely to engage in racist acts (which constitutes significant backtracking from their original claim).
The cheerful, can-do vision of society these ideas help to spread is just as important as their statistical shortcomings. If reducing crime is a simple matter of priming would-be offenders with cleaner streets, then there’s little cause to become overwhelmed by the problems that surround us and also less reason to pursue expensive or politically contentious reforms (like truly attacking the root causes of crime).
The point is not that today’s most prominent primeworld psychologists deny that there’s a bigger world out there, beyond primes, biases and mind-sets; they would quickly acknowledge that, yes, there is. The problem is that their work, amplified by media, advances a set of very specific, zoomed-in priorities. It’s not a coincidence that implicit association test trainings geared toward law enforcement agencies emphasize the ostensibly unintentional nature of racially discriminatory police outcomes. They offer a particularly nonconfrontational, authority-friendly way of dealing with racial-justice problems.
Sometimes people mistakenly believe that the best or truest scientific ideas rise to the top of the heap — that popularity implies accuracy and rigor.
This has never quite been the case, but it’s an even more questionable claim in an era in which pop science is so hotly marketable via TED Talks and other platforms. Often the ideas that reach those heights are the ones that we most want to believe. And we’d like to think that we can fix the world easily.
Jesse Singal is a co-host of the podcast Blocked and Reported and the author of “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills” and has written extensively about social science and the replication crisis.