Many social scientists, in a well-meaning attempt to make their research more accurate, assume that people work like machines. They are using the philosophy that has revolutionized the physical sciences since Isaac Newton started talking about “laws of physics.” The trouble is, these researchers sometimes go too far.
For instance, every year or two, a group of neurologists or psychologists claims that they have finally disproved the existence of free will, or agency, in any sense of the word. They successfully predict or control one aspect of human behavior, and they conclude that people involved had no choice, no real will–just the illusion of choice. These scientists fail to realize that there are two different ways to adapt Isaac Newton’s philosophy to the social sciences.
The first, which these scientists follow, is called determinism. According to this philosophy, there are no real possiblities. Everything is predetermined by mechanical cause and effect. Determinists believe that choices and creativity are really just illusions. According to this theory, if you knew the location of every atom in a person’s brain, and if you knew every way the environment would influence them, you could predict all their future actions. Determinists argue that the only alternative is a belief in radical free will. Radical free will is the ability to choose whatever you want without any regard to your genetics, your upbringing, or other influences. If people truly have radical free will, then their behavior should be unpredictable and uncontrollable.
However, there is another way to understand people scientifically. This second philosophy combines two concepts: law and contextual agency. According to this belief, people always have choices, but their choices are limited by certain rules. There are possibilities, but the possibilites are not random. Therefore, people are predictable, but only to a point.
For example, let’s say that a young man is considering joining the military, but his mother passes away. He considers staying with his family to help them cope, but he decides that he can’t handle the pain and joins the military to escape. According to determinism, the young man never had a real choice. He joined the military because of a complex combination of genetic factors and social conditioning. According to radical free will, he had any number of choices, from joining the circus, to joining a cult and trying to bring his mother back to life.
Contextual agency is the only theory that really focuses on meaningful choices. Under this theory, the young man has several real possibilities. He may have been able to stay with his family and face his sadness. After joining the military, he has several smaller choices: he can write to his family often or rarely, and he can think about his feelings or try to ignore them. However, certain laws of psychology still apply: he will miss his mother, and he will probably feel happier if he deals with his feelings without either obsessing over them or ignoring them. His choices can be restricted, made more difficult, or made easier, based on his past choices, his social conditioning, and his genetics. Contextual agency is the only philosophy that allows us to study people in a way that is both meaningful and scientific.
These beliefs and assumptions change the questions we ask when we do research, as well as how we interpret our results.
For those in Utah County who are interested in the philosophies underlying social science research, I suggest taking a BYU course from Drs. Reber, Gantt, or Slife. Courses that tend to focus on these issues include History of Psychology (Psych 210), Critical Issues in Psychology (Psych 311), Personality (Psych 341), and LDS Perspectives and Psychology (Psych 353). Note that History of Psychology and LDS Perspectives are both frequently offered as evening courses, which can be taken without enrolling in BYU.