Reflecting on my first year in graduate school, I have been thinking about what I’ve learned. I’ve gathered a smattering of statistical tools, glimpsed into the world of conferences, publications, and networking, and, most importantly, gotten a better grasp on the social psychology literature. As I read more (and more, and more…) I noticed a curious phenomenon: psychology literature is littered with two-factor theories. They’re everywhere. Individualism vs. collectivism. Independence vs. interdependence. Growth vs. fixed mindset. Dominance vs. submission. Internal vs. external locus of control. Ingroups vs. outgroups. I could go on.

What I am referring to as two-factor theories are theories that purport to explain a phenomenon using just two factors. For example, cultural psychology has focused much of its attention on categorizing cultures as either individualistic or collectivistic. These kinds of dichotomies can be useful, but, more often than not, they result in a lack of nuance. This oversimplification is sometimes due to the original researchers overselling the theory, and is often also greatly exacerbated by other researchers, practitioners, and the media. Take growth vs. fixed mindsets, for example. Are there really just those two? It’s either one or the other? Others have proposed that there are 15, or 7, or 4, or 3 (or these 3). There is simplicity in 2, but the truth is more likely in the nuance. 

The preponderance of two-factor theories is bad enough, but many of these theories  additionally use different terms to explain the same phenomena to the detriment of the field as a whole. In the intergroup literature, for example, perceptions of social groups are categorized with various overlapping terms: warmth vs. competence, instrumentality vs. expressiveness, intellectually vs. socially good-bad, competence vs. morality, etc. An entire book is dedicated to teasing out the nuanced differences between these terms, while also postulating that they all belong to a broader categorization: Agency vs. communion.

Agency (or competence, instrumentality, intellect, masculinity, autonomy, etc.), is about the individual, while communion (or warmth, expressiveness, sociality, femininity, morality, trust, etc.) is about the whole. Agency is about getting ahead, being powerful, and asserting oneself (or one’s group); communion is about getting along, being intimate, and submitting oneself to the group.

Here’s my “two-factor” theory for why we have so many overlapping two-factor theories: (1) black-or-white thinking, and (2) the novelty requirement.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who promote false dichotomies, and those who don’t. Most people fall into the former camp. Humanity is obsessed with dividing the world into black and white. Academics might be even more prone to engage in this sort of compartmentalization, and my own field of social psychology is a particularly egregious offender.

The novelty requirement refers to the expectation that new researchers develop their own new ideas. When I was an undergrad first learning about what the requirements of a PhD were, I thought this was impossible. We already know so much. How is each student supposed to come up with something entirely new? With time, I learned that it doesn’t really need to be new, it just has to seem new. If you can package your contribution in just the right way, you can make it seem like it’s actually contributing something. This is no longer just something that happens to happen; it’s what the field expects.

I’m hardly an innocent bystander. In fact, I am directly contributing to the pollution of the field, as I wrap up the final stages of a project entitled “Stupid vs. Evil: How political opponents disparage each other.” My project divides social perception of political opponents into two factors: perceptions of unintelligence, and perceptions of immorality. In a series of studies, my collaborators and I found that liberals and conservatives both view each other as more unintelligent than immoral.

Writing up the background for my studies, I had to provide an overview of prior research in intergroup perceptions and lay out my rationale for using these terms as opposed to others. My paper begins with a quote of political columnist Charles Krauthammer, who claimed that “Conservatives think liberals are stupid, and liberals think conservatives are evil.” I peppered my introduction with various examples of journalists and politicians claiming that someone on the other side of the aisle either “doesn’t know, or doesn’t care” about some issue. I argued that, while existing frameworks such as the stereotype content model, which focuses on warmth vs. competence, are informative, they don’t exactly align with how partisans think in the real world.

I believe in the findings of my studies, and I believe they contribute new knowledge to the field. I believe my project has the potential to shed some light on the alarming increase in political polarization we’re witnessing in this country.

But the world is not black or white. While I do genuinely believe in my research, I also believe I am contributing to a proliferation of nearly synonymous terms in an already inundated field. Researchers in my area (and presumably many others) are expected to develop new terms, new scales, new theories. But the same space can only be carved up in so many ways. Still, the expectation remains. And rather than fighting it, or attempting to improve it, I am giving in to the status quo.  As an aspiring academic, I am ruled by the strongest dichotomy of all: publish, or perish.

 Peer edited by Gabrielle Dardis

5 Replies to “Novel Dichotomies”

  1. I love your understanding of the complexities that your field of studies offers. Your writing is remarkably erudite, yet I got most of what you’re saying. I also love your photograph. You are beautiful as well as brilliant.

  2. Thank you for this interesting and nicely written blog post. It reminds me of a famous aphorism by Heraclitus: The name of the bow (biós) is life (bíos), but its work is death. Heraclitus in many aphorisms expresses his belief that behind every (socially constructed) dualism (life and death, night and day, war and peace) there is something that remains the same though it never really is but is always becoming/changing…

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