Earlier this year, Senator Tom Coburn published a report called “Under the Microscope,” in which he criticized the funding of any research he couldn’t immediately understand as important. Of particularly dubious value, in Coburn’s opinion, are the behavioral and social sciences—including my own field, psychology. Following his report, Coburn proposed eliminating the National Science Foundation’s funding for these “human” sciences, writing: “…do any of these social studies represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie as astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics and oceanography?” Mo Brooks, the chair of a congressional panel considering such cuts, echoed this opinion. Brooks explicitly claimed that the human sciences have yet to prove their worth.
Given that people’s thoughts and choices, by definition, play the single most powerful role in shaping our society, why does studying the human mind seem like such a dispensable endeavor? One reason may be that people often feel as though they understand their minds already, and that the study of people and cultures can’t tell them anything new. Topics such as social networks, emotion, memory, and race relations sound less scientific than the study of cellular structure, protein folding, or electromagnetic force. These latter topics seem as though they will uncover insights inaccessible to our intuitions, whereas the human sciences might not. This couldn’t be further from the truth: examinations of the human mind often dredge up huge surprises. In fact, a broad message emerging from the last 50 years of psychological research is that forces outside of our awareness drive many of our most critical mental operations—our moral judgments, preferences and the like. Acknowledging these forces and putting them to work has the potential to change—and even save—lives. Here are four ways the human sciences can help us on a broad scale, and reasons we cannot live without the rigorous investigation of our own minds.
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