I keep hearing from colleagues in other disciplines that the stakes are incredibly low in contemporary psychology. Requests for explanation get me no further than utterances of despair over the stranglehold caused by increased ethical standards for research on humans. There will be no more Stanford prison experiments or Milgram authority tests. All that is left are either peculiar lab objectifications of the social or discourse analysis.
I don’t understand the despair: we’ve learned what we needed to from Zimbardo and Milgram, surely. The new social psychology involved with cognition and discourse provides good fodder for argumentation studies (or at least it can). It encourages critical thinking that will be informed by empirical analysis of what works, rather than armchair speculations. All this feeds democracy.
Argumentation and discourse analysis (of which I have only the vaguest understanding) seem especially important given the current proliferation of discourse. Discourse may also be the site of some of the most persistent stumbling blocks to social justice. Micro-inequalities and implicit bias impede women’s and minorities’ social and political participation.
Cecelia Ridgeway suggests implicit bias may be a central cause for the stalled gender revolution: despite the massive improvements for women in wealthy countries during the 20th century the progress stalled around 1990. On the major markers of social status (income, wealth, and political participation as I recall), we are still where we were 22 years ago!
While Ridgeway argues we cannot directly affect our cognitive biases, given their deep and unconscious operation, we can certainly affect their impact on our discourse, watch for it, and compensate. We can revise our hiring and promotion practices, we can change more casual standards too perhaps, e.g. by making direct eye-contact with marginalized people. That could be part of critical thinking too, and might aid its impact. Attention to micro-inequalities may be critical too in the sense of necessary to push beyond the stall, and psychology is helping us sort them out. The stakes remain pretty high for women and minorities.