A Naïve Science

Psychology’s Ghosts
The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back
Jerome Kagan
Yale University Press, $32, 340 pp.

I often hear a fellow senior citizen declare, “I wish I’d spent more time with my family.” In fact he easily could have, but preferred golf, or working overtime, or whatnot. In any case, his behavior belied his self-report. Such self-reporting is dismally unreliable, and no one understands this better than Jerome Kagan, the esteemed psychologist whose new book distills the accumulated wisdom of his astonishingly productive six-decade career—a period during which, Kagan is sad to report, “psychology slipped from a position of prominence...to a subordinate rank in the academy.” In 340 thought-provoking pages deeply grounded in his encyclopedic knowledge of social-science research, including his own exemplary studies of temperament, Kagan explains the methodological stumbling blocks, unwarranted assumptions, systemic constraints, and sometimes startling scientific naïveté that have left us—after more than a century of bustling and expensive research—with so feeble an understanding of ourselves.

Take those self-reports, for example. Innumerable published studies are based on responses to questionnaires or interviewers asking things like, “Were you bullied as a child? What effect did that have upon you? Do you feel uneasy with strangers?” The problem with such studies, as Kagan points out, is that “the correlation between what people say and what they actually do ranges from negligible to modest.” (To take one example, the...

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About the Author

Barry Gault is a psychiatrist in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts.