For many people in business and politics, social science doesn’t appear particularly impressive. Its relevance for practice and the nitty-gritty of business may seem doubtful. But the fact of the matter is that social science impacts reality in profound ways that most never see, never think about or are even willing to believe—at least when first faced with the facts. Social science, however, profoundly influences how we think about ourselves, how we think about our world and how we act. And that’s true whether or not a given theory is right or wrong.
Ferraro, Pfeffer and Sutton devote a paper on economics’ language and assumptions, showing how social science drives our perspective on economics. I was reminded of their study when I read the latest blog by Roger Martin on How to win the argument with Milton Friedman. Martin notes that the argument that the trade-offs between shareholders and the rest of society, the particularly framing of Friedman’s argument, has won the last 50 years. It is, he writes, a very clever way of setting up his argument, but won’t stand up to scrutiny. And he sets out to debunk the framing. Of course, it drives some of his readers nuts, but that’s ...
As Martin notes, although there are a number of fundamental ideas in economics, the core idea is that of self-interest. The notion of self-interest has arrived as a “canonical” assumption. In other words, everyone assumes that people act only in their own narrowly defined self-interest. In point of fact, the notion is a fraud. And although it’s still widely held, it’s at last being challenged from a number of fronts.
Another profoundly flawed framing is the emphasis upon small versus big government. Just a limited amount of political science knowledge reveals that the issues of governance are about effectiveness, not about size. If you do your work and drive home the impact of effectiveness, then the small vs. large government framing is obviously stupid. It intrigues and sometimes frustrates me that old white guys who complain loudly about big government, never complain about their social security check--the gift of big government. And it’s really a gift. All the facts are available about pay-in and benefits received. But here’s a typical example: A couple with only one spouse working (and receiving the same average wage) would have paid in $361,000 if they turned 65 in 2010, but can expect to get back $854,000 — more than double what they paid in. And the lengthening of life-span is only going to make those differences more extreme.
Still another deeply flawed framing in business today is the notion of hierarchy, a theory which reigned supreme for a century--until the onslaught of the complexities of the information age. Hierarchy was the system of management in which people are ranked one above the other according to status and authority. Of course it’s nonsense to think that no one has final authority. Someone has to make the final decisions. On the other hand, authority can be blatantly misused, especially since we now understand that it’s built on mistrust of people. It took a long time for us to figure out that hierarchy often kills initiative, crushes creativity, crushes morale, stifles leadership and brings out greed, insensitivity and self-importance.
All of those views, those framings of reality, are social science theories. The mere fact they are theory has nothing to do with whether they are right or wrong theories. It takes empirical research to assess their validity.
How does “social science” work?
Both for good and ill, social science offers the lens, the perspective, the orientation of social theories. They operate in three interrelated areas: institutional design, social norms and language.
As Ferraro, Pfeiffer and Sutton note, we always design our organizations around a theory, whether or not we recognize what we’re doing. For example, our long-term implicit and even unconscious understanding of hierarchy means that structures, reward systems, measurement practice, selection processes reflect our belief in hierarchy. The whole idea that we look for a “great leader” for CEO is typical of that implicit theory. Or rewarding higher ranked people more than lower ranked, in spite of their organizational contributions. The nauseous belief that CEOs are worth 500+ times the ordinary person’s salary is profoundly indicative of the theory of hierarchy and reflected in endless “great man” theories.
Though they don’t start out that way, theories can become self-fulfilling when they become accepted truths and norms. In those situations, people behave and talk as though the theory were true, often because they don’t want to violate powerful, prescriptive expectations. To put it bluntly, most of us have a great deal of difficulty stepping outside what we think is the tribal perspective. As the study on economic interests indicates, the theory has become so powerful in conversations and other talk, that people believe “to behave otherwise is illegitimate.”
Theories also become self-fulfilling because they offer language for understanding the world. “Language affects what people see, how they see it, and the social categories and descriptions they use to interpret that reality. It shapes what people notice and ignore and what they believe is and is not important.” Eccles and Nohria, in their book on rhetoric and business hype, are even more direct: The way people talk about the world has everything to do with the way the world is ultimately understood and acted in.
In August of last year an ambitious young ex-Marine, who worked part time at our “luxury” apartment, knocked on my door and asked me to coach him. I’m uncomfortable sharing his approach to me, but suffice it to say it brought gales of laughter and I succumbed to his request. He has wormed his way into my heart. Coming from a small Midwestern rural town and from a family with no college grads, I constantly emphasize the theory differences in language use and personal trappings between the classes. He’s a highly adept student, open and eminently coachable. So I explained the social science differences between his background and that of a major research university tribe like the University of Minnesota. I commented early on that he needed to be cautious about displaying his tattoos—an inevitable class distinction. He smiled and said I was telling him exactly what a favorite Marine lieutenant, a college grad, had warned him about. He’s become scrupulous about long sleeves—and he indicated that he’d learned a great deal from observing the difference that brought to his interactions.
But his most significant hierarchical difficulty is language fluidity. Both in his background and the Marines, conversation consisted of eight to ten words and then a response. Hierarchy is profoundly significant in the Marines—and he carried that theory over to the university faculty and TAs. I was not surprised to hear that on his first interaction with a teaching assistant, he was essentially brushed off. The same happened with a faculty member. After I’d coached him, shifted his hierarchy theories into collegiate theories and helped him develop a number of scripts that reflect the difference, he began to understand. “You don’t work the university system at all like you work the Marine system--and it takes different language,” I commented. Two weeks later, he told me that an interaction with the TA moved from a brush-off to a 45 minute conversation. His grade in the tough physics class also moved from a C to an A-. Of course, his new understanding of personal “artifacts” and growing ability in language use means that he understands that the way he now sees the world is monstrously different than how he used to see it. As he said to me, attending a small state college “in the sticks” for a semester is a lot different than attending a major research university. It also means that he understands the world quite differently than in the Marines and growing up.
He now has different theories about the distinctions of social class, interpersonal relationships—and even the role of the TA and faculty member. He revealed that the most difficult theory change was revising his notion of teacher as authority, to an implicit theory of teacher as learning associate. That’s a monstrous change for just 10 months of coaching. I should add that he’s been on the Dean’s list for the past two semesters.
When theories produce self-fulfilling beliefs—like my young Marine’s belief in hierarchy—they trap a person, making it almost impossible to change and succeed in another context. He had the guts to find a coach/mentor, to ask for pro bono support, and to try on new behaviors reflecting different theories. He has been and will be a success in his new world.
The most important implication of this blog is that theories become dominant when their language is widely and mindlessly used—and their assumptions become accepted, regardless of their empirical validity. Social science theory matters a great deal, even though people are ignorant of it, or, like many politicos, want to sweep it off the face of the earth.