Editors’ Picks for 2018: Captivating Behavioral Science Pieces

At the Behavioral Scientist, we’re always looking for great behavioral science journalism. To tie a bow on the interesting and important work that came across our desks in 2018, our editorial team compiled a list of our favorites. Enjoy!

Thinking in Bets
By Annie Duke
Penguin Random House

How often do you berate yourself for making the wrong choice? I did it just this weekend, mentally kicking myself myself for choosing the slowest checkout lane at Acme. I should have known! What’s worse is that this decision regret often sneaks into my decision-making, freezing me as I preemptively rue imagined mistakes. But, mid-eyeroll in the checkout line, I remembered an insight from Annie Duke’s book Thinking in Bets: just because our choice didn’t “win” doesn’t mean we chose wrong. Sometimes we can lose even if the odds are stacked in our favor; that’s how probability works. Duke’s book, an engaging window in the world of poker (an excerpt of which we published), stuck with me this year and helped me let myself off the hook for living in a stochastic world: No, I couldn’t have known.

-Cameron French, Editor

The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success
By Albert-László Barabási
Little, Brown and Company

Walk into any book store and you’re bound find a section, a rather large section, devoted to success. Despite the topic’s subjectivity and fluidity, a whole number of people claim they’ve found it and you can too—if you’ll only buy their book. My recommendation is to avoid their coercive promises and taglines and simply pick up one book—The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, by Northeastern University network scientist Albert-László Barabási, published this fall.

While the title may seem bold, if not impossible, Barabási makes a strong case for what success is and how people achieve it. Most importantly, he backs up his claims with data. My favorite chapters deal with a rogue wine judge fed up with a lack of rigor; explore the precision of tennis; and, using a one-of-a-kind dataset, uncover why some artists toil in obscurity and other make it and make it big (read more about the secret to artistic to success in this excerpt we published).

It’s rare to find a nonfiction book with science and stories both of equally high quality, but in The Formula Barabási gives both. I am interested to see how scientists and the cottage industry of success peddlers react to and incorporate Barabási’s ideas. After reading the book, I no longer see award-winning wine, sports championships, or art auctions the same. I can’t guarantee reading the book will make you successful, but I can guarantee it’s worth your time.

-Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
By Lisa Barrett Feldman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

One of my favorite movies is Inside Out—Pixar’s exploration of how emotions are created and experienced. It’s a poignant story about the memories and experiences that make us who we are, and about the complex alchemy of our feelings. Even though I knew the movie was fiction, it still felt right—and I was pleased after watching it (and crying a little, let’s be honest) to discover that two prominent emotion researchers advised the producers on how to translate the science. But then, this year, I read How Emotions Are Made. I learned it’s not just Inside Out that’s fictional—the past few decades of emotion research is woefully inadequate and downright inaccurate.

In her book, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett proposes a new theory of constructed emotion that reimagines the component parts of an emotional response, vaporizes the mythological divide between a rational and emotional response, and refutes the idea of specific emotion areas of the brain. She methodically shows us that emotional responses like anger or sadness cannot be universally expressed or perceived and that we have far more control over our emotions than we might think. Critically, she also examines the ways in which our faulty emotional concepts have pervaded public policy and law, and proposes bold strategies to better integrate the science of emotion (for instance, rethinking citizen jurors). This is one of those rare books that can change the way you see just about everything—you may not feel the same after reading it, and that’s probably a good thing.

-Elizabeth Weingarten, Editor

Actually, Republicans Do Believe in Climate Change
By Leaf van Boven and David Sherman
The New York Times

Writing in The New York Times, social psychologists Leaf van Boven and David Sherman explore why, despite a majority of Republicans apparently coming around on their climate change beliefs, the policy stalemate seems intractable. It turns out that sometimes the content of policy is less important than its source: partisans in van Boven and Sherman’s experiments responded very differently to proposals by those in their own party than they did to identical proposals by the opposition party. In short, “The problem is not so much that Republicans are skeptical about climate change, but that Republicans are skeptical of Democrats—and that Democrats are skeptical of Republicans. This tribalism leads to political fights over differences between the parties that either do not exist or are vastly exaggerated.”

Despite the apparent irrationality of weighting the source of a policy more heavily than the contents, it’s not necessarily unwise to be skeptical of people you don’t trust (Lee Ross explains it eloquently in the precursor to this research, on the phenomenon of reactive devaluation). Still, the hope is that the skepticism reflects an abundance of caution, not an immunity to evidence. One source for optimism is Republican-sponsored policies, like this one by Florida’s Carlos Curbelo. Unfortunately, even that proposal was blocked by Republicans, and Curbelo was swept out of office in the “blue wave” in November’s midterm election.

-Dave Nussbaum, Managing Editor

“Here’s How Cornell Scientist Brian Wansink Turned Shoddy Data Into Viral Studies About How We Eat
By Stephanie M. Lee

(People Are Missing the Point on Wansink, So) What’s the Lesson We Should Be Drawing From this Story?
By Andrew Gelman
Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science

A Top Cornell Food Researcher Has Had 15 Studies Retracted. That’s a lot.
By Brian Resnick and Julia Belluz

Meet the ‘Data Thugs’ Out to Expose Shoddy and Questionable Research
By Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky

Something is rotten in state of food science! Late this summer, psychologist Brian Wansink announced his retirement from Cornell University, effective in 2019. Over a career that spanned a quarter of a century, Wansink became the preeminent expert on our psychological relationship with food. His research was creative, intuitive, and timely—obesity was on the rise for both children and adults, and people wanted answers. But eventually it all spoiled, in what became known as “pizzagate.” Over the past two years, a motley crew of researchers uncovered an unsettling number of inconsistencies and poor research practices. Fifteen of Wansink’s papers have been retracted. In particular, Stephanie M. Lee on Buzzfeed and Andrew Gelman on his blog have provided rich and insightful coverage. The articles linked above provide an entry point into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. And it’s easy to go deep trying to figure out what happened and why. It’s a story about more than just one cunning, sloppy, or overly ambitious scientist, depending on your interpretation. It also brings to light the darker side of scientific culture that researchers have known about for decades but seem to have pushed to the back of the cupboard.

-Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief