Guns, Materialism, and Tim Kasser

Early in May, the New York Times ran an article, In Men, 'Trigger-Happy' May Be a Hormonal Impulse, reporting on a study by Tim Kasser of Knox College. The synopsis:

The researchers took saliva samples from the students and measured testosterone levels.

They then seated the young men, one at a time, at a table in a bare room; on the table were pieces of paper and either the board game Mouse Trap or a large handgun.

Their instructions: take apart the game or the gun and write directions for assembly and disassembly.

Fifteen minutes later, the psychologists measured saliva testosterone again and found that the levels had spiked in men who had handled the gun but had stayed steady in those working with the board game.

Andrew Sullivan read the NYT account and got sucked in completely

The usual NRA argument is that guns don't kill people; people kill people. I've always been almost-persuaded by this. The missing link is what actually owning or handling a gun does to male psychology. Does it ramp up testosterone all by itself and thereby make firing a gun more likely.

Now, there are a few psychologists out there whose work seems have a heavily ideological flavor. Tim Kasser is one of those, and so his work deserves to be approached with more skeptical scrutiny than Sullivan deploys. That's not to say that the work of Kasser, or other politically engaged scientists, is necessarily ideologically motivated. It may be that he is an objective, dispassionate observer of the human condition, and he honestly believes that the results of his inquiry support a particular political point of view. However, the auxiliary assumptions embededded in the experimental design of the gun/saliva/hot sauce study seem neither well-supported nor ideologically neutral. Either the disposition to put a bigger shot of hot sauce in a glass of water predicts using a gun to shoot someone, or it doesn't. And there is no reason to believe that it does. Unless we are given a reason, this experiment simply fails to have any practical interest.

The idea, I guess, is that guns, through some kind of magick of cultural association, take over our brains and make us want to shoot someone with them. That's the idea Sullivan seems to have fixed on. Now, I know that when I hold a gun, I do want to shoot it, but I don't want to shoot a person with it. Maybe I want to put a bigger drop of hot sauce in somebody's water, sure! If you give me a basketball, I will want to dribble it, or shoot it, or humiliate my trash-talking opponents with my patented windmill monster dunk. Just holding a basketball might increase my testosterone concentrations—I bet it would. (I bet my testosterone just went up thinking about my soaring in-your-face King Kong slam.) And that may make me ever so slightly more likely to throw the basketball agressively at someone's face, just as losing $10 will make me ever so slightly more likely to commit suicide. However, there is almost no combination of circumstances under which I actually would throw a basketball at someone's face, or fling myself despondently off a bridge. If I did throw a basketball at somebody's face, you wouldn't usefully explain my action by pointing out that simply having a basketball made me more likely to do it. If I threw myself off a ledge, you wouldn't cite my recent loss of $10, even if that was the last straw. You would mention my incurable disease, my painful divorce, and the disgraceful and humiliating manner in which I had just lost my job. The gun story is the same kind of thing, and is probably pretty much meaningless.

The story here is that this got picked up by the New York Times. And I doubt that the Times reported it because it is exemplary psychological science; they picked it up because they saw precisely the political implications that they Ssuccessfully sold Sullivan on. This bothers me, because I think this sort of thing ends up eroding the public's already fragile respect for science. That's why it's worth knowing about researchers like Tim Kasser, or George Lakoff, who have a habit of crossing the line between science and political advocacy.

In his book The High Price of Materialism Kasser presents his research to the effect that people who care more about material acquisition than, say, meaningful human relationships, are likely to find themselves rather dissatisifed with life. Now, this seems exceedingly plausible. However, Kasser draws the profoundly poor inference that since it is unhealthy for an individual to have predominantly materialistic values, and to be predominantly “extrinsically motivated,” market societies, which create unparalleled opportunities for material accumulation and consumption, and which depend on “extrinsically” motivating people by paying them for producing value, must likewise be sick. So, from a few studies on the unhealthiness of monomaniacally focusing on the acquisition of stuff, we arrive at

To endure, a capitalistic consumer society requires workers to make products that are sold so that the workers (and entrepreneurs who pay them) can have money to buy things other workers produce.

Now, this is a pretty much unobjectionable statement of Say's Law: Production drives consumption. But then, directly following, we get this:

Society is designed to inculcate materialistic value in our children, for if the next generation does not come to care about possessions, image, and status, we fear our economic and cultural system will collapse.

Society works through various means to indoctrinate children…

Wow! Straight from Say's Law to Lukacs and Gramsci! Kasser masterfully equivocates on the meaning of “materialistic” in order to power a bold leap from a few mostly unobjectionable studies that confirm something we all knew, across a vast void of missing premises, to the destination of his pre-settled political assumptions. Now, it is nice that Kasser is a sort of scientist, but no matter how white the lab coat, it won't take the “non” out of non sequitur.

The immense problem for Kasser's argument is that capitalist consumer societies don't require materialistic monomania in order to operate. So showing that there is a problem with materialistic monomania says nothing much about capitalist societies. Non-materialists still want, um, material. Kasser's studies are studies of the effects of “value orientation.” They do not show that people with “good” value orientations do not want to buy things. Intrinsically motivated, community minded, meaning-seeking people want houses, cars, dishwashers, North Face fleece pullovers, and iPods all the same. The sense you get from Kasser is that eco-conscious, Chomsky reading, Yoga devotees in Cambridge, Berkeley, or Madison rate near the top of the hierarchy of wholesome human development. Well, alright. But professors of sociology do not live with only a bowl and a strip of burlap. Yoga classes, I can tell you, aren't cheap. The bookstores won't just give you the latest overpriced compilation of Chomsky interviews. And you can't put a bumper sticker on a Volvo unless you buy it first. Etc., etc. The point is simply that stuff doesn't have to be what you most care about in order to want stuff. And capitalism doesn't need us to most want stuff—to be “materialistic” in Kasser's unhealthy sense—in order to endure. (There is, in fact, some reason to believe that we'd have higher rates of economic growth if we consumed somewhat less and saved somewhat more.)

All that is by way of warning about psychologists like Tim Kasser. He and his colleagues are either doing good science or they're not. I have strong doubts about the validity of extrapolating from the willingness to put hot sauce in water to any kind of tendency to act violently with a gun. But science deserves to be evaluated as science, not politics. However, science has special prestige in the public's mind, as it should, and we should be very wary of scientists who are all-too-eager, as Kasser has been, to frame their results in a way that advances their sectarian interests. Indeed, when people come to suspect that science is yet another ideological battleground, they will find it much easier to ignore it, thereby minimizing the role rational inquiry plays in public life.