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The Value of Social Science Research in Decision Making

December 17, 2015

Sometimes people hold contrary opinions to social science research based information.

They can and will argue on the basis of their own experience and advise they believe differently to facts provided. What they do not realize is that their belief is colored typically by their primary personal experience and those around them. This is referred to as anecdotal evidence or simply, opinion.

For instance, there is ample social science research advising that parental permitted underage drinking carries the risk of greater problems with alcohol come adulthood.

In light of the research there are those who will vehemently argue that they believe differently, that they see no harm in underage drinking permitted by parents. These people will often rely upon their personal experience or the anecdotal stories of others to bolster a contrary view. The common refrain is, “My parents let me drink and I turned out ok.”

It is important to realize that social science research isn’t personal. Social science research aggregates the experience of many to determine the likelihood or probability of correlated events. In others words, if you see x, what is the likelihood of seeing y. The social science research rarely states that if you see x, you will definitely see y and this is an important distinction.

For instance, take a six shot revolver with only one bullet in the cylinder. Spin the cylinder.

Would you put the gun to your head and pull the trigger?

If you repeat the procedure of spinning the cylinder, you consistently have a one is six chance of shooting yourself. Do this ten times in a row and survive and you may be left with the impression that this exercise is safe. Statistically, you can easily go ten times and actually not kill yourself.

If we gather those who survived the experience and band them together, they can collectively say, based on their communal experience, there is no harm associated with putting a bullet in a revolver, spinning the cylinder, placing it to your head and pulling the trigger. However, given probability theory, there will eventually and inevitably be some deaths.

The social science research will tell us that having a bullet in the cylinder prior to putting the revolver to our head and pulling the trigger will result is a higher likelihood of death than if we left the entire cylinder empty. But again, not all people will kill themselves with the bullet in the cylinder and indeed most wont. What is dangerous to extrapolate here is that it is ok to carry out this task or suggest that if done under parental supervision, it becomes safe to do so.

Argue as one might against social science research and you may appear right based upon the narrowness of your own experience. Hopefully though people come to understand the difference between forming an opinion based on limited personal experience or persons with similar experiences versus the research generated data based on more rigorous scientific inquiry.

Wisdom is the ability to differentiate from one’s own experience and appreciate that some choices involve risks at times greater than one typically can foresee. That is why we have social science research, to provide us the opportunity for better informed decision making.

In the end, certainly do what you want. That remains every person’s prerogative (assuming not illegal).

People pick and chose how to handle situations all the time. Without even knowing it, people are weighing the risk of a particular action or behavior against the anticipated gains. While we always recommend against dangerous behavior, let’s face it, taking risks can be fun. Experts at taking risks are typically trained and know how to mitigate risk and take pleasure at engaging in risky but well calculated activities. That’s OK. Just don’t pretend there isn’t a risk when there is a risk. That’s not wisdom, that’s arrogance.

Better choices are based on solid information over beliefs or opinion. The only reason to weigh social science research into your decisions… healthier and safer results. That’s the value.

Taking a line from Spock’s character in Star Trek, “Live long and prosper.”

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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