Following the overwhelming response to a BBC Education article on the ESRC Humour and Bullying research project, which we responded to here, I’ve had a closer look through the comments made on the research article.
One thing that stood out was that some commentators felt that the research was a waste of time because they “could have told [us] that in 5 minutes” or because we were researching the “patently obvious” with little value beyond common sense guesses. In other words, our research was “granny research” – research where my grandmother could have told you the findings, before we’d even begun to design the research materials. I want to use this blog post to explain why it was necessary to show the cyclical link between self-defeating humour and victimisation using research, rather than just common sense.
One reason why research is necessary, is that the findings can often be surprising. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Milgram’s (1963) studies in obedience. In interviews with psychiatrists, students and members of the public, which took place before the study, these people said that only a few people in a thousand would likely obey the experimenter to the end, and ostensibly deliver a 450-volt level shock. Sixty-eight percent of participants did.
Other research too, shows that findings can be counter-intuitive. For example, in my research area, participants cast as group members in a resource allocation task, where they have to allocate resources to the ingroup and the outgroup don’t give the most resources to the ingroup. What happens in this situation, is that participants will maximize the difference between resources allocated to the ingroup and the outgroup, in the ingroup’s favour, even if this means they end up with less than they could have had (Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971).
And, of course common-sense intuitions can be contradictory. Studies in relationships might start with the adage that “birds of a feather flock together”. But they could start with the equally anecdotally plausible adage that “opposites attract”. Research is needed to determine under which circumstances each of these propositions may be true.
A further, and perhaps a more important reason why research is needed, is that common sense explanations may be biased by the researchers’ life experience. A researcher with experience of policing, for example, might suggest that football hooliganism is caused by a few random hooligans in a football crowd. But research by Clifford Stott shows that, in fact, hooliganism can emerge from a shift from personal to social identity of anyone in the crowd – anyone can then act as a member of the “football crowd” versus the police, us versus them.
Research creates the conditions to test your hypotheses – conditions where what you think might be the cause is (as far as possible) the only thing that you change before you note the effects. In the “real world” of course, the cause-effect relationship you’re observing via common sense interpretation is messily tangled up with a lot of other possible causes – so research helps to tease out one cause (or correlate) at a time.
Coming back to the self-defeating humour and peer victimisation link – since we measured both of these things at two time points, we were able to establish cause and effect – because what happened at Time 1 cannot logically have been caused by what happened at Time 2. And we found that, when other things were held constant, the cause and effect link went in both directions, in a cycle. And we couldn’t have determined that from common sense alone.