Biologizing the Social Sciences – A Wise Idea?

March 05, 2015 7:04 PM | Lisa Gaudette (Administrator)

Over the last several years, there has been an increasing movement to biologize the social sciences (Bandura, 2008; Kagan, 2013; Satel & Lilienfeld, 2013), and this has important implications for those of us who study emerging adulthood. The development of new biological tools in fields such as neuroscience and genetics appears to have been equated with a mandate that these tools must be used in as many studies as possible. Nancy Eisenberg (2014), past president of the Association for Psychological Science, observed that psychology and other social science departments are increasingly hiring researchers who study biological phenomena, or who focus on cognitive processes with direct links to neuroscience. Much of this biologically based hiring is likely a direct result of funding agencies that emphasize biological research, sometimes to the exclusion of social-science work. Many of these funding agencies are directed by medical doctors and biologists who do not appear to recognize the importance of social-science research. Even a brief perusal of the priorities and strategic plans enumerated by these agencies – such as the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse – yields the conclusion that the logical endpoints of these priorities and strategic plans involve advances in medical care and the development of pharmaceutical drugs.

In other words, social scientists need not apply.

Although few people would say this publicly, funding agency directors – and, increasingly, academic departments – are saying it implicitly: If it cannot be neuroimaged, genotyped, or assayed, it is not important enough to study. Social-science phenomena are only important if they can be mapped in the brain, associated with genetic polymorphisms, or linked with biomarkers for stress, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, et cetera. For example, psychological well-being was once considered as an endpoint in itself. Someone who was happy, motivated, and felt a sense of mastery would be considered healthy (Waterman, 2008). But now, psychological well-being is important not necessarily because it feels good and helps us to live successful lives, but more so because it is associated with lower levels of diabetes-related biomarkers (Ryff, 2013). Again, the endpoint is medical care, rather than life success. “Health” is defined narrowly – and medically.

What does this have to do with emerging adulthood? Well, if the pillars of emerging adulthood – regardless of whether one agrees with Arnett’s five criteria – are social-structural, economic, and cultural, how can we continue to study them as the social sciences are becoming increasingly biologized? How can we convince the funding agencies that support our work, and the departments that hire new researchers, to continue investing in research on successful emerging adulthood and on ways to help emerging adults to succeed in their lives? Biological discoveries and tools are certainly important, but they do not obviate the need to continue with social-science research on this critical time of life.

Let’s take friendships and family relationships for example. Research has examined the neural mechanisms through which friendships in adolescence can protect against sensitivity to future peer rejection (e.g., Masten, Telzer, Fuligni, Lieberman, & Eisenberger, 2011), and this finding likely applies to emerging adulthood as well. However, even without neural evidence, would we not still know that supportive friendships are good for young people? Friendships nurture young people emotionally and expose them to new ideas and belief systems that they might never have considered before. Many of these experiences occur at “higher” levels of processing that cannot simply be reduced to neurons firing in the brain. Trying to reduce people to brain cells, as some funding agencies would have us do, is not a wise idea. At a certain point, we lose the humanity in the person and are just looking at a bunch of cells. Even if we are considering the effects of environmental and developmental factors on brain functioning, we still miss a lot of we attempt to reduce the person to just a brain.

Concerning Gene X Environment interactions – another “hot” area being promoted by funding agencies – there is some evidence that the effects of the family environment, for example, may differ between young people with different genetic profiles (Schermerhorn, D’Onofrio, Turkheimer, Ganiban, Spotts, Lichtenstein, Reiss, & Neiderhiser, 2011). However, this does not mean that family environment doesn’t affect quality of life for all adolescents and emerging adults. The finding of fairly modest moderating effects of genetics in links between family relationships and life outcomes is potentially important, but does it mean that social-science research on family relationships should not be conducted unless genetic moderation is examined? What do these genetic moderation effects really tell us in terms of practical applicability? That is, what should we do differently for those adolescents and emerging adults who do versus don’t have a specific genetic polymorphism? The fact that Gene X Environment studies with behavioral outcomes rarely report effect sizes should tell us something. Maybe some of these effects are “sexy” because they’re biological, but they don’t always tell us as much as we might think they would.

Finally, let’s revisit the biomarkers-as-outcomes research that has gained popularity in recent years. In some ways, this research is extremely important – for example, studying how the body reacts to stress is helping us to understand how health disparities develop, and why people from certain social groups tend to be sicker and die younger compared to people from other social groups. With that said, however, do we always need biomarkers to tell us what is good for us and what isn’t? Do we need cortisol levels to tell us that it hurts to be discriminated against? If we didn’t know that well-being was linked with lower levels of diabetes biomarkers, would we not know that being happy and connected is good for us?

I should emphasize that I am not against biological research, and I am not against research that includes biological variables along with social-science variables. What I am against is funding-agency priorities and departmental hiring practices that are focused almost entirely on medical care and pharmaceutical drugs, to the exclusion of important social-science outcomes that are not (and do not need to be) medical. If immigrants are moving to new countries and having a hard time getting adjusted, do we need to develop drugs to give them? Or do we need to change the way they are being received in their new homelands? If emerging adults are under stress because they cannot find work, do we need to link this stress to a medical outcome that can be treated with drugs or doctor visits? Or do we need to help these young people to develop skills that they can use to find jobs? If emerging adults are satisfied in their relationships with their parents, friends, and romantic partners, shouldn’t we just celebrate that – rather than trying to find some kind of disease that it protects against?

Let’s hope that funding agencies and academic departments in our respective countries get the message. Social-science research on emerging adulthood is important and needs to continue – regardless of whether biological variables are included.



Bandura, A. (2008). Reconstrual of “free will” from the agentic perspective of social cognitive theory. In J. Baer, J. C. Kaufman, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.­), Are we free? Psychology and free will (pp. 86-127). New York: Oxford University Press.

Eisenberg, N. (2014). Is our focus becoming overly narrow? Retrieved October 15, 2014 at

Kagan, J. (2013). Equal time for psychological and biological contributions to human variation. Review of General Psychology, 17, 351-357.

Masten, C. L., Telzer, E. H., Fuligni, A. J., Lieberman, M. D., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2011). Time spent with friends in adolescence relates to less neural sensitivity to later peer rejection. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 106-114.

Ryff, C. D. (2013). Eudaimonic well-being and health: Mapping consequences of self-realization. In A. S. Waterman (Ed.), The best within us: Positive psychology perspectives on eudaimonia (pp. 77-98). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Satel, S., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience. New York: Basic.

Schermerhorn, A. C., D’Onofrio, B. M., Turkheimer, E. C., Ganiban, J. M., Spotts, E. L., Lichtenstein, P., Reiss, D., & Neiderhiser, J. M. (2011). A genetically informed study of associations between family functioning and child psychosocial adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 47, 707-725.

Waterman, A. S. (2008). Reconsidering happiness. A eudaimonist’s perspective. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 234-252.