Our theories are crutches; to show that they are valid, they must be used to walk. ―
Today, I’m going to reveal a slightly secret, slightly insulting fact: we “in the biz” call you lay people. I know, it’s not the most flattering term. But we academics have to justify all the years we’ve spent in front of these computers somehow.
In truth, “lay person” just means someone who doesn’t have the specialized knowledge or schooling in a particular topic (in this case, psychology — I would be a lay person to biologists). However, just because you haven’t spent 5-7 years of your life reading psychology journal articles, it doesn’t mean you don’t have your own psychological theories about how the world works.
Of course, we call these lay theories.
As we grow up in this world, we learn culturally specific associations that we use to make predictions about our world. For example, from all the restaurants or grocery stores you’ve been to and all the advertisements you’ve seen, you have probably come to believe that “healthy = expensive:”
This relationship between healthiness and expensiveness constitutes one example of a lay theory–or in other words, a knowledge structure we hold describing how the world works. These lay theories tend to be “common-sense” beliefs or explanations about the environment and people around us.
And although these lay theories can be true, they’re also often overgeneralized.
For example, one set of participants was given a cracker and told it cost $0.25, while another set of participants was given the same cracker and told it cost $2.00. And although the only thing that differed was the price, people rated the second cracker as healthier.
For a real world example, KIND bars are often considered healthy, when they’re really not that great for you. However, one way they achieve this healthy image is through tapping into our lay theory that “healthy = expensive.” If the bars were cheaper, we probably wouldn’t think they were as good for you.
LOTS OF LAY THEORIES
Above, I gave you one example of a lay theory we hold, but actually, we hold a lot of them. Sometimes they can be broad (like the healthy = expensive one), while other times they can be narrow (like the one I’m about to describe).
In another study, researchers showed that people often have a “no-pain, no-gain” lay theory about pharmaceutical medicine. That is, people tend to believe that bad-tasting cough medicine is more effective than good-tasting kinds. Technically speaking, taste should have no influence on the medicine’s quality, but people nonetheless hold this lay theory, meaning they may buy a gross-tasting medicine even when an equally effective (and better-tasting one) is available.
Because we have so many different lay theories, though, they can often come into conflict. For example, you may have the lay theory that “cheap means a good deal” or the lay theory that “cheap means a bad product.” And researchers find that if they’re able to make one of those lay theories more accessible (i.e., come to mind easier/quicker) then that’s the lay theory you’ll go with.
That is, depending on which of those two theories researchers were able to make accessible in a participant’s mind, it influenced how they evaluated a vacation at a discounted price. When cheapness was a good deal, people evaluated the discount vacation really positively. But, when cheapness signaled an inferior product, they evaluated the trip negatively.
LAY THEORIES ABOUT LAY THEORIES
Although lay theories can be useful for making quick decisions (i.e., lay theories can serve as mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to understand the world), they can also work against us when inappropriately applied.
And in fact, this is probably where social psychologists have their biggest challenge yet:
Convincing people that their lay theories aren’t correct.
Even without years of training, people tend to believe they’re their own “lay psychologist” who has figured out the world. So, when “actual” psychologists (i.e., those who use the scientific method to test their theories) reveal findings people’s intuition don’t agree with, it can be hard to convince them otherwise.
Fortunately, though, you have this website to help validate some of the theories you already hold and provide context to some of the ones that could use it. Can you think of a friend who could use some similar calibration of their beliefs about how the world works?
Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder: Although I outlined a number of lay theories in today’s post, can you think of any others you might have? Often times our lay theories come from common proverbs or even “sayings” we have come to adopt as true. For example, we may have the lay theory that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” (i.e., you’re stuck with the knowledge you have), or in contrast, “you can always turn over a new leaf” (i.e., people can develop and improve). In fact, these two lay theories map onto a really important lay theory known as incremental and fixed mindsets. But what other theories can you think of that you apply to your own life?
Deval, H., Mantel, S. P., Kardes, F. R., & Posavac, S. S. (2012). How naive theories drive opposing inferences from the same information. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(6), 1185-1201.
Haws, K. L., Reczek, R. W., & Sample, K. L. (2016). Healthy diets make empty wallets: The healthy= expensive intuition. Journal of Consumer Research, 43(6), 992-1007.
Kramer, T., Irmak, C., Block, L. G., & Ilyuk, V. (2012). The effect of a no-pain, no-gain lay theory on product efficacy perceptions. Marketing Letters, 23(3), 517-529.