Invisibility: The Heart of (Social) Science, The Hiding Hand

Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of marginalized groups, questions about the unseen drive research.

The latest issue of Social Research, edited at The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship and published through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University Press, engages in a multi-disciplinary examination of what makes the concept of invisibility so enduringly compelling. To complement the issue, CPS hosted a two-day conference at The New School as part of the Nth Degree Series. The event invited issue contributors to join scholars, writers, and even an illusionist, to think together about invisibility.

On the conference’s opening night, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and writer Marina Warner hosted a keynote conversation. Prior to their event, The New School’s Stephanie Leone had a chance to talk with Greene, who suggested that getting comfortable with the concept invisibility is essential for scientists. “Invisibility is in many ways at the heart of what science is about,” he said. “We try to look out into the world and illuminate the things that you can’t see with the naked eye.” Whether investigating the composition of matter or the forces that hold together the universe, science has the tricky task of staring at the invisible and trying to give an account for the unseen.

The issue of Social Research makes a compelling case that the invisible similarly lays at the heart of questions in the social sciences and humanities. It does so by showcasing richly diverse research and disciplinary perspectives on the invisible. In its opening essay, Arien Mack—the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research—introduces the concept of “perceptual invisibility,” which arises as an effect of cognitive processes. “Perceptual invisibility entails a failure to see what is before our open eyes,” Mack writes, “and is a partner to seeing what is not there or seeing more than is actually there to be seen.”

Mack’s essay provides several examples that demonstrate gaps between the eye’s ability to take in visual information and the mind’s ability to process it cognitively. A standout experiment is the now-famous “invisible gorilla” video. Viewers watch a video clip and are asked to perform a complex counting task. Partway through the clip, a person in a gorilla costume dances across the frame.

As Mack explains, “Approximately half the viewers who do not know anything about this video prior to doing the task fail to see the gorilla even though eye movement records show that they may have been looking directly at it.” The experiment demonstrates the power of what Mack has called inattentional blindness. When the brain focuses on an assigned task, even the most glaringly visible of objects can disappear from perception. The mind’s capacity to filter information renders invisible what would otherwise be obvious to individuals.

But what about instances in which invisibility is precisely the desired end? What happens when it is individuals themselves who want to disappear? To address these questions, one can turn to some of the world’s longest-standing mythological traditions. As the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger explains, stories featuring characters that seek the ability to vanish are almost as old as literature itself.

Brimstone butterfly camouflaged as a leaf. Photograph by Steve Childs.

“Being invisible is one of the great human fantasies,” said Doniger, a Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at UChicago’s Divinity School. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that stories about invisibility have a long and complicated history.

In a conversation about her essay for Social Research, Doniger pointed out that the trope of invisibility appears again and again across cultures. By examining a range of traditions, it becomes possible to identify variations and similarities in representations of invisibility’s uses and misuses.

Doniger first described the Western tradition of invisibility, beginning with Plato and ending with Claude Reins’s The Invisible Man. She suggested that in the context of this tradition, “People who make themselves invisible are doing it to become powerful and often to do evil.” Speaking generally, she added that the Western tradition is one in which “the fantasy of invisibility is one of power.”

But one of Doniger’s central assertions in the essay is that the portrayal of invisibility as a source of power is not universal. She emphasized that, in the Sanskrit tradition, invisibility often becomes a way for women to avoid the power and predation of men. Female characters wear masks, create doubles of themselves, and find other ways to use invisibility as a means to escape harm.

“Invisibility has different uses for different genders,” Doniger said, “it’s about power for men and it’s about the evasion of power for women.” In this account, which depends upon the weaving together of multiple cultural perspectives, a subtler and more varied picture of invisibility expands our understanding of the role it plays in the history of literature.

Invisibility’s importance in the area of mythology is matched by its importance in the realm of public policy. In several familiar cases, invisible laws and structures become the building blocks of entire ways of thinking. Laws of unintended consequences formulated equally by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, or notions of divine providence that preceded those laws, emerged from attempts to grapple with and understand invisible forces. Viewed from this perspective, the social sciences attempt to make visible the abstract forces that hold society together in order to observe, measure, and manipulate them.

As Social Research contributor and the Harvard University Law School Professor Cass Sunstein put it, “It’s intriguing to think that many social practices are product of human interaction, but not human design.” In Social Research, Sunstein joins with Oxford University Said Business School’s Bent Flyvbjerg to reflect on one proposed invisible but felt forced: the hiding hand.

Initially proposed by economist Albert Hirschman, the notion of the hiding hand is based on the idea that when individuals plan large projects in advance, they have a tendency to underestimate the amount of difficulties and uncertainty involved. As a result, planners tend to be overly optimistic in their appraisals of cost and time. Hirschman’s idea is that there is an observable countertendency to this optimism: a hidden reservoir of spontaneous creativity that helps us overcome our overconfidence and resolve complications as they emerge.

As Sunstein explained via email, “The hiding hand idea is that people don’t see obstacles to the success of plans, and so they go forward, but they also don’t see their own creativity, which can overcome those obstacles.” For this reason, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg describe the hiding hand—as Hirschman’s renders it—as the benevolent hiding hand.

This hypothesis is quite different from previous conceptions of an imperceptible order quietly orchestrating society’s affairs, but it has a providential assurance that somehow, in the end, the best laid plans will turn out fine. Sunstein and Flyvbjerg’s article challenges this assertion.

This, they argue, is a matter of statistics and rules of inference. Hirschman’s proposal was based on a very small sample size, and as the authors explain, “he was in no position to establish whether this belief could be empirically substantiated.” Such a precarious method is very significant when it comes to forming and appraising estimates and proposals for large, expensive projects.

In their analysis of Hirschmann’s work, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg find little to corroborate his original hypothesis. In fact, they found compelling evidence of a contrary force: a malevolent hiding hand. “Thus the benevolent hiding hand, which is Hirschman’s topic, has an evil twin, the malevolent hiding hand, which also hides obstacles and difficulties, but in situations in which creativity does not emerge, or emerges too late, or cannot possibly save the day.”

Planners activate the malevolent hiding hand by “deliberately underestimat[ing] difficulties/costs and overestimate creativity/benefits.” In other words, they cook the books to the detriment of competing project proposals, often in order to secure funding. In doing so, they are counting on as-yet-unseen twists of good fortune to deliver them to desired outcomes.

As Sunstein and Flyvbjerg write in their conclusion, “The theoretical implications of our findings are clear. The idea of a benevolent hiding hand is a special case, and as an effort to capture reality it is misleading or even a distraction. The malevolent hiding hand is pervasive, and it is a case of the planning fallacy writ large.”

Yet Sunstein and Flyvbjerg remain optimistic: “This does not prove the uselessness of cost-benefit analysis as such […] The task is to improve it, not to abandon it.” Improvement involves making the invisible visible, by making forecasters and planners accountable when projects fail to meet the estimates that justified their funding, but also by subjecting estimates in general to external scrutiny before allocating funds.

Across disciplines, the essays in Social Research demonstrate the importance of engaging with comparative ideas about invisibility—not just to understand societies, but also to improve them.

The Center for Public Scholarship publishes two issues of Social Research each year. Please see the CPS website for other events, initiatives, and programs. Information about past and upcoming Nth Degree Series events at The New School is available at the series’ homepage.

What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.

Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.

It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.

Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.

In Wagner-Pacifici’s account, we perceive events as breaks in what otherwise seems like the unremarkable continuity of everyday life, or what Wagner-Pacifici refers to as ground. “In order to better understand what makes a rupture feel so disorienting and disquieting, you have to understand how it is we navigate the everyday world that we consider the uneventful world.” Events become eventful when we perceive that they “emerge” from or “rupture” the ground we are used to navigating.

Wagner-Pacifici describes specific events, not just to examine individual ruptures and their respective effects on specific societies; rather, she mobilizes them as cases that help to articulate how the construction of events might be understood more generally. At the heart of this argument lies the assertion that events only exist in the forms of their representation. “Forms matter,” Wagner-Pacifici says, “In fact, they are the matter of events. [Events] don’t live anywhere else.” To put it differently, events exist in the ways that they are mediated: by news reports, paintings, novels and films, legal decisions, the creation of new categories of “enemy combatants,” social media feeds, and memorials.

What is an Event? makes a specific intervention when it comes to this last form: the case of memorials. Wagner-Pacifici argues that memorialization plays a central role in the creation of events. “A monument is about cauterizing the event,” she says. To erect a monument typically marks an effort to collectivize memory and suggest separateness from the event itself. But Wagner-Pacifici offers an alternate interpretation, suggesting “the memorial is as much a part of the event as anything that happened.” Memorials become, in her account, an essential form in the creation of an event. Viewed this way, the building of a 9/11 memorial or the decision to locate an Islamic Community Center near “Ground Zero” has as much to do with the event as the hijacking of planes and the destruction of buildings.

If events like the Great Recession seem trickier to define, Wagner-Pacifici points to the difficulty of pinpointing when events actually occur. “How do we know when we’ve reached that threshold?” she asks, “when it’s no longer just daily oscillations or some probabilistic series, but rather something that has taken form and launched itself as an event?” In her estimation, The Great Recession frustrates those trying to analyze it, partly because of its resistance to formalization, its failure to cohere, and the extent to which the forms and factors that caused it remain in place. “Millions of people lost their homes, their retirement savings,” Wagner-Pacifici grants, “but it was a non-event in a way […] Wall Street continues unabated, banks continue unabated, the accretion of finance in the hand of a few continues.” One interpretation of the Great Recession suggests that the elusiveness of substantive policy responses represents one outgrowth of the “abandonment of an attempt to concentrate that event into some kind of centralizing image.”

In this, Wagner-Pacifici drives home again the importance of understanding aesthetic depictions of events, and she regularly turns to the analysis of images to help build her structure for thinking through events. “It’s really important to do as adequate a job at analyzing images and symbols as it is to analyze discourse and textual materials,” she says. “That’s why, in trying to find various angles into events, I’m also trying to illuminate events through their pictorial apparitions.”

The integration of such humanistic readings into a sociological study marks one more way in which Wagner-Pacifici’s book opens up to diverse forms of interpretation. Running throughout the book is her assertion that our “blunt instrument of a vocabulary of cause and effects is not good enough, not sophisticated enough.” What is an Event? represents an attempt to build a more nuanced lexicon that helps us understand that no event is final, or should remain uncontested. With respect to the forms that comprise a single event, we may return to a sense of what Wagner-Pacifici calls “unremarkability” or “quiescence,” but any event “can always be resurrected.”

If an event is any one thing, then, it is always evolving.

Anwar Shaikh publishes an important economic analysis of modern capitalism

Whether for academic work or a personal pursuit, those who are interested in capitalism may want to add a new book to the shelf: Capitalism: Competition, Conflict and Crisis by Anwar Shaikh, Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research.

Earlier this semester, NSSR and the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) held a book launch to celebrate Oxford University Press’s publication of Shaikh’s magnum opus. Speaking to a crowd, Shaikh thanked everyone who inspired him and helped him successfully complete the project.

“In teaching, we try to influence others and, of course, we ourselves are influenced by our teachers,” Shaikh said.

Shaikh started the book 25 years ago, and “as my ideas evolved, I realized I wanted to talk not about what Ricardo had said, and Smith had said, and Marx had said.” For Shaikh, the questions that he wanted to answer had become about capitalism itself, and “not the genealogy of the ideas.” Shaikh became more interested in the actual patterns of capitalism over time, and decided to abandon the manuscript he had been working on for ten years to begin anew.

Shaikh shared that “competition and conflict are intrinsic features of capitalist societies, inequality is persistent, and booms and busts are recurrent patterns throughout capitalist history. And when we talk about the state, we see that the state intervenes to modify these patterns, but it does not abolish them.” Shaikh explained that the book diverges both from orthodox economics and the dominant elements of heterodox economics, because “there is no reference… to any idealized framework as a foundation, rooted in perfect firms, perfect individuals, perfect knowledge, perfectly selfish behavior, rational expectations, and optimal outcomes.”

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NSSR psychologists publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Two different studies from Department of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) earlier this year. The first, by post-doctoral fellow and Eugene Lang College alumnus Steven Frenda, illustrates the impact of sleep deprivation in interrogations of suspects. The second, by associate professor Jeremy Ginges, and post-doctoral fellow Hammad Sheikh, examines the connection between religious belief and intergroup relations.

Sleep Deprivation and False Confessions

Frenda is the lead author of Sleep deprivation and false confessions (PNAS, 2016), which finds that sleep-deprived people are far more likely to sign false confessions than those who are rested. Past research has already pointed to sleep deprivation interfering with people’s ability to think clearly, plan actions, and anticipate risk. With this in mind, Frenda believes that “innocent suspects, in particular, really need these skills and abilities intact in order to navigate a stressful interrogation in a way that protects their interests.” This study, according to Frenda, now gives direct evidence to demonstrate the role that sleep deprivation plays in the outcome of intense interrogation.

As the lead investigator, Frenda adapted a procedure that other researchers have used to study false confessions in a laboratory setting: observing participants’ completion of a series of computer tasks. In this case, participants were warned that pressing the Escape key on the keyboard would result in data loss. The following day, researchers asked the participants to sign statements falsely accusing them of having pressed the Escape key. After the first request, 18% of the rested participants and 50% of the sleep deprived participants agreed to sign the statement. After both requests, 39% of the rested participants and 68% of the sleep-deprived participants had signed.

Two short measures included in the study significantly predicted the likelihood of signing the statement: one was a simple self-report measure of sleepiness, and the other was a measure of impulsive decision-making. Frenda says that one implication of this finding is that in real-life scenarios, it may be possible to identify people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation.

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Anthropology Publications: 2015

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology shared thoughts about their recent work.

Nicolas Langlitz

Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, recently published the article “On a not so chance encounter of neurophilosophy and science studies in a sleep laboratory” (History of the Human Sciences, 2015) and “Vatted Dreams: neurophilosophy and the politics of phenomenal internalism” (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2015).

Langlitz shared thoughts about this recent work:

“While anthropologists have long been interested in cultural otherness, we often seem to feel closer to an Amerindian shaman than to the reductionist philosopher down the corridor. This led me to take an ethnographic interest in neurophilosophers and to explore the common ground between anthropologists of science and empirically oriented philosophers of mind who have both been  frequenting brain research facilities since the 1970s without ever talking to each other.”

Other publications include Neuropsychedelia (University of California Press, 2012), and Die Zeit der Psychoanalyse (Suhrkamp, 2005).

Choose a publication below to learn more.


Bio | Langlitz received doctoral degrees both in medical anthropology (Berkeley) and history of medicine (Berlin). He is an anthropologist and historian of science studying epistemic cultures of mind and life sciences, especially neuroscience, psychopharmacology, and primatology. He was trained as a physician before conducting ethnographic fieldwork in two neuropsychopharmacology laboratories in Switzerland and California on the revival of psychedelic research since the 1990s.


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