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It’s Driving Me Crazy

Paul M. Muchinsky
University of North Carolina-Greensboro

(Fan mail may be sent to pmmuchin@uncg.edu)

I give you fair warning. This column is another of my rants about word usage. If you would rather read something more soothing in TIP, I highly recommend the Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation (Nershi, 2012).

I have been a good sport long enough. I sat back silently and allowed two words to be used with impunity in I-O psychology. They are “leverage” and “strategic.” They are so hip, so savvy, and so important sounding. Unfortunately, they are now so ingrained in I-O language that it is pointless for me to call them out for being what they are–—verbal puffery. But I draw the line at giving a pass to the latest wannabe to this elite club of linguistic fetidness: “drive” (and its derivatives, “driving” and “driven”). Furthermore, both the science and practice sides of our house are members of this love triangle.

First, the science half. Our scientific journals make no bones about it: They want “theory-driven” research. Some theory, a theory, any theory will do. Without a theory, the findings aren’t worth reporting. Our journal editors should instruct news editors on this matter. Every day the media reports on events that are not theory driven. Our local newspapers report things like plant closings, car accidents, charitable events, marriages, and deaths. CNN has a particular fascination with theoryless national and world events. By I-O standards, such efforts are merely the misguided reporting of dustbowl empiricism.

You might be thinking I am confusing what constitutes news with research findings. Tell that to reporters who are trained in methods of investigative research in journalism. And I do recall there are two approaches to theory: inductive and deductive. The inductive approach begins with empirical findings that are then woven together to create a meaningful interpretation. Apparently inductive theorizing is now passé and is interpreted as hindsight. Hindsight is shirt-sleeve English for postdiction, and postdiction isn’t as sexy as prediction. Unfortunately prediction is also less accurate. So let’s cut to the chase. I-O psychology not only worships exclusively at the altar of theory-driven research but deductive theory-driven research.

Now I direct my attention to the practitioners. Their love is for theory’s sibling, data. Organizations should be managed by data-driven practices, not stuffy scientific theories that are a paradigm a dozen. Data-driven, evidence-based, just the facts. It sounds so butch. So what’s wrong with driving decisions on the basis of data? Nothing, except you can always find some data to legitimate any position (excuse me, drive any action). By selectively culling the data that support the position you already hold, you create the illusion of taking the intellectual high road. That is, until someone else wants to drive in the opposite direction based on a different set of data. The scientists have a name for this phenomenon: experimenter bias. So the scientists are in love with theory driven, and the practitioners are in love with data driven. Not even Evel Knievel could drive his rocket motorcycle over this scientist–practitioner gap.

In the past 50 years there have been more theories of weight loss (i.e., dieting) than all the theories within I-O psychology combined. Furthermore, these diets make polar opposite prescriptions about weight loss. One says eat only this, another says never eat this, another says eat whatever you want but limit your portions etc., etc. Every theory of weight loss is supported by some data and not supported by other data. Weight loss research is subsidized by more funding than anything we study in I-O psychology. Every year there are new theories of weight loss, and every year we keep getting more obese. Across all the conflicting theories of weight loss, researchers can only agree on one issue: the importance of eating a balanced diet. Hell, our grandmothers told us that years ago, and they didn’t receive a billion dollars in research funding and they weren’t graduates of the I-O Driving School.

At least diet research uses the experimental method to make statements about driving weight loss. To drive something means to cause it to occur. In I-O psychology we use the correlational research method. You know what they say about correlation and causality, so isn’t “correlational data-driven” an oxymoron? Furthermore, correlational is so passive sounding. I don’t think Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman would have packed the theaters if the name of their movie was Correlating Miss Daisy. To me such a title sounds somewhat prurient or off-color. And I am told I know a thing or two about off-color words.

If you think I am coming across as holier than thou about this driving thing, I am not. In fact, I may be worse. I live on Cardinal Downs Drive. When I played golf I was better with a driver than a putter. I like the taste of a screwdriver, and when sufficiently motivated (i.e., driven), I’m fairly skilled in using one (provided it comes with a set of instructions). I also fully recognize the importance of drivers of economic prosperity. In my state of North Carolina there are two of them, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, legends of NASCAR. My students occasionally drive me to distraction, but I have never been charged with reckless driving.  Hmmm, I bet we could have some fun if we combined “reckless driving” with “theory driven” and “data driven.”

I hope this column drives strategic leverage. Wow, it feels so good to say that. Too bad it doesn’t mean anything.


Nershi, D. A. (2012). Statement of ownership, management, and circulation. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 49(3), 155.