Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I'm no expert. I'm a student - an Undergrad, at that. I'm no block-busting blogger, either. I consider that I have had a bit of modest success doing what I'm doing, but still view myself on the outskirts of the scienceblogging community.
However, being both a student and one who attempts to communicate psychology has given me the opportunity to observe what people don't know about psychology, and to observe what people think they know about psychology, but are wrong.
No doubt all fields have this. The layperson likely asks chemists if they can make bombs and drugs, may ask astronomers if we can visit other planets, or ask biologists if they can create life. Sure, it's a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it reveals ignorance. The Chemists' work may involve synthesizing organic molecules; the Astronomer spends their day examining reams of data regarding the wobbles of far off planets, and the biologist, well... Labspaces is populated with biologist - if you want the full idea.
Psychologists get asked if they can read people's minds. Yes, they're making a joke - but if their goal is to get a 30 second rundown of what psychology is, it doesn't really leave the door open.
...and the answer is yes; for a given definition of 'read' and 'mind', and will involve a machine worth more than your house and 2 years of training. And even then the dull grey-scale picture of your brain will still be subject to interpretation.
So herein I wish to address what I have observed as some of the most common misconceptions people have about psychology, about the science of psychology, and in what context you should interpret my (and other posts/press releases) on the topic of psychology.
First off - The (worst) and most common reason I hear from first-years and pre-uni folk who want to study psychology is:
I want to learn what people think / how people think.
The lay-impression that psychology is the study of what/how/why people think is inaccurate. It's kind of like a physics student claiming they want to study physics in order to understand the universe. How do you begin to answer 'What do people think', where do you start? The Brain? The Developing Child? Social Constructs? Comparative Cognition? It's too big. How would you begin to explain the Universe? These questions may be of similar magnitude.
It also has this weird ego-centric thing going for it. 'I want to learn what people think'; Not 'how I think', or 'how we think' - how people think. It kind of implies this idea of a set of rules that predicts the cognitions and behaviours of everyone, universally, except ones-self. It must be understood that these things you will learn will apply to the self as readily as to anyone else.
Finally, the question reveals this bizarre, nearly exclusive, dichotomy. The questions seem to imply an interest in Experimental Psychology - in research and hypotheses testing. However - at a guess - roughly 80% of all the first-years (and undergrads more generally) want to study Clinical Psychology. Clinical Psychology is the application of research in order to help people cope with deficits, illnesses, traumas, and/or behavioural issues. While they must indeed understand a great deal about what people think and the nature of their thoughts, my impression is that they are necessarily more focused on techniques that improve the quality and functioning of an individual’s life. These techniques do not necessarily reveal the 'whys and hows' of human cognition and behaviour. I'm open to criticisms from clinicians, here. If I've misrepresented something (which I almost necessarily have) please correct me.
There are no big effects in Psychology
This is a big one. It applies to my posts, other psych-blogs, and press releases generally.
When I write a post, something I'm excited about, I often represent it in a way that someone who understands Psychology would understand it. That is there is a certain assumed background - something that sneaks in to so many blogs. I don't define terms explicitly if I think you might know it, and in the same manner, I don't define the statistical and methodological underpinnings of a paper. As a result some of the things I say are interpreted in a way that is not accurate. This is usually my failing to clearly communicate the real-world implications/validity of a study. Recently, here, I blogged about a paper that demonstrated that under certain conditions men non-conform to impress the opposite sex, and that women conform to do the same. Now that statement alone seems clear and since I have a habit of editorializing in my headlines (to draw a bit of traffic) it can be easy to over-estimate the size of an effect.
There is no golden bullet to behaviour. It is next to impossible to say that under certain conditions a man will do x and a woman will do y, or a child will do a and an adult will do b. When the finding is expressed as 'men will do x, and women y' it means that:
The means of the different samples of a population (men and women) differ to an extent that it is unlikely to occur by chance more than 1 time in 20.
Not only does that mean that the results at a p<.05 level of significance are wrong 1 time in 20, it also suggests that the actual differences between groups is very small. This is why Psychologists use stats, powerful stats - An undergrad will spend at least one subject per semester on statistics or methods. As a rule a p<.05 is pretty good, and solid methodologies, rigorous procedures and peer-review minimise the chances of this type of error. With regards to effect sizes we use a measure called 'Cohen's d'. This is a measure of the standardized difference between two means. It can be expressed as:
[The difference between the means / pooled standard deviation] ... a score ~.5 is considered of medium strength, and is something worth finding.
When you're comparing effects that are this small it's nearly impossible to point directly at an observable example of a psychological phenomenon. This is additionally confounded by the fact that psychological phenomenon always need to be contrasted against controls. You can't point to someone and say 'Look! Conformity!' unless you can also say 'Look! That person isn't conforming, all other things held constant except a single variable!'. Additionally, there are ALWAYS exceptions - which we call variance. This is why Psychologists always test big groups - we need to control for variance (of which individual difference is one kind).
The point is, when I (or anyone) says 'men non-conform under x conditions, and women do the opposite under the same', what that means (what the implications of that statement are) is: when we do x to enough men and enough women we can't see anything. After taking careful notes on everything we could think of we found that there was a systematic difference (in scores) between the group means - even though it's likely that some members of group1 actually did the same as group2 (and vice versa). We demonstrated this using abstract mathematics which the majority of the population neither understand, nor care about. If we do this enough times, with enough different methodologies, we can say that we have learned something about human behaviour/cognition.
This is the context in which (I feel) one must interpret all statements about psychology.
All Psychology studies are confounded and unreliable because they use university students to test participants!
[This paragaph is woefully inadequate, and in places wrong. Click here for a full post on this topic. July, 2011]
That's true. The exceeding majority of results are based on populations of students and standardized onto everyone, everywhere (particularly by the media). Additionally, students tend to be WEIRD (White, Educated, from an Industrialized nation, Rich and Democratic). That looks really bad on paper, but most psychologists tend to interpret these finding in a WEIRD context. Additionally, every person I've encountered that objects to a finding because it's WEIRD are WEIRD themselves. Which leads to...
People don't like being quantified
I touched on this before. People want to know about other people. If men do x - its other men. The individual always has the sensation/intuition that they are a highly self-aware being, one who is less swayed by external (and internal) pressures than everyone else. Additionally, people don't like being quantified by people who are not like themselves. My experience is that women don't like being told by (predominantly) male scientists (or bloggers) that they do something predictable. See comments here, here, here (especially) - and that's just from my blog. When I talk about a group I don't belong too (esp. women) and especially about something personal (like sex), I cop heat. But equally, the use of a term like 'red neck' to characterize a bigot was the source of criticism too - I was accused (more or less) of belonging to a group of elite, liberal academics and displaying prejudice against the working, white, middle-class.
We each have this sense that we're so unique and complex and unpredictable that it's distasteful to suggest that we can be reduced to a point in a bell-curve. The truth is we can (with varying degrees of success, depending on the measure) and we're working on improving that resolution all the time. The second truth is people do it all the time, anyway. You categorize groups, applying stereotypes and heuristics to all the people you meet/interact with/know constantly. Try this:
Describe your country's leader in a single sentence:
Describe your mother in a single sentence:
Describe your best friend in a single sentence:
Describe your Husband/Wife/Partner, etc, in a single sentence:
Describe yourself in a single sentence:
Chances are those sentences got harder and harder to write as you went along. The less you know about someone the easier it is judge them. There's a reason for this - it's easy, and it usually works. It does 'fail' in the case of prejudice, racism, ideology, etc. But by and large it's quick, and easy, and allows us to make decisions practically.
Psychologists do the same, but they try to do it objectively. It's unfair to claim that social psychology is just 'validating stereotypes' (e.g. here) when the opposite is true. They're trying to objectively measure a reported phenomenon. Yes, there may be bias and preconceptions, but time and science will win out eventually.
The relevance to the WEIRD sample is now obvious - it seems to me that the objections are more based on repulsion to the idea than to any objective evidence that the WEIRD sample is not representative. In many ways, and in many contexts, it is not - but it is representative in so many ways as well. This is a very controversial point, I know. But to highlight - some findings are highly generalizable, such as those within neuroscience and cognition. Others, less so, such as those within Social and Cultural Psychology.
Psychology is not a science.
Well, it is. Science is the application of certain processes and methodologies. No, we can't do the equivalent of pointing to a burning ball of hydrogen floating in the sky and say 'look, a Star!', but the process of investigation is the same - as are the standards to which we are held by our peers, as our the debates regarding certain findings, as is the rigors of education.
What is being measured is not always expressed intuitively
Here's a post I just found. It talks about what people think regarding a woman's obligation to have sex with a man depending on the price paid for a dinner-date. If that blog has a readership, I can promise it will take heat. I can't claim to know what people actually think about posts like that (it's quite short and to the point), but the comments usually reveal a misunderstanding. It's not measuring obligation, or expectation - it's measuring 3rd party perspectives of obligation and expectation. Sometimes that's useful. Other times, less so.
Attitudes/Cognitions do not equal behaviour
From the article cited above:
"...but it seems to me that the difference in male and female responses has mostly to do with the price paid for the date. Yes, the women to a lesser degree feel that Kate is obliged to have sex with John when a date involves a “pricey” dinner in New York and a Broadway show. They have already shown that women feel that Kate had a greater obligation with the more expensive date..."
A third-party group of people have a consistent thought about a hypothetical individual as determined by p-values and other statistical processes. That should not be interpreted as a fact, but as a point of further enquire, worthy of greater investigation. The title of the paper is:
“You Owe Me'': Effects of Date Cost, Who Pays, Participant Gender, and Rape Myth Beliefs on Perceptions of Rape.” It was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
People may leap to the (lazy) conclusion that these are bad scientists propping up evil stereotypes - but the title suggests they're trying to contribute to the understanding of rape - likely with a view of influencing the law and justice system that deals with the problem daily. If you know a jury is going to take the cost of dinner, or the name of the restaurant, into consideration in a date-rape trial - you want to know that so you can deal with it justly. This is not evil research, its research that aims to help deal with a problem in society.
The question must be asked of so many papers - Why is this something someone thought was worth publishing? What's the end-goal? Sometimes it's not so clear.
You intuition sucks
No, really. And if you think it doesn't, it's because it helps to think that way. Not because you're right.
I've outlined most of the important reasons why this is so (I think) - which include statistics, objections to being quantified, and always being able to find an 'exception to the rule'. Your intuition isn't a fraction as rigorous as science, and is only useful in forming hypothesis, not making arguments. Confirmation Bias plays a big role here...
Confirmation Bias is not your friend
I recently made the observation that I was really good and spotting planes flying overhead. Every time I looked up I would see one glinting in the sun, popping out from behind a cloud, or leaving white streak across the sky. I revelled in my ability to expertly pick the most fleeting instant of a plane passing through a brief window of visibility.
Of course, I was wrong. I haven't seen any evidence to demonstrate I was wrong. But I am. In order to demonstrate that I was actually good at spotting planes I would need to record every instance of looking up (including time and place) and whether or not I saw a plane or not. I would then need to cross reference those results with flight plans that correspond to time and place, and predicted/expected visibility from the ground. For good measure, I'd need 20 or so people doing the same thing at roughly the same time in the same place, over an extended period of time.
The same happens to everyone all the time. My dog runs into my house every time it rains. Well, that might be so - but you can't be sure he doesn't run in when it's not raining, or that he actually gets caught in the rain sometimes. Particularly since you probably also can't remember every instance of rain over the given period, and there's a good chance you weren't present for a proportion anyway. Confirmation bias happens all the time, to everyone. Particularly in a field where people feel they have a special entitlement to an opinion...
People feel entitled to an opinion.
This one kills me. Psychologists talk about behaviour and thoughts. The layperson behaves and thinks. Thus, we are all experts regarding behaviour and cognition. Just because you have first-hand anecdotal evidence of a given phenomenon doesn't mean your n=1 observation is valid, or even useful. Particularly in light of everything I've mentioned above. This is a difficult one to digest - it suggests that the observations people have are not valuable. They are, but not scientifically. Observations, and our judgements about ourselves and others and massively relevant, important and valuable for our successful day-to-day functioning - and they work! They are not, however, evidence on which to base an argument. They may be useful for suggestion a method to disprove an argument, however; i.e. I think you're wrong because I experienced this... if I am right the following tweaks to the methodology might reveal whether I'm correct or not. That's a great way to employ our own experience in understanding a topic. Simply saying 'you're wrong, because I know this other thing to be true for me' is a massive fallacy.
Having said all this I've likely committed many fallacies and expressed many biases myself. I'll repeat - these are my impressions based on being a non-expert student and a willing science communicator. They're a mixture of things I've observed in others (and myself), of which I must remain mindful of when blogging - something I do with varying degrees of success. I do try my hardest to reference my key points, in order to support what would otherwise be opinion and anecdote. Additionally, this piece was written not to bite at those who criticise me, but to help inform (in my opinion) the context in which all psych-pop-communication ought to be interpreted.
Having said that - some things (and people) are just wrong, and I'm not above making a huge mistake every now and then myself. All in all, I hope I've put myself (and other psych communication) in a slightly different frame of reference, one which is hopefully the richer for it.
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"We each have this sense that we're so unique and complex and unpredictable that it's distasteful to suggest that we can be reduced to a point in a bell-curve."
Uhm, sure. Which is why you have so many men complaining about how you are characterizing men and so many rich people complaining about how you are characterizing rich people. Oh, wait? You never saw that? You only saw cases where people felt like you were being distasteful by reducing an *already marginalized and stereotyped group* to a point in a bell-curve? And that just so happened that you were doing so as part of a group that historically operates with more privilege and power?
Go take some women's studies, or African American studies classes. Go study power and privilege. Go educate yourself outside of psychology. Because right now, you aren't informing people about psychology effectively, because you are too ignorant of the societal context in which your own thinking occurs.
I kind of hate to break it to you, but you don't take heat because you deal with controversial subjects like sex (if I were being snarky, I'd say controversial subjects is how you get any comments, positive or negative, at all). You don't even take heat because you prop up stereotypes. You take heat because you do not exhibit any critical thinking. You are going to have to stop pretending that it is about the former things instead of the later and actually stop composing in your mind all the reasons I'm wrong and instead try to see why you seem so completely incapable of shifting your perspective if you want to EITHER improve your analyitical thinking OR actually communicate psychology better.
When someone disagrees with you, you need to try to understand why that might be. And if the best you can come up with is "they don't understand my beloved subject!!!!", you probably need to keep thinking.
Yeah, you know, I accept most of that. I have been wrestling with how I critically present many things lately. That is one reason (among a few) that I've been posting less.
Although I must argue that in some cases the criticisms were off topic - I spoke of women watching porn (or rather, being expose to porn) and I was called a mysogonist. I don't see the connection - I finding was made regarding a behaviour after a stimulus, and it was described.
And with the 'redneck' comment, I was accussed of being implicitly anti white working-class when there was an example of a man who was being explicitly racist (even though it wasn't particularly extreme).
I take your comment about taking a Women's Studies or African American studies one that implies that the act of tacitly supporting a position that is counter to a just cause is itself a prejudice. I would agree this to be the case - although I try to avoid that. I would welcome a clear cut example of me doing so - and I would apologise publicly if that was the case. That's not the person I think I am, nor the person I want to be.
With humility (on my part) I ask you to demonstrate that I have been prejudiced, or grossly uncritical. Genuinely. That's not something I want associated with my name.
On a side note I wrote this not to claim my superiority over others (or any such thing) but as a way of framing my own approach to such things. My really don't want it to be seen as some castle of unfalsifiability (which I am aware it might just be) - and as a result I intend to apply it to a few press releases over the coming week(s) to refine, modify or scrap elements of it.
So here's the thing- I don't think all the criticism you attracted was on topic. Which is why it's not very logical to bring it up in the context of 'people don't understand psychology'. It can be hard, but it's important to differentiate 'people don't understand me' from 'people don't understand my discipline'.
My comment on taking a Women's Studies or African American studies class is not because I think we need to 'prescribe' these intellectual 'medicines' to those who are sick with a disease of prejudice (except inasmuch as we all have biases and ideally a course in this sort of discipline should be a positive experience for nearly anyone).... Actually, if I thought you were a bigot, you'd be such a pill to have in those classes I wouldn't suggest it.
Instead, it just seems like you seem to lack a certain appreciation for how different frames of reference can be used to understand the broader societal context that your studies occur in. Or do you really not care *why* you get all this 'off topic' criticism in these consistent ways?
This is a killer post. Well-done. You hit several of my particular pet-peeves spot on. I would make two small changes: (1) Psychologists don't always need to study large samples to avoid certain problems, but they do need to have many data points. There are fantastic studies conducted and published with only n=10 per condition, if each participant completes, for example, 500 trials of a task. (2) While many studies are conducted using convenience samples, many (many many many) other studies are conducted with infants, children, elderly, other cultures, isolated tribes, and all sorts of different animal species. Often a study of a WEIRD population is a good starting point for investigating a particular problem, before then going on and collecting data from the harder-to-study populations.
I'll add one more misconception: evolutionary psychologists just tell "just-so stories." My new response to that assertion is: "your just-so story is my testable hypothesis."
@becca - valid point - I'll be more mindful of 'me vs discipline'. As for the me caring about off-topic criticisms, I guess I have a few thoughts.
First, your first comment did make me realize that I have been a little seduced by controversy. It's easy, but cheap. And in many ways the less you critically present it, the more controversy it generates. There are a lot of bloggers (and reporters) who do this and then just stand back and say 'just reporting the facts'. Well, that's not what I want to be, nor what I intended to do.
Second, off topic criticim might be valid, but it often comes across so poorly articulated and aggressive it's difficult to pull out the point from the vitriol. Which I was I returned to your comment with what I hoped was humility. While you did come off aggressive, you actually made a point I could understand. So thank you, it will actually shape how I continue to post.
@Jason - Thanks. I actually sat on this post for some time considering the implications of publishing it. I'm glad you agree that I hit some key points and not just built myself into a cardboard castle. I'll let it stay as-is for a while before editing it to include your points, in the hopes that more people come along and add further points/criticisms.
A lot of epidemiology control groups are WEIRD too. Students are a good source of easy to access blood.
Being a men (but not a WEIRD one, whatever with having being born in a third world country, having had parasites and scabies and all that, so you can say you have met at least one person that complains about the WEIRD ones without having being born one!), I can see becca's point better because (shamefully) I have done it myself.
I remember complaining that it was unfair to men that we are always depicted in TV/movies as the idiot ones, the irrational ones. Yeah, think about it, when was the last time that the wife of your favorite TV sitcom was not clearly the intelectual superior to her protagonist husband?.
Then while reading a feminist blog (oh, the horror!, my macho membership card has just being revoked) I read an article that changed completely my point of view. In it, the author exposed the idea that this happens because it is so much more AWESOME (in our culture) to be a man, that it doesn't matter that you are an idiot, a bigot, a racist, have no talent, are lazy or any of the other peculiarities that the MALE protagonists tend to have...because just the fact that you are a man makes you better!(at least in the minds of the TV sitcom writers!). Yeah, you can be/do all those things to your male protagonist, and people will still like them, and look up to them BECAUSE THEY ARE MALE. That gives them a social position that is superior to their super smart, fit, clearly overly educated and well balanced wifes. They have to make the female characters otherworldy positive just so they can stand on the same level as their male counterpart.
That point of view just blew my mind. And I realized that you CAN'T see the biases of your own group, as much as you may try. That is why you have to go outside of it to really measure the real effect. And saying that the psychologist are just measuring "reality", that they are just "observing" what is "really" happening is very naive (from the history of science point of view).
One neat example of this comes (obviously) from comedy, from the old series "Yes, Prime Minister" where he shows clearly that by just changing the questions you can change the opinion/reaction that a person has to something (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gMcZic1d4U. The other example that I loved was a parody of the song "F*ck you" from Cee-lo, from the female point of view, where it shows that the song clearly has a male centric point of view, and that the female could have a perfect reason to do what she did and with Cee-lo song you assume that it was HER fault. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwR_jZPMe6g )
I do agree with some of your points, mainly that we think that we are special unique snowflakes (just like everybody else), but also want to point that we all have our preconceptions.
Even becca, when she assumes that you haven't had a women/african american course or studied the prejudice/power just because of your arguments .
I think you are still denying that you associated racism with working class whites by using "red neck" as a label. You never answered my question of whether a Chinese racist would be a "red neck". I doubt it. And since it was mild and extremely common (i.e. human) "racism" you could say he was just more open than a more savvy, "educated" person would have been while talking to a stranger. Finally, you refused to acknowledge the ugly history of the word itself. As I remember, a great deal of the post was about "red neck" ignorance of science in particular, even though he didn't sound more confused than the average layperson, and the connection to racism was not exactly clear. Would an ignorant black person be a "red neck" then?
And as far as the psychology content of the post, you refused to look at how labeling him with a pejorative term put you automatically in a superior light. Doing so made you seem openly biased (as if you were not even trying to be unbiased in your assessment, that you were giving your own prejudices free rein) and less than compassionate in your criticism.