Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why a randomer could NOT have told you that

(The title is a play on Susie Hodge's book on visual art, "Why your five year old could not have done that")

As someone who studies psychology, few things grind my gears like someone pointing out that the latest psychological findings are something that their grandmother could have told them. Regardless of how much psychological insight their own grandmothers may have, there are always some people willing to tell you that you are wasting public or private funds on investigating a question to which people have known the answer for generations.

If someone says they are a quantum physicist or a brain surgeon, most people who do not share the profession would be hesitant to try and opine on quantum physics or brain surgery. Regardless of what you do in life, however, it is likely that your mind is geared to some extent towards developing theories about the thoughts of others around you. You see two managers in work who employ very different management styles, and you come up with hypotheses as to why each manager chose that style, as well as which style works best with which employee. You are spending a few weeks studying for exams, so you test which learning strategies work best to help you memorise as much information as you can.

..and people have been doing this since before there was a discipline called psychology. So of course, when you see a news report on a new finding from a psychological study, it chimes with something you heard from someone else, who was really just speaking from good old-fashioned experience and a bit of introspection. When you remember what that person said, it may feel that what you’re hearing is not really news at all.

So why bother doing psychological research? Here’s a couple of quick reasons why…

At a basic level, empirical psychology can be used to quantify the extent of phenomena we may already be aware of. The fact that people were willing to comply with Milgram’s commands to administer high electric shocks to strangers may chime with people’s intuitions, but the rate of compliance was considerably higher than predicted. We all know that staying awake all night is generally not good for reaching optimal performance, but is it enough to make junior doctors perform worse at the level of basic attention? This is an empirical question.

But we can go further in saying that psychological research can often demonstrate the direction of an effect (i.e. whether x increases or decreases y), where everyday theorising would fail. Why? It’s worth bearing in mind that intuition can come up with two opposing predictions that both make sense at an a priori level.  What effect does stress have on cognition? Well, it’s distracting, so it should have a negative effect on how you think. No wait, it’s motivating, so it should have a positive effect. But when people see a report that confirms one, they may only think of the intuition that chimed with the observed effect, thereby making seem that the researchers were just stating the obvious.

Even when armchair psychology is prone to predicting an effect in a particular direction, the research may contradict this. A while back BPS digest published an interesting post concerning counter-intuitive findings in psychology. Check it out!

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