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Psychological Research – Everyone is a Critic!!!

Allow me to bring you into the world of most fledgling psychology students.
 
  It is a time of life when you are trying to explain your new knowledge and experiences to people who had never really thought about the scientific study of human behavior. Time and time again, you will tell them about how certain factors influence certain behaviors, but many people tend to argue about it. Is it because they also obtained a degree in the social sciences, or perhaps authored some new and interesting research? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but why do we think we know more than experts in so many cases? Let’s take a look.
 Frank the psychology major is talking with his business major friend, Billy.
 
Frank says, “Billy, did you know that your clothing affects your behavior? When a company has a more casual dress code, the workers are less productive.”
 
Billy replies, “Oh, Bro, whatever. I work hard no matter what. My cloths don’t change my behavior.” Then Frank decided to change the subject to something else.
 
Frank says, “we talked about another interesting effect in class where thirty-three people witnessed a woman getting stabbed in an alley in New York. Apparently all the witnesses were in apartments overlooking this alleyway and all of them assumed someone else had already phoned the police. The researchers called this the bystander effect.”
 
“Oh bro, I would have called. I don’t just let stuff like that happen,” says the friend. “Well that’s the thing. There is a formula the researchers have devised for group size and likelihood to take action. Research suggests when the group size is around eight, there is less than a 10~20% chance that any person will take action. However, when you are alone and someone needs help, there is an 80% chance that you would take action,” says Frank.
 
 “No way man! Just like my uncle Jerry back in Houston. He was in a crowded bus one afternoon when someone started to choke; I remember because I was with him. He walked over and immediately gave the person the Heimlich maneuver. No one even needed to ask him to help, he just acted immediately,” said the friend.
 
What the friend neglected to mention was that his relative, Uncle Jerry, was a training Emergency Medical Technician. But let’s take a look at these statements. Why are these statements made, and why are people so resistant to understand human behavior?
 
 Personal experiences and egos! – when you tell someone anything they are more likely to go with ideas that validate their personal experiences and beliefs. This is for a few reasons, but for those of you who frequent this blog, you probably already know the answer – dissonance reduction. When new information fails to match with your previous experiences, it creates dissonance. Further, when your knowledge is derived from personal experience, it is much more salient. Salience is a term that pops up every now and then that I want to just take a moment to define. When something is salient, it means the idea comes to mind with ease. So the most salient thing about the Olympics would be sports, grand ceremonies, and medals. For someone living in London during the 2012 Olympics, the most salient thing for them may be bad traffic and huge crowds. Salience does not mean something is correct, it just reflects your personal experience and priming in a given situation.
 
As for one’s ego, we often believe ourselves to be the eternal exception to every rule. Everyone is rather prone to this, even psychologists! A sample of psychologists were recruited who specialized in addictive behaviors.  The average rate of relapse for people in conseling for alcohol abuse is about 20% (I’m not certain of this figure, so do not quote me on that!!!). The psychologists were asked to say how many of their patients would relapse, and these psychologists were all fairly certain that one of their patients, at most, may relapse (around 5% of their patients). After following up with them a year or so later, they found that on average, there was a 20% relapse rate. Just to be clear, relapse without counseling is much higher.
 
So what’s the point of this relapse example? Well these psychologists all believe that THEIR patients are exceptions to the rules because they are such good counselors. Literally everyone, including those of us educated in human behavior, will tend to think that they are the exception to the rule. Granted, these were clinical psychologists, not social psychologists. Obviously social psychologists would never make such silly mistakes (especially not me!!!!). Okay, okay, I guess we do make the same mistakes too…
 Earlier, Billy argued that his clothing did not affect his behavior. Needless to say we know it does. This isn’t an opinion but scientific fact. Just read about the Standford Prison Study by Zimbardo for more evidence to the fact. Some people seem a bit ambivalent about the science of human behavior, but let’s just make a few things clear.
 
Psychology proves things by…
 
The scientific method – this helps us discern which theories are logically valid and sound. It helps guide the research process. What makes a study of any subject a science? The method of course! I know you all have all heard about the scientific method since grade school. There is nothing new about it I could possibly tell you. I just want to say loud and clear that the scientific method is simply philosophy in action. The goal of this method is to create results that can be support and more importantly, replicated.
 Statistical analysis – The scientific method gives us the guidelines for constructing a valid and sound argument. Statistical analysis gives us a method to mathematically validate these findings. For most effects in psychology. we use the 95% cut-off. In a procedure like a t-test, we only say our study supports a theory if we hit this cut-off. This means we are 95% certain that the observed effect was due to our method. Clearly this means there was a 5% chance of error. If we could perfectly control all environments we could potentially remove this error rate, but imagine trying to control genetic variability within humans. You’d be raising them in cages to ensure they had the same environment and genetically engineering them. Let’s avoid unethical practices and cope with variability! 
 
Peer review – This ensures methodology was appropriate. This includes random sampling, controls to ensure the independent variable was the only thing affecting the dependent variable, justification for your design, and historical evidence to support the claim. If other psychologists do not think your design was strong enough to truly test your theory, they will not allow it to be published. Further, a scientist from outside your discipline also reviews your work. So if they feel your statistical methods were not good enough for their standards then they might reject the paper.
 
Even with these guidelines and safeguards, we have to keep in mind that theories are rarely proven in any science. When a study “supports” a theory, it simply means it attempted to disprove it, but failed. This is good news for a theory, but why is falsifiability important?
 
Let’s imagine someone creates two theories for how we choose what we will eat for breakfast. The first theory looks at genetic predisposition for early morning calorie intake, behavioral history of eating breakfast, and what foods I had the previous day. We can easily test this theory by having groups keep food diaries to track their eating behaviors, take some samples for genetic testing, etc. The second theory posits that one’s hunger is derived from little demons that are invisible and live in your belly. They are only happy when you eat too much, so they try to get you to have awful foods in the morning when you are too sleepy to think straight. These demons are actually unable to be seen, heard, or otherwise tracked with any technology. This theory is impossible to test, thus it lacks falsifiability. Why would lacking falsifiability be a problem?
 
If a situation cannot be created where a theory can be supported or disproven, then it cannot be used to predict anything. So it could be true that ethereal demons live in our bellies controlling our hunger, but it’s a poor theory. Perhaps one day our technology will be strong enough to find the little buggers, but for now let’s resist the urge to believe nonsense. With the genetic based test, we could create a situation to disprove the theory. I find what I suspect to be the gene for wanting toast. I create the hypothesis that all people with the gene will have toast for breakfast if they have bread to make it, and a toaster. I run the study and look at my results. It appears that 50% of all people ate toast, regardless of the presence of the gene. Darn the luck! It appears that the gene I had predicted had no effect! It was a testable theory, therefore a stronger theory than invisble hunger demons. That does not make it correct, as we just saw!
 
 What we need to understand is that most real psychological theories are based on peer reviewed research. For it to become published, it must go through falsifiable testing, be supported by strong research design, and validated by statistical analysis. Every now and then something slips through the cracks that was way off base, but given the competitive nature of reserchers, poor theories get torn to bits! When we use statistics, however, strange results do pop up now and then. Replication is key to prevent this from getting out of hand.
 
So when you hear about a new psychological research study, just keep in mind a lot of work had to be done to make these conclusions. Do not be like Billy when you hear about it either!
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