Tuesday 13 August 2013

Three mild suggestions for psychology


Is Psychology a science? It tries to be. It can certainly go through the motions of empirical enquiry, and good work abounds: well-thought out studies, interesting hypotheses and an accumulation of valuable results. Sure, there is a long tail end of not-so-good publications, but that is to be expected in any discipline.

Are there some things we ought to do better? Here are three suggestions:

1 Agree upon some basic measures. It would be alarming in any other discipline if, after a century of enquiry, we still had no agreement about what psychological measures we should apply as a matter of course. I am not talking about basic demographics on people, which any organisation collects, but the agreed basics of psychological description. How about an agreed brief measure of personality and an agreed brief measure of intelligence? What else? Simple reaction times? We ought to be able to specify what sort of people we are studying in terms of psychological characteristics. We can then show some psychological linkage between different studies.

2 Agree to pay attention to previous research, and relevant research in related fields. Psychology has an alarming tendency to ignore previous work, particularly when terminology changes, which is frequently. It often also ignores problems with measuring techniques, as if it were optional to attend to these matters. Few psychology researchers want to stop their work so as to repair instruments and recalibrate them properly. The experimentalists are much better at this than clinicians, but the former tend to have the smaller and less representative samples. They are interested in effects between difference conditions, rather than whether young psychology students are a fair sample of humanity.

3 Agree to collaborate, and move from sole practitioners in cottage industries to more systematic large scale research projects. Academic advancement is based on “making a name for one’s self” which encourages apprentice piece publications, repetition of papers each dealing with sub-sections of a data set, and anything which brings attention to a person. Engineering projects encourage far more team work, with a team or company name being more important than individuals. Would functional specialisms develop within research projects, rather than expecting every researcher to be a generalist? Would Psychology have a better future if it had more large projects? Imagine if the smallest publishable sample size was 500 persons: might that drive up the representativeness and reproducibility of results?

Please plagiarise this note.


  1. Psychology consists in the superficial analysis of what American undergraduates say they think they feel.

    That's what needs to be avoided.

  2. 'Psychology has an alarming tendency to ignore previous work, particularly when terminology changes, which is frequently.'

    I heard some journal (-editors) specifically ask authors to mention recent research in their articles. This makes no sense to me from a scienticic perspective (a]unless you don't view psychology as a science that aims to have some progress/ cumulative knowledge building, or b] this recent work would be a form of cumulative knowledge, e.g. a meta-analysis or something like that)

    What citing recent work, and ignoring relevant research in other areas, does do perhaps is inflate the impact factor of journals who published this recent work, and/or let researchers build their own little niche for their research (to be engaged in, and to ask funding for, etc.).

    Maybe that's why this all happens. Not so good for science perhaps, but good for individual researchers, the institutions they are affiliated with, and journals.

  3. Impact factors is the posh term for it. The blogosphere is closer to the mark when it accurately counts "page views" and makes no boast about whether the page viewer was impressed or not. The emphasis on recent publications makes some sense. Many people like to wear the most recent fashions. I think that authors should always be asked to take a "citizenship test" to show they know their topic's history.

  4. Psychology as a scientific field is overloaded with ideologues driven by gender politics and, of course, racial politics.Certainly in America a psychologist like Arthur Jensen had to maintain nerves of steel in the face of professional and popular abuse. Psychology faculties are usually loaded with Leftists whose treatment of topics like race and IQ are usually dishonest.Even Scott Lilienfeld's wonderful 50 Great Myths of popular Psychology avoids reference to black male criminals as the population most likely to behave even worse if subjected to self-esteem training favored by leftist professionals. Instead, they selected the white Columbine killers as stooges for such training! PC thinking deters even hard-nosed mythbusters.The Inequality Taboo also distorts textbook content.

  5. Sadly, there is much ideology in psychology. As usual, the US has better data on this than the UK, and I think there is an overwhelming Democrat representation as opposed to Republican. However, if we follow good methods none of this should matter. If it turns out that we are incapable of applying good methods, then it certainly calls into question whether we can find anything of value in social science.