How Far Can You Trust Psychology Research?

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When the popular media reports psychological research, how can we know if the findings are accurate and apply to our lives?

“Are You With The Right Mate?”, “How to Save Your Brain”, and “Deadly Mind Traps” are all titles of articles in a recent issue of Psychology Today. They represent just three of the flood of Psychology “news you can use”. But can the advice be trusted? That depends on the fidelity of the research underlying these articles.

Science: in Theory and Practice

The scientific method has been described as a self-correcting process. A well-written scientific article is supposed to provide enough detail of the methods and results of research to allow another researcher to repeat or “reproduce” the finding. Outside of the philosophy of science, reproducing earlier results is rare due to political and economic factors. Up-and-coming researchers earn acclaim and eventual tenure by publishing new and original results, not by checking up on their colleagues.

The recent Reproducibility Project seeks to double-check many of the most important results in psychology research. Only time will tell if the published literature stands up to reexamination. Yet even without this project’s results, we know research suffers from some fairly serious problems.

Psychology Lab Confidential

The most abhorrent source of bad research is outright fraud. Every working scientist stakes his or her career and fortune on the outcomes of a relatively few experiments. Should one or a few of these experiments give unwelcome results, years of work and thousands of dollars in grant money could go up in smoke. With so much on the line, I am saddened but not surprised when big-name researchers such as Diederik Stapel betray the trust of the scientific community and the public through mass falsification of results.

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Even researchers with impeccable morals can still cook the books. Psychologists are not immune from the mental illusions that they themselves discovered, such as confirmation bias, which drives us all to look harder for evidence that supports our preconceptions than for data that contradict them.

Psychologists use statistics to quantify the power and accuracy of their experiments, yet because these methods are far from straightforward, they can introduce their own errors and misapprehensions. Misapplying statistics can distort results, and even rigorous analysis may fail to surface statistical blunders.

Finding human subjects for psychology experiments is not always easy. Researchers often draw their subjects from the student body on campus. Introductory psychology courses often all but require participation in psychology experiments happening on campus. While the practice of experimenting on college students makes life easier for researchers, it quietly biases the sample set towards academically gifted young adults. Knowing this, psychological research may apply more closely to you if you are similar to the typical test subject.

In my own college years, I helped conduct a number of psychology experiments designed to investigate how people perceived objects in three dimensions. In brief, we gave large numbers of test subjects the same tasks and timed how long they took to do each task and how often they got the tasks correct. From the average of these subjects’ performance, we developed a model of how human perception might work. “But what if different people solve the problem different ways?” I asked. “It will all average out,” my mentor replied, but that didn’t answer the question: do people really solve these problems the same way (as the research method assumes) or are there multiple distinct ways that people understand three dimensional space? I am confident that this is a hypothesis open to scientific research, but the assumption that all people think the same about tasks in a psychology experiment remained unstated and unexplored in our lab.

Test It Yourself

With so many ways for psychology research to go astray, what should we make of the latest crop of popular psychological advice? I would suggest that the best way to make use of such articles is to place yourself in the position of a researcher. Try out what you read and see if it applies to you. You are your own test subject. You can use some, and not all of the methods of formal scientific inquiry, and issues like confirmation bias can distort your results. Yet you have one advantage over the pros: you have no need to worry if your result applies to anyone else.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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