Psychology train wreck – part two

More news on the train wreck which seems to be approaching for some recent psychological research and another warning for those in the communication business using some of its research outputs.

A paper has been published on PLOS ONE, a leading open science online journal.  (  The paper details are less relevant than the subsequent discussion. However, it appears the paper was trying to establish whether studying science makes you a better person. Now the automatic reaction to any question like that – whether it be about science, the humanities, law or psychology – is that George Steiner settled the matter in an aphorism about concentration camp guards and culture which removed the need for any large scale studies forever. But whether the study was necessary or not it is expected to reach certain standards.

Dr Sena Koleva, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of Psychology University of Southern California, claims this one didn’t and summarised the reaction by pointing out some fundamental errors and subsequent retractions. Public relations people, policy makers and marketers have learnt an awful lot from recent psychological research, particularly where it concerns decision-making and the areas of behavioural economics. The best of the work is incredibly important and can give important new insights into practice. On the other hand some of it is about as useful as the omnibus questions (inevitably flawed by a tendency to use agreement set response question phrasing) some PR people use to generate media publicity.

Jared Diamond in his new book, The World Until Yesterday (Viking), also looks at the approaching train wreck. He says: “Among the human subjects studied in a sample of papers from the top psychology journals in the year 2008, 96% were from Westernised industrial countries (North America, Europe, Australia, NZ and Israel), 68% were from the US in particular and up to 80% were college undergraduates enrolled in psychology courses, i.e. not even typical of their own national societies.” He cites some social scientists (Henrich, Heine, Norenzayan) who say that most of our understanding of human psychology is based on subjects who can be described as W.E.I.R.D –  people from western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic societies. Of course insights into that sub-set of humans are still interesting, particularly as they make some of the most consequential global decisions and the fact that most Western PR practitioners are WEIRDs communicating with other WEIRDs so the problem is not as acute as it might be.

 Nevertheless, we obviously need to be discriminating in what we use from this new field if we want to avoid some weird results.

NOTE: I’m grateful to John Spitzer for drawing the PLUSONE controversy to my attention