By Barney Beins, Ph.D., Ithaca College
People sometimes refer to the “hard sciences” and the “soft sciences.” Perhaps a better distinction, if there is one, is between the hard sciences and the difficult sciences. And by any reckoning, psychology is a difficult science.
Each discipline features its own characteristics, and none is simple. But the nature of the complexity of psychology differs markedly from that of the physical sciences. The complexity associated with thought and behavior is why psychology is one of the difficult sciences. Consequently, when we teach, it is hard to convey to students that what they are learning is neither simple nor obvious.
I believe that one of the primary tasks we need to engage in is to change the how of thinking in our students. That is, they must change how they think about psychology and psychological knowledge if they are to understand the discipline. On what basis do they form beliefs and, maybe more importantly, on what basis do they change their minds about their beliefs?
When we see the results of research, it is often difficult to believe that results could have turned out differently because research reports convey a story that follows from earlier investigation and makes sense in the context of its story. All too often, people question why an investigator would engage in such “obvious” research. The problem is that it is only obvious in retrospect. In my classes, I ask students to predict the outcome of research, such as that illustrated below:
"Many people have aesthetic (i.e. plastic) surgery in order to boost their social and psychological well-being. Is it actually the case that the effect is to provide such a boost?" [Margraf, J., Meyer, A. H., & Lavallee, K. L. (2013). Well-being from the knife? Psychological effects of aesthetic surgery. Clinical Psychological Science, 1, 239-252. doi:10.1177/2167702612471660.]
Which of the statements below reflects the main finding of the study?
The surgery has a negative effect on well-being.
The surgery has no effect on well-being.
The surgery has a positive effect on well-being.
Student guesses in my classes are at essentially chance levels. About 30% of my classes correctly identify the outcome of the study, which is that surgery has positive benefits. This pattern of poor predictions holds true for many of the examples I use in my class.
What does this mean regarding our teaching? Students have to learn that explaining why we obtained our results is generally easier than predicting them in advance. Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “Making predictions is hard. Especially about the future.” This point itself is neither easy nor obvious. But it is a critical point.
Students also need to learn that any single study is only a part of a larger puzzle. That is, it is only one study that needs to be considered in relation to other studies. (This is why our medical doctor should probably not rely on recent reports of research too much in treating us. The striking new finding that just appeared is only one study, and it may be at odds with the general body of research in the area.) When the mass media report on psychological research, we need to be careful because our knowledge progresses in small increments. Sometimes surprising research results stand the test of time. For instance, stereotype threat seems quite real; it was a real eye-opener when it appeared. But we have to ask whether it is a new and important finding or a finding that doesn’t replicate. Until and unless the study replicates, we are in a state of uncertainty.
If we look at many of the striking findings in psychology that have made the news, we can see why this issue is important. Look at research on the facial feedback hypothesis or on the so-called power pose, or consider the research that found that people primed with thoughts of old age walked more slowly than those not so primed. There are serious questions about the replicability of the research. Which research should we believe? We don’t know until the body of literature begins to converge on a conclusion.
The issue of what to believe entails taking the long view. John Ioannidis published a paper involving biomedical research called Why most published research findings are false. Perhaps it is an overstatement, but the important lesson is that we should be slow to accept the surprising findings that make their way into the media. Such studies provide fodder for new research, but issues of replicability are paramount in any science.
It has been publicized that quite a few psychological studies do not replicate. Part of the issue goes back to the initial point of this essay, which is that psychology is difficult. Some replication failure reflects the fact that the phenomena documented in the research simply do not exist. But some failures result from the fact that the dynamics of context differ across experiments and across participants, not because the phenomenon is a chimera.
As it turns out, psychological research seems to be in about the same state regarding replicability as many other disciplines. Biologists are now tracing psychology’s steps in setting up replicability programs, and biomedical research is fraught with many of the same issues. In fact, this issue pervades many scientific enterprises. For example, a significant number of planets that astronomers think they have discovered may not exist.
The truth is that when we are on the edge of knowledge, we are going to make mistakes. As we know regarding scientific knowledge, it is always provisional. We can gain confidence in our beliefs with continued empirical support for our findings, but it is a reality that we may need to change our minds when our information advances.
So, what does this mean with respect to our teaching? When we face our students, they will have beliefs about thought and behavior that are often very simplistic. We need to show them the importance of relying on research in forming our belief systems. The simple picture that students often have about behavior hide complexities that emerge as “obvious” after we conduct studies, but those complexities are far from obvious at the beginning.
Further, we have to be willing to change our minds. That is what science is all about. Our beliefs change in small, incremental steps, so we should probably be skeptical (but not cynical) about reports of striking research findings.
This mindset is not easy because we are always in a state of uncertainty. But in the long run, accepting the complexity of psychology and psychological research will ultimately lead to beliefs that we can accept with greater confidence.
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363–1368. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.ithaca.edu:2048/10.1177/0956797610383437.
Cuddy, A. J. C., Schultz, S. J., & Fosse, N. E. (2018). P-curving a more comprehensive body of research on postural feedback reveals clear evidential value for power-posing effects: Reply to Simmons and Simonsohn (2017). Psychological Science, 29, 656-666. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.ithaca.edu:2048/10.1177/0956797617746749.
Garrison, K. E., Tang, D., and Schmeichel, B. J. (2016). Embodying power: A preregistered replication and extension of the power pose effect. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 623–630. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550616652209.
Smith, K. M., and Apicella, C. L. (2017). Winners, losers, and posers: The effect of power poses on testosterone and risk-taking following competition. Hormones and Behavior, 92, 172–181. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2016.11.003.
Priming about Aging
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Bernard (Barney) Beins, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Ithaca College. Dr. Beins' scholarship includes research on humor and on the scholarship of teaching and learning, and his teaching focuses on students' development of critical thinking skills. He is the 2010 recipient of the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Psychological Foundation and received the Ithaca College Faculty Excellence Award. Dr. Beins has also shared his knowledge of teaching as an author or co-editor of over 30 books and teaching manuals.