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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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In Defense of (Conceptually Messy) Psychology

Aug 26, 2013
Originally published on August 26, 2013 1:43 pm

In a recent post at The Daily Beast, Will Wilkinson lambasts the field of psychology. His launching point is a recent paper by Nicholas Brown, Alan Sokal (of Sokal Hoax fame) and Harris Friedman that seriously challenges the math behind a much-touted claim in positive psychology: that achieving a 3:1 "positivity ratio" is a tipping point above which humans flourish.

The claim comes from work by psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada and features prominently in Fredrickson's 2009 book, Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life.

But Wilkinson doesn't restrict his critique to Fredrickson and Losada; he sees this latest upset as evidence for deeper and darker problems within the field of psychology as a whole.

His first charge stems from the fact that the dubious positivity math passed peer review, only facing real scrutiny well after the fact, similar to a variety of fraudulent findings, like those of Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel:

If garbage can pass peer review, as long as it is well-written and well-formatted garbage, then the authority conferred by appearing in peer-reviewed publications would seem to be slight.

Wilkinson also criticizes psychology's reliance on American college students as participants in research, a method that he deems "unlikely to uncover solid, universal truths about the psychology of Homo sapiens." And last, but not least:

... most work in the psychological and social sciences suffers from a lack of conceptual rigor. It's a bit sloppy around the edges, and in the middle, too.

Wilkinson's first two criticisms are hardly new. Science isn't perfect, and neither is peer review. They're just the best methods we've got when it comes to discovery and dissemination concerning the natural world (which isn't to say that various practices in psychology couldn't be improved). To borrow a recent tweet from psychologist Dan Gilbert, himself borrowing from Winston Churchill:

And plenty of people — including psychologists — have highlighted problems with using American college students as a model for all people. So I want to focus on Wilkinson's third, and arguably most general, charge: that psychology is just plain sloppy, conceptually.

To be fair, I've probably made similar charges myself. (As an experimental psychologist, I'm allowed to knock my own field, right?) But when an outsider makes such accusations I can't help coming to psychology's defense, and I do think there's a defense to be offered.

Here's how Wilkinson illustrates the lack of rigor he laments:

... "happiness research" is a booming field, but the titans of the subdiscipline disagree sharply about what happiness actually is. No experiment or regression will settle it. It's a philosophical question. Nevertheless, they work like the dickens to measure it, whatever it is—life satisfaction, "flourishing," pleasure minus pain—and to correlate it to other, more easily quantified things with as much statistical rigor as deemed necessary to appear authoritative. It's as if the precision of the statistical analysis is supposed somehow to compensate for, or help us forget, the imprecision of thought at the foundation of the enterprise.

It would be nice if psychologists could always define their targets of study and the entities they postulate to explain them with conceptual and quantitative rigor. It would also be nice if the psychological world came neatly carved up and labeled into component parts.

If that was the case, we'd get a steady stream of informative input when we brought someone into the lab to study their decision-making. Happiness being experienced at intensity 7! Decision evaluation process DE295 about to be engaged!

But, alas, the natural world is rarely so cooperative, and human psychology is no exception.

Psychologists could simply stipulate that terms like "happiness" or "belief" have particular meanings. But we'd have no guarantee that such definitions would usefully describe human experience and behavior, providing the leverage to explain, predict and control the world that we seek from scientific theories.

Instead, we need to figure out how our theoretical terms should be defined. To do so, we need to do empirical research — research that will, at least at first, be guided by rough guesses about how things work and tentative definitions of the components involved. Such definitions need not be perfectly precise to guide useful investigation, and they're almost guaranteed to be wrong.

There's a natural back and forth: we think about things a particular way, which motivates experiments, which in turn provide data, which leads us to refine and revise the way we conceptualize phenomena and theoretical entities. This dance between theory and experimentation is common to all science.

In the case of psychology, it is a particularly young field. It's early days for the empirical study of many core psychological phenomena, including happiness.

So I agree with Wilkinson that psychological theorizing is often imprecise, and I share a craving for conceptual rigor. But some conceptual sloppiness may simply be a sign of immaturity, of psychology's adolescent state. It's an unavoidable step in achieving scientific progress, not the mark of a failed or floundering science.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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