psychology science

the obvious in psychology

I mean, Christ, I’m not the first to say it, but some psychological research is just so obvious I want to bite out my own eyes. To pick unfairly, and at random, something I came across today, why exactly are we doing research like this? –

“Women’s and Men’s Personal Goals During the Transition to Parenthood” (Salmela-Aro et al, 2000)
Abstract: To investigate how women’s and men’s personal goals change during the transition to parenthood, the authors studied 348 women (152 primiparous and 196 multiparous) and 277 of their partners at 3 times: early in pregnancy, 1 month before the birth, and 3 months afterward. At each measurement, participants completed the Personal Project Analysis questionnaire (B. R. Little, 1983). The results showed that during pregnancy women became more interested in goals related to childbirth, the child’s health, and motherhood and less interested in achievement-related goals. After the birth women were more interested in family- and health-related issues. These changes were more substantial among the primiparous than among the multiparous mothers. Although the men’s personal goals changed during the transition to parenthood, these changes were less substantial than those found among the women. description and explanation in psychological science.

Can this be as pointless as it sounds? Women worry more about impending motherhood while pregnant, and less about other things. Hold the front page.

Now there’s a few arguments you can make for researching ‘common sense’.

  • you confirm 99% of it, but you falsify 1% of it, and that’s the important bit.
  • common sense is just a set of circumstance-variable prejudices. Not only does ‘common sense’ contain multiple, often erroneous and/or contradictory, positions, but it’s easy for people to say that’s just common sense after the fact.
  • it might be obvious that something is so, but exactly how is it so? Women deprioritise career-goals during pregnancy – obviously. But how much do they do this? What is the variation? How does this change across demographics? Across cultures? Across generations? (this said, if this is the main justification for the research then there is a fairly major problem with the communication of it).

  • But despite this, I think we’ve missed a fairly major distinction between description and explanation here. Psychological science needs more of the latter. An explanation provides a connection between different levels of descriptions or between different phenomenon. Granted, you have to sort your descriptions to some degree first before you can do this, but come on people

    And don’t think that I’m just talking about social psychology here. The brainporn fetish of cognitive neuroscience is just as much to blame. The next time I see a functional imaging study that demonstrates that a task involving mental activity requires various different bits of the cortex I shall weep.
    The added difficulty for social psychology is that most of the concepts involved
    have already had been explored with far greater finesse and insight than science can ever manage by millennia of culture activity. If you’re going to do some research here you need to bring some added value. Here’s my provisional list of those cases in which this might be possible:

  • When we know something to be true, but we need to know exactly how true it is – the extent, the variability, the limits of the effect and the interaction with other factors.
  • When we know something to be true, and science can show that it isn’t.(eg
    graphology, people wouldn’t electrocute others just because they are ordered
    to by a scientist). [and related to this]

  • When the common sense perception of individuals is persistently biased (eg self-rating of ability to detect lies, judgements about how fast queues move, perception of sleep duration among insomniacs, etc)
  • When we know something to be true, but we don’t know how or why it is true (enter, stage right, cognitive neuroscience and recourse to explanatory primitives from lower levels of description)

  • reference

    Katariina Salmela-Aro, Jari-Erik Nurmib, Terhi Saistoc and Erja Halmesm?kic (2000). Women’s and Men’s Personal Goals During the Transition to Parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology Volume 14, Issue 2, June 2000, Pages 171-186

    One reply on “the obvious in psychology”

    On the brainporn thing, do you know Mike Page from Uni of Herfordshire? He gave a talk at the BPS or EPS in January (I forget which) and on the basis of that we invited him along to our (UCL psychology’s) postgrad conference, where he gave it again. Basically he rails against the pouring of time and money into imaging stuff which is in his opinion often the weakest form of evidence. I’m generally of the same view – I’ve been trying to put together something like this on my blog and when I do I’ll let you know.

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