giving psychology away

I remain skeptical as Philip Zimbardo [1] promises that Psychologists are positioned to “give psychology away” to all those who can benefit from our wisdom. I don’t think we’ve had such a good track record over the years – psychosurgery, electroshock re-education, ECT, psychiatric medication, Freudianism – what makes us so sure that now psychological science is ready to go out and tell people how to run their lives (again).

And even though there are undoubtably true and useful bits of psychological research I think the market could benefit from more skepticism about the truth and usefulness of psychology, not more hard-sell about the wonder-benefits of ‘scientific’ approaches to the mind.

But hey i guess i should shut up until i can get hold of a copy of the full article to read.

[1] Does Psychology make a significant difference in our lives?
By Zimbardo, Philip G. American Psychologist. 59(5), Jul-Aug 2004, 339-351.

6 replies on “giving psychology away”

Thanks for the link Andy –

How to Be A Wise Consumer of Psychological Research

Item 1: “Show Me the Data! Looking at Evidence”

“Perhaps the most important lesson about being a wise consumer of psychological research is that, from a scientific perspective, all claims require evidence, not just opinions. ”

This may show me up to be more conservative than i like to think i am, but i’m still not convinced that the ‘wisdom of psychology’ should be evangelised until people are a lot clearer on what the wisdom of psychology is – both on behalf of professionals, who can usually be relied on to disagree, and on on behalf of the public (and this is my non-liberal instinct coming out) who probably aren’t going to be suitably equiped to assess the validity of different ‘psychological products’ after a two page briefing on the website.

It’s no good telling people to look at the evidence when they don’t have any cultivated appreciation of what exactly should count as evidence. I spend my whole time trying to find out the truth in fields I don’t have direct experience of and it’s damn hard – even when you’ve got a PhD in a related area, when you’ve got lots of time to spend on it, direct access to scientific journals and scientists and the scientists are actually trying to communicate the complexity and truth of their findings to you, rather than being salespeople trying to get you to buy your product.

You have a problem if you want people to learn to critically appraise everything presented to them. We automatically believe a likely story or seemingly compelling evidence, or even someone who can come up with a more plausible explanation than ours. Take the flat world hypothesis for example. OK maybe that’s not a great example as its all tied in with religion, but ooh we could take religion! There is no hard evidence that any god exists or that prayer has any effect or that there is life after death (even the recycling Bhuddist type). Humans are lazy and like to understand simple things, especially if they’re a little rude hence Freud’s popularity. People bought Bowlby on mothering, Blair on war, the Vatican on condoms…. Need i go on?

People did not, do not and will not question the evidence of the stories presented to them. We must endeavour to make the strength of the evidence as transparent and easy to understand as possible. We must not, as some do, present only things that back up our theories.

Are you saying that people have a tendency to be more likely to believe things if they are presented as ‘stories’? Nice idea: that people have a belief heuristic for complete and satisfying narratives.

Could explain the Mormons!

And why people are often turned off when presented with scientific research that focuses on details and specifics rather than useless whole-universe theories

Pseudo-science tools such as single case studies are effective narratives? Perhaps science papers should drop the science report format and include a bit more, uh… plot? Intrigue? Perhaps a bit of sex? Maybe a twist ending or a stream of conciousness? Science-Manga?

Also, Clarkey: I’m assuming that’s Helen Clarke, hope you’re well, mate!

Ewan/Clarkey – that’s a great thought- that we use narrative cohesion as a heuristic guide to truth. Does anyone know of any work that’s been done on that?

I also think that there is a narrative analogue of visual preference – infants like moderate complexity, scenes which are just beyond the limits of their current visual comprehension. I think we like coherance in narratives, but we like best those narratives which are mostly coherant but leave some gaps for us to fill in / guess at.

And after a while you debauch your narrative tastes and end up reading post-modern literature.

But science is hard enough without pomo anti-narratives, so i think we’ll stick to straight stories for the minute 😉

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