A Tale of Two Weirds

Bobo dolls are also weeeeeird.

Science is weird, and it is WEIRD.

On the one hand, we have the weird stuff. The study of youtube videos. How long mammals take to pee.  The farting salmon. Heck, everything about the IgNobels. Psychology, for the record, is not exempt. Have you seen the BoBo doll experiments?

Imaginary Bandura to imaginary research assistant: Could you just go in this room, and ah, punch the lights out of this inflatable doll? Look like you’re enjoying it, and keep it up for at least five minutes.

There’s some fascinating arguments that we should maybe talk less about this ‘weird’ science, that when we laugh and sigh and say ‘they spent all that money to study what about snails?’ we’re actually devaluing important research in the eyes of the people who just see it in the newspaper. And I really really want research to be done because it might add something of value to what we know, not because the results will sound impressive*. So I lean towards agreeing–maybe we should frame it less as “how weird and arcane and odd it is that people think this is worth spending their time on!” and more like “woah, isn’t it neat that we can learn important things from experiments like launching jellyfish into space?!”

And on then, on the other hand, there is WEIRD science, and it is this that should be keeping us up at night, leaving us a little ragged and hysterical and twitchy, not the people who swallowed shrews whole and then examined their poop.  I kid, I kid. (Not about the shrew-swallowing, though, that’s totally an actual scientific study.)

Our research studies, the ones that make grand and sweeping claims about human behavior? They come overwhelmingly from Western, educated participants living in industrialized, rich, and democratic countries.

And it’s more than just the college sophomore problem, wherein to get class credit, your collegiate 20-year-old will obligingly answer questionnaires, take the Implicit Association tests, and get trapped in endless prisoner’s dilemmas. (Trust me, as a psych-studying former college sophomore, by the three hundred and seventy second time you get asked to press Z to cooperate or M to defect, it is oooold.)

So we have this majority of research that’s conducted on a very specific–and non-majority!–of the population. And then we use it to make some Big Claims about how people think. Like, really big claims about conformity and social interventions and How Humans Got This Way. (I am making side-eyes at you, evolutionary psychology**.) And this seems to be a very incorrect plan.

Truth is, we don’t have a great handle on how much of a problem WEIRD research participants are. Though preliminary research suggests that we should be incredibly concerned by our habits of extrapolating WEIRD research to claims about human behavior. (From the abstract: “One of the least representative samples of the human population.”)

And of course, if you want to determine the usefulness of an intervention in the United States, you don’t much care to get an international sample of the world, you want to know about Americans (though here I would remind you that not all Americans are young adults attending research universities). But what if you want to know about conformity? Or gendered behavior? Or memory? Or sleep? Or IQ? Or moral development? The foundations of these are all considered solid and basic, the sort of thing you’ll see in high school, or 101…and guess who we sampled?

Look, it’s entirely possible that non-WEIRD people act just like WEIRD people. (It seems incredibly unlikely, but go with me here.) The problem is, we really don’t have enough information. And we keep brushing it off and explaining to college freshman that yes, people will conform and agree that this line is shorter than those lines at these rates. We’re missing all this potential nuance! and data!

So yes, we should probably present weird science as less about the weird, and more about the science. But WEIRD science? We need to talk about it more. Lots more.


*It’s actually slightly more complicated than that, because of course I’d rather have something that gets us closer to a cure for a horrible disease or fixes some global crisis. However, this seems to be reflected in the fact that we spend more money on developing approaches to cancer than we do on investigating bellybutton lint. 

**No, I don’t think evolutionary psychology is entirely bunk. But I think it should be especially concerned about these sampling issues, and it makes me nervous that I don’t see it. 

Fun With Scientific Controversies

One of my classes this quarter is entirely about controversies in psychology. They’re pretty standard: is unconscious racism a thing? Does subliminal messaging work? And they’re interesting questions, to be sure. But I’m fairly familiar with the research already, and now I’m procrastinating on writing a paper for the class by thinking up other controversies in psychology–ones where I feel far less comfortable saying “here’s the answer!” or even “here’s where to start looking for the answer!”

I’ve got these four–and still no more headaway in the actual homework assignment–what are yours?

1) Why are we using p-values in psychology when they seem to be awful and allow people to fudge data more easily?
An interesting secondary question here is how do we make the switch? Hundreds of thousands of psych students will be trained in determining results by null-hypothesis testing. Research assistants and graduate students and precocious undergraduates with theses will all be doing research with the methods they’ve learned. How do we get all of them to change?

2) How should we be using social psychology findings when there seems to be only some evidence for mechanisms that would cause huge societal change?
Particularly since social psychology research tends to be done in labs, may not generalize to the outside world, and has the college sophomore problem. And it’s WEIRD.

3) What’s the best (or even just a better way) to categorize mental disorders? And while we’re at it, how do we fix our map-territory problem?
That is, are we expanding the definition of say, depression, to include more people with depression who went previously undiagnosed? Or are we considering more things to fall into the category of “being depressed”?

4) Willpower–how does it work? Is it a limited resource? How glucose-dependent is it?




Brains Lie

I’m heading into my last year of undergraduate degrees in psychology.* It’s what I’ve always wanted, if you can define ‘always’ as, ‘at least since I’ve had life plans’.

A sneaking suspicion that I wanted to know more about what made people tick in high school, a single psychopathology class during a visit to Stanford (I sat in the back, took six pages of notes, and promptly planned to major in the field), and one early-decision application to the school with my favorite psychology program, and here I am. So what have I learned? Can I guess your deepest motivations? Can I diagnose strangers at fifty paces? What have I gotten out of nine quarters of work and six figures of tuition?

A very valuable lesson, couched in reams of research papers and a small fortune in textbooks:

Brains lie.

They lie often and well and inconspicuously. They lie in beautiful, harmless ways, turning that pattern of dark and light into an optical illusion,giving color to numbers and taste to music, replaying that romantic memory in surround sound.

And they lie in dangerous, scary, unpredictable ways. Distorting memories where they matter most. Creating hallucinations, delusions, biases that lead us down evidentiary rabbit holes, confirm what we think we know, inflate our fears and skew our understanding of statistics. Anxiety. Impostor syndrome.

Brains tell the truth, sometimes, of course. But we know that. We’re much, much worse at remembering how often they don’t. We’re influenced by the order of choices presented to us, the race, age, weight, even accent of the person in front of us. There’s the foot-in-the-door effect, the door-in-the-face, wikipedia lists on lists of biases and loopholes and soft spots in our reasoning. And still we persist in this silly idea that we make independent choices, that no man is an island, but our brains are.

Brains lie.

*I got lucky and fulfilled two full psychology degrees; one in Psychology, one in Human Development & Psychological Services. The first is theory-based, the second geared towards practice. 

The Social Psychology of Sportsball

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Social psychology is a weird and confusing bird. Humans, as you might imagine, are complicated.  And so it goes that the most interesting research results usually have caveats in caveats, beginning with “well, we did this once in a lab with college sophomores” and ending with “….and it may or may not replicate”.*

Which is why the research on black jerseys and sports is so very fascinating. We’ve studied it from a few angles. We’ve looked at it in real life. It’s replicated, to an extent.

When teams wore black jerseys, they played more aggressively, getting more penalties. Okay, cool, maybe that’s a thing, you say, all skeptical-faced. But what if it’s just coincidence? Or what if there’s some mitigating factor?

Well, researchers looked at sixteen seasons of data from the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Football League (NFL). In both cases, teams have two uniforms: one with primarily white, and trim in the team color, the second in the team color with white trim.  In each case, the teams with black as the main color in their colored jerseys received more penalties when dressed in black.

Okay, but what if it’s just where the black jersey’s are worn? After all, NFL players traditionally wear their black jerseys at home games and the predominantly-white ones for away games. (The reverse is true for the NHL) What if it’s just a matter of the team playing more aggressively when home (in the NFL) or away (in the NHL)?

Well, that was examined, too! During the sixteen year sample, several teams switched uniform colors from non-black to black. In each case, there was an immediate uptick in penalties. This was even seen in one case where the switch happened mid-season–meaning that management and players hadn’t changed. When teams exchanged their black uniforms for different colors, there was an immediate decrease in penalties. This finding has also been replicated in other studies, where teams are randomly assigned a uniform color, then swap uniforms.

Common objection: Black jerseys are easier to spot–so referees are more likely to call penalties. 

Status: seems to be false. Even when players wore other dark colors, black uniforms had significantly more penalties.
Caveat: Jerseys that were perceived to be black, notably the Chicago Bears’, appeared to have the same status as black jerseys. So, dark jerseys don’t behave like black ones…unless they’re dark enough to appear black. That’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary.

Potential mechanism driving the black jersey effect: Black is seen as a symbol of malevolence and aggression.

Status: Somewhat supported, less replicated than the black jersey effect. The researchers who did the original research with the NHL and NFL also got naive participants (those who didn’t have any sports experience or recognition) to rate the ‘malevolence’ of players pictured in black and non-black uniforms. They consistently rated those in black uniforms higher.
Caveat: Small sample size, undergraduates, and heavily skewed towards women participants.

Further reading at NPR and PubMed.

*This is an unqualified dig; I actually adore social psychology. It’s messy and frustrating and often conflicts and makes sweeping claims, but it studies some of the most interesting subjects on the planet: us.