The world of Psychology has a vast appeal to public interest. We all want to know the inner workings of our minds, and the minds of others. We also like that information in a form that is easily accessible, and quick to understand. For better or worse, there is a great deal of psychological information at our fingertips on the internet; but the kicker is that there is also a disproportionate amount of misinformation. I am going to talk about how to get the right information, how you know whether that information you are consuming is supported (founded) or not, and the tricks being used to grab viewers towards misinformation for the sake of monetization (clicks which generate advertisement revenue). We risk taking these assertions and titles as fact, when in truth there may be little evidence to support it.
What Psychology is, and what it is not.
Psychology is a field of study. People who undertake psychological research often have years of coursework under their belt, and when they publish it is often in the form of academic journals which are peer reviewed. That peer review is the important part. It means that other people with the same amount of skill and experience went over the study and found that the methods and findings were acceptable for publication, and (hopefully) replication. This does not mean the study is true, necessarily, but it does mean that the methods and findings pass the rigor that you would expect from empirical findings.
What Psychology is not; unfounded hypotheses based on invented constructs that have not been tested or platitudes. Let’s look at the difference of a few statements that are either founded or unfounded. Founded is based in fact, or at least the seeking of it. Unfounded is speculative, or unsupported by research into real phenomena, and usually entices readers by a reaction. Usually, the unfounded “click-bait” article is created to gather broad interest by using concrete claims that have very little evidence behind them. If you were to compare any peer-reviewed research article to the “click-bait”, you would see a huge difference in how these are written and how the findings are presented. One attempts to explain something by supporting it, the other takes an assumption as fact and generalizes it to get max appeal/shock.
“Based on a 2003 study, Researcher A and Researcher B found a correlation between the color red and aggression levels in teens.”– This is something we could begin to consider founded. We have three big hints:
- Reference to an actual study. You could read it yourself and come to your own conclusions.
- The names of the authors/researchers. The reader could look them up, or even contact them for better understanding or replication.
- The word correlation and not “causes”. This is a big hint that it was actual research with a sample of people. Research often infers, it does not conclude broadly.
“10 Things Men or Women Do Differently! Women/Men ALWAYS…”– This seems unfounded. We have some hints.
- The click-bait style title. Lists are commonly used to draw in interest to a website or article.
- The word “Always”. Empirically designed research works on philosophic doubt and evidence in a subject. When something is studied, it is usually done with a sample; a small group of people to represent larger groups. These do not mean that it is a perfect causal effect to be applied to all humanity across time or the entire world.
“Pop-Psych Platitudes” and Title Hooks:
Here are some tricks that are used by “bad”-psychology to get your interest. Hooks. One liners. These are titles and phrases that throw out a topic you could easily agree with, but do not lead you to the “meat” of the matter. That kind of article would not tell you what research it referenced, or even worse, it could misinterpret research to fit a broader and more appealing finding that never existed. A good rule of thumb is; If they can condense 40 pages of research into one statement, you’re probably missing out on the actual findings. They use things called “Pop-Psych Platitudes”; things that appeal to what appears to be a truism and avoid actual empirical findings. Look at some of these examples:
- Why Your Dog Is Always Right About Your Mate- They Have Senses.
- Women/Men Choose Better- It’s In The Genes!
- Read Lies In the Eyes- 5 Big Tips To Liars.
- If You’re Not Happy, You’re Not Using Mindfulness.
- Smart People Get Hurt More Easily By Rejection.
- Every Time You Forgive, Your Brain Becomes Happier.
- Trust Is Earned, Not Free.
- 10 Things Anxious People Know.
The titles above have some appealing points to them, don’t they? You could apply them to an experience you may have had before, or a belief you have on a topic. You might really want to affirm that by clicking on it and reading a few persuasive paragraphs on the personal experiences of the writer (these are called anecdotal statements, not research). They appeal to the reader’s biases or personal experiences by using broad language and big claims they want to read. They may reference a single research article to support their claims, but fail to mention the techniques in the article, the sample used in the article, and the actual conclusion of the article itself. They may also have cherry picked a single article (line or paragraph) that had not been replicated by other researchers to support a broad claim. These give the semblance of academic research, but fail several benchmarks of being empirical and trusted as a true representation of a discovered or explored phenomena.
Another big trick is a Title Hook. You remember the trick of putting a number in the title? “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety!”. Just 8? Sure. Why not. We all have time to read 8 statements. Right? Sometimes they will employ a stronger hook to get you to read. “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety! Number 5 Will SHOCK you!”. See what they did there? You are tempted to look at number 5, which leads you through over half of their statements separated by clicks to different pages. Those pages are probably monetized, and most likely have very little in the way of actual facts or research supported claims.
The Risks of Being Misinformed
There are risks to misinformation. It gives you, the reader, the experience of feeling as though you have learned something, or reaffirmed a belief you had, without the benefit of using real scientific methods and without the benefit of knowing that this topic was rigorously studied. When researchers take a topic, more often than not, they come away with what is called a Null Hypothesis. A Null Hypothesis is the condition in which the researcher could not prove what they set out to prove. That is what real research runs the risk of every time. Not every hypothesis that’s put to the test works out. Many times, a hypothesis has to be refined several times, with multiple caveats. “No, we couldn’t prove that Disorder A coincides with candy bar eating, but we were able to show that Food Additive B might have an effect on a symptom of Disorder A, based on…”. This is the type of wording you would find in the conclusion section of many research based and peer reviewed articles. See how different it is from the click-bait?
Many times research is not instantly easy to interpret, has a conclusion that is not always completely confirmed , and raises more questions than it was set out to answer. But it is the spirit of science. You find correlation, links or connections between factors, but never the always.
If you would like to further your knowledge in psychology, read some articles with true empirical weight, I suggest you take a look at the National Institute of Mental Health’s webpage (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/) . It has articles free of cost on almost any topic you could have an interest in. I implore you to take a look and see what a truly rigorous study looks like. Much like a good story, it has a beginning, middle, and end that beats out a click-bait unfounded affirmation any day.
Questions? Comments? Reply Below!
- Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
- NIMH » Home. (n.d.). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml
- pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos