I am starting this series with three important stories about how little psychology can tell you. In the first two I’ve noted that we can’t tell you why you should get out of bed in the morning and that we very rarely know much about why things happen.
Today I am focused on the fact that we oftenuse words in ways that are misleading.
Take, for instance, “happiness.” I just googled “psychology and happiness” and I see the last story posted on a psych study about happiness is from 2 hours ago, in New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/08/fine-to-have-fewer-friends-in-your-30s.html
The story has this quote: “[Y]our middle-age happiness can be predicted by two things: the quantity of friends in your 20s, and the quality of friendships in your 30s.” They measured happiness, right! What did you think when you saw the word? Did you wonder what they meant by happiness or did you just fill in with your sense of what happiness was? They seem to have combined four self-report measures. For instance, they asked subjects the degree to which they agree with statements like “In general I am in charge of the situation in which I live” and “I tend to worry what other people think of me.” Is that happiness? Is that what you thought they meant when they said “happiness?” You can make an argument that it is, but there are all sorts of reasons to be hesitant. People have trouble reporting on their experiences. (What has your day been like? As you answer did you go back to every moment of the day then somehow average it? If so I am impressed because that seems like an impossible task!) So maybe they think they were happy but were in fact not happy. Is happiness about the experience of pleasure? Or is it about meaning (“this diaper I am changing is really rancid, but despite this misery my life has purpose!”) Is either of those captured by the questions above? The article you read just said “happiness.” And you likely filled in what they meant rather than wondering if the authors really got at happiness. (Having said that, New York Magazine described a very cool study!)
That’s an easy example. But think of any psychology study you read about in the news. Does going to college enhance quality of life? Some newspaper accounts will say yes, others no, but do any of the studies really address anything that gets at what you think of as “quality of life!” Other studies will talk about doing things that lead to success, but what is success?
Or as another example, people want mental health. But what the heck is it? Over time the definition has changed. Across time the definition has changed. At one point the methods that psychologists used to classify were wildly unreliable. But once the phrase “mental health” has been uttered by someone with a doctorate how hard is it to keep an open mind about whether the person is actually talking about mental health? And so we read articles about mental health and do not realize the challenges of actually measuring mental health.
I think every graduate student who works with me has a moment in which she says “I have here a measure of X.” I say “Are you sure it is measuring X? Read the items to me.” The student reads the items and then says….”hey, that doesn’t sound like X at all!” Because life is short and if you are a student looking for a measure of X and someone says they have a measure of X who are you to say they do not and what time do you have to really worry about it. So you think you have a measure of X even if it measures something else entirely.
But saying something is X does not make it X. That word often does not mean what we think it means.
Over time when we as psychologists try to assess something like “happiness” we try to do so in a bunch of different ways. We ask people to tell us what they think. We look at what they do. We ask their friends to report on them. And so on. If we find that for every way we can think of measuring “happiness” doing a particular exercise increases happiness then we start to think the exercise causes happiness. (Start! Maybe we have missed something important that won’t be discovered til later!)
As a reflex, then, I am skeptical when I hear someone say “I have measured X.” But I have developed that reflex from years of study. Mostly people absorb their psychology with less training. And less time to think. Those communicating in media often have reason to use shorthand. (“Hey–happiness!”) Particularly these days (perhaps I will write sometime on why I say that) there is great pressure on academics to fudge a bit (“Hey-happiness!”) rather than hedging about how uncertain they are that they have measured what they hoped to measure.
Given this, what can you do as you read the paper, listen to the news, scroll through your news feed. I sense that two extremes are likely–believing thoroughly what is written or rejecting psych research as a fraud. I would encourage a third way, Perhaps say “That’s interesting. Tell me more. And let’s watch how this plays out over the years to see if it has legs.” That might be less satisfying than just accepting or rejecting the story. But it is also likely more in keeping with what we know. And it can help to cultivate something that I personally find compelling–a sense of wonder.