Integrity vs. Status – An issue in research

If your entire career was based upon an influential theory that you had founded, would you be willing to falsify it so that science could progress? Or would you be more likely to cling to your theory, in order to maintain status and financial wealth?

It has been suggested that falsification is the crux of the scientific method (Popper, 1959). Although most researchers would more than likely insist that they would allow their research to be falsified and built upon, in reality this isn’t always the case. As suggested by Kuhn (1970), scientists are more likely to cling to theories, ignoring anomalies so their findings withstand time. Researchers can become so enticed in their work that the failure of their theory remains unknown to society.

An example of this is Money’s (1975) research on gender. Money was respected as an expert in his area, and concluded that gender was a learnt process. His research was based on one case study in particular, a boy named David Reimer. After having his penis accidently removed, Reimer was brought up as a girl, under Money’s advice. Money treated this case as a success, and was renowned for his findings. However in reality the case was anything but successful, with Reimer displaying masculine traits (Diamond & Sigmundson, 1997), and eventually identifying himself as male. The clinical notes suggested that Reimer never really accepted his sex reassignment as a girl, so why did Money insist on producing papers boasting success?

This case study highlights one of the issues with psychological research. According to the BPS (2009) code of ethics, research should be done in an honest and accurate manner, with findings correctly presented and limitations openly recognised. This is the principle of integrity, and if the scientific world is unaware of the flaws of a study such as Money’s, incorrect theories will continue to be widely accepted.

Not only is this detrimental to the scientific world, incorrect theories that influence how society is treated can be harmful, and even fatal. For example in Money’s case study, the psychological stress of the research is suggested to have caused both Reimer and his twin brother to commit suicide. This highlights the BPS (2009) ethical principle of responsibility. Psychologists are responsible for protecting their participants from any mental, physical or emotional harm. This was not done, and inevitably, Money was so absorbed in the success of research that the responsibility and integrity of his research were dismissed.

Therefore, researchers must remain objective in their research. The desire for status or funding can damage not only the integrity and scientific value of the research produced, but also have unethical detrimental consequences. Furthermore, uncritically accepted ideas can do harm if they influence how people are treated. The BPS (2009) sets standards for UK psychology to ensure tragic mistakes such as the Reimer case are prevented, and the use of the scientific method protects research and society from flawed, subjective reasoning (Machado & Silva, 2007). Despite these improving the situation, there is no magic answer, and there will always be a chance that benefits to the researcher will bias research.

British Psychological Society (2009). Code of ethics and conduct. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, H. K. (1997). Sex reassignment at birth: A long term review and clinical implications. Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 151, 298-304.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press Ltd.

Machado, A., & Silva, F. J. (2007). Toward a richer view of the scientific method. American Psychologist, 62, 671-681.

Money, J. (1975). Ablatio penis: Normal male infant sex-reassigned as a girl. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 4(1), 65-71.

Popper, K. R. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. London: Hutchinson.

For further information, there is a BBC Horizon documentary on the case of David Reimer, which can be seen here.

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What type of learner are you?

Most of us can probably remember taking part in questionnaires at school that determined our preferences in learning. Tests such as these are believed to establish our learning styles. Learning styles refer to the different ways individuals process stimuli. It is presumed that the use of our preferred learning style will help us maximise our potential, and become efficient learners (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008).

There are many types of learning styles, but one test that most of us are familiar with is Fleming’s VARK (or VAK). This test suggests what type of sensory learner we are, whether this is auditory, visual, reading/writing or kinaesthetic. This test is very popular and frequently used in schools. For example, research by Sharp, Byrne and Bowker (2008) found that just under half of the teachers they asked used results from VAK to help them teach.

Due to its evident popularity in education, one would assume that results from VAK questionnaires should be applied, and that children should be taught in their preferred learning style. Several schools have incorporated this method into their teaching, with one school in Cheshire getting children to wear badges that state their learning style (Revell, 2005).

It seems logical to teach children in their desired learning style. However, in reality this method is impractical. The VAK test only determines the sensory aspect of learning, and according to Coffield et.al (2004) there are at least 70 different types of learning styles overall. Therefore dividing children accurately and efficiently into groups that maximise their individual learning would be practically impossible. Teachers would argue that there are enough demands placed on the way they deliver lessons, without having to incorporate every child’s individual learning style.

We must also consider the implications of labelling children into these categories. Learning can be restricted if the child develops the attitude of “I’m a kinaesthetic learner, therefore I cannot learn this as you are teaching it me visually”. Realistically, children will not solely use only one form of learning (Smith & Call, 1999, as cited in Sharp, Byrne & Bowker, 2008), however if they get into the mindset that this is the case, it may produce additional barriers to their learning.

The idea that one will excel if taught in their preferred learning style is what forms the basis of learning style tests. However, there is no research validating that one’s preferred learning style provides the most effective learning (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008). This raises the question, if there is no scientific evidence to support these tests, why do we insist on using them in education?

It appears that the phenomenon of VAK reached depths it never intended. Fleming, the creator of these tests, suggests that VAK is based on metacognition, not a measure of learning styles (Fleming & Baume, 2006). VAK tests do not tell you how to learn, they simply make you think about your method of learning, and consider other options you may have previously not considered. This misinterpretation of Fleming’s aim has led to the misuse of VAK tests in education.

Thus, the use of VAK tests in schools is not detrimental to our learning, so long as we understand the implications and interpretations of the results. Learning styles should not govern our learning as an individual, or determine methods of teaching. They should simply provide us with an insight into our preferences for our own self-learning. As said by Professor John Geake (Revell, 2005), “Information isn’t defined by how it is received”. Regardless of our preferred learning style, inevitably it is the end result of what we have learned and retained that is important, not the method it is achieved by.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Fleming, N., & Baume, D. (2006). Learning styles again: VARKing up the right tree! Educational Developments, 7(4), 4-7.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Revell, P. (2005, May 31). Each to their own. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2005/may/31/schools.uk3.

Sharp, J. G., Byrne J., & Bowker, R. (2008). The trouble with VAK. Educational Futures, 1(1), 89-97.

The use of evidence-based practice

In psychology, we often strive for research that is scientific, objective, replicable and has high validity. Researchers face many obstacles in creating research that is up to this standard, but with methods such as randomized controlled trials which reduce the effect of confounding variables, and the use of statistical tests to ensure significance, research of a high scientific standard is continuously produced.

However, what is the purpose of research if it doesn’t have practical implications? This is where the idea of evidence based practice (EBP) is introduced; to bridge a gap between research and intervention. EBP involves the application of current evidence when making decisions about treatment for individual patients (Sackett et al, 1996). It strives for the identification and application of interventions that have shown to be effective by empirical evidence (Norcross et al., 2006).

In a field which aims to be scientifically based, one would assume EBP is the best and most effective method forward in designing interventions. Because of this, bodies such as ‘The National Institute for Health and Clinical Evidence’ are responsible for producing evidence-supported guidelines for treatments in the UK (Morrison & Bennett, 2009). These guidelines attempt to reduce the vast variations of practice in the profession (Walshe and Rundall, 2001 as cited in McCurtin & Roddam, 2011), by making the process of choosing suitable interventions less subjective.

The idea seems promising, yet EBP is not used as much as one would assume. For example, surveys show that only 5.5-17.7% of Speech and Language Therapists use research to determine their practice (McCurtin & Roddam, 2011).

From this, it is clear EBP has its flaws. Several of these were highlighted by the NHS Centre for reviews and Dissemination report (1999). The report showed that health professionals (including psychologists) are often resistant to change, as they feel it will bring extra unnecessary stress. They prefer to conform to old practices they know are successful, rather than trialling new ones, despite the provision of supporting evidence.

The field of research is vast, and it would be impossible for a health professional to know of all the research. There are also conflicts and inconsistencies in this research (Cohen & Hersh, 2004 as cited in McCurtin & Roddam, 2011), which creates a further barrier for the application of EBP. Yet, isn’t the use of any research better than using none at all?

It is important to remember that EBP often only uses the most scientific, supported research. Research that is considered scientific enough for EBP often uses randomized controlled trials, and is done in a controlled environment to ensure a causal relationship can be established. However the generalisation and transferability of research to practice is questionable. People are individuals, and as Baumann (2010) suggested this raises the question, can we really measure clinical outcomes and patients’ satisfaction purely through objective and scientific measures? Patients have the free will to disagree with a treatment, and unlike in controlled conditions, can choose to drop in and out of treatment as they please (Nelson et. al, 2006 as cited in McCurtin & Roddam, 2011).

Inevitably, although EBP provides a bridge between the theoretical and practical areas of psychology and other health-related areas, the links between research and practice need to be strengthened before EBP can truly be effective.

References

Baumann, S. L. (2010). The limitations of evidence-based practice. Nursing Science Quarterly, 23(3), 226–230.

McCurtin, A., & Roddam, H. (2011). Evidence-based practice: SLTs under siege or opportunity for growth? The use and nature of research evidence in the profession. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 47(1), 11-26.

Morrison, V. & Bennett, P. (2009). An introduction to health psychology (2nd ed.). UK: Pearson Education Limited.

NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (1999). Effective healthcare: getting evidence into practice. NHS CRD, 5(1). London: Royal Society of Medicine Press.

Norcross, J.C., Garafalo, A., & Kocher, G. P. (2006). Discredited psychological treatments and tests: A Delphi poll. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(5), 515-522.

Sackett D.L., Rosenberg W.M.C., Gray J.A.M., & Richardson W.S. (1996). Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. British Medical Journal, 312, 71-72.

“Luck is probability taken personally” – Chip Denman

Recently, I watched a programme by Derren Brown about ‘The Secret of Luck’. He discovered that by spreading a rumour of a lucky statue about the town of Todmorden, many of the locals believed their luck subsequently increased. However some of the more ‘unlucky’ locals believed it had no effect on them, and despite Derren Brown placing ‘lucky’ opportunities in their path, they would choose to ignore them. Luck, Derren Brown concluded, is about creating and recognising opportunities.

This was a definition of luck I had never heard of before, and although Derren Brown isn’t known for creating scientific studies, his idea seemed a reasonable explanation. Often people believe that luck is out of our control, and occurs due to chance events. However it has been suggested, not just by Derren Brown, that whilst chance events are based on probability that we cannot manipulate, these events are infrequent, and our ‘luck’ is often due to our own involvement and choices (Wiseman, 2003).

It is clear that there is some scrutiny on one singular definition. The inability to agree on the meaning of luck occurs because the term is a theoretical invention. It is a construct, which is when a term is produced to explain more observable facts through inferences made (MacCorquodale & Meehl, 1948). Constructs cannot be directly measured, so an operational definition must be developed, to allow at least an attempt to create a scientific basis for the term. An operational definition determines how the construct should be measured. However, how can you accurately measure luck? Constructs themselves are not directly measurable, and because of this operationalizing them can be difficult.

Derren Brown’s experiment was based on research by Wiseman (2003), who found that those who maximise chance opportunities and have a positive attitude towards ‘bad luck’ are considered lucky, as they are more likely to recognise and grasp opportunities. This was highlighted in his study, which can be seen here. From Brown’s and Wiseman’s research a question arises, can measuring the amount of opportunities participants take be a way of operationalizing luck?

The nature of constructs makes answering this question difficult, as measures are often based on subjective, self-report methods (Blascovich & Tomaka, 2001). It is difficult to conceive a behavioural or physiological measure, and even if one of these measures are created they are not necessarily valid. For example, using heart rate to measure anxiety may seem to be reflective, however there are many other reasons why a person’s heart rate may increase, and it is most certainly not the only variable involved in anxiety. Luck, like anxiety, would require multiple measures for us to gain a fuller understanding of the construct. We cannot assume that luck is completely measured by opportunities.

Another example where this problem occurs is self-esteem, which has faced large scale disagreement over how it should be measured. As Crandall (1973, as cited in Blascovich & Tomaka 2001) suggested, “Self-esteem has been related to almost every variable at one time or another”. This is shown by Blascovich & Tomaka (2001) who found that there have been over 40 scales created to measure self-esteem, all based on subjective methods.

Inevitably, the operationalizing of constructs is always going to be questionable. Concepts such as self-esteem, anxiety and luck are subjective and have several operational definitions. Therefore attempting to discover a singular way to measure these constructs is futile. So is luck “probability taken personally?”. We cannot deny that Brown’s and Wiseman’s idea seems a logical explanation, but then again, when is anything ever that simple?

Blascovich, J. & Tomaka, J. (2001). Measures of self esteem. In Robinson, J. P., Shaver, P. R. & Wrightsman, L. S. (Eds.). Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes. USA: Elsevier Science.

Delving Deeper: The Secret of Luck. (2011). Retrieved February 16th, 2012, from http://www.channel4.com/programmes/derren-brown-the-experiments/articles/delving-deeper-the-secret-of-luck.

MacCorquodale, K.,& Meehl, P.E. (1948). On a distinction between hypothetical constructs and intervening variables. Psychological review, 55, 95-107.

Wiseman, R. (2003). The Luck Factor. London, UK: Random House

Criticising Freud? You’re in denial

If you ask someone who has a limited knowledge of psychology about the subject, they will have most certainly heard of the name Freud, or at least an aspect of one of his controversial theories. Despite having no previous psychological understanding, many will ridicule Freud’s ideas, mocking the idea of ‘penis envy’ or the psychosexual stages. Yet none of these people will mention Beck’s innovative cognitive triad, or Piaget’s theories of childhood development that have provided the basis to education. When people think of psychology, they tend to think of Freud, and the stigma he has attached to psychology often causes people to misinterpret and underestimate the complex, and scientific subject.

The integration of Freud’s research into pop culture has played a part in this taboo. However it is not just those ignorant to the subject that are influenced by Freud’s theories. For example, “The Interpretation of Dreams” by Freud (1900) has been cited 12444 times in research articles. His work has provided a baseline that many psychologists such as Melanie Klein and Carl Jung have developed upon, creating a paradigm that still withstands today.

Despite his popularity, it is naive to assume that Freud’s theories are worth the acclaim they have previously received. Freud considered himself a scientist (Eysenck, 1986), yet his research struggled to fit this criteria. Only through falsification did Popper (1959) believe research could be scientifically verified, and due to the subconscious nature of Freud’s research, falsification of his work is practically impossible. Criticism, as Eysenck (1986) suggested, is the “lifeblood of science”, and only through recognising limitations and finding alternatives can science progress. Freud’s refusal to consider alternative hypotheses to his theories has prevented him from participating in the field of science. Thus, creating research to validate his findings is difficult, as Freud’s work is based on the untestable unknown.

Objectivity is also vital for producing scientific research. Freud’s methods of psychoanalysis involved a lot of subjective decisions. He would have wanted to create research that supported his theories; therefore experimenter bias is likely to have occurred. It is difficult to make replicable research when it is based on subjective experience.

Another criticism in his methodology is his choice of samples. The participants he chose for his studies were outliers of society. There were very few of them, with only six of his studied cases developed into full accounts (Storr, 2002). His participants were often his patients, with signs of mental illness. In modern day research, if we focused on outliers when analysing a data set, and used these to make inferences about society, our research would be vastly criticised. Therefore the generalisability of Freud’s research is most certainly questionable.

We cannot deny that Freud’s ability to combine such complex ideas to create a paradigm, which in its time was so influential, is not a work of art. However therapies have been developed from this flawed research, and the use of them is open to discussion. The importance of building on past research is prominent in psychology, but what happens when the very foundations of an idea are weak and insubstantial? Does this reduce the stability of the blocks above? As said by Crews (1995), “Step by step, we are learning that Freud has been the most overrated figure in the entire history of science and medicine—one who wrought immense harm through the propagation of false etiologies, mistaken diagnoses, and fruitless lines of inquiry.” Although I’m sure Freud would suggest this is our subconscious, resisting the truth of his theories.

Crews, F. (1995). The memory wars: Freud’s legacy in dispute. New York: The New York Review of Books

Eysenck, H. J. (1986). Decline and fall of the Freudian empire. London: Penguin.

Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. London: Hogarth Press.

Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson.

Storr, A. (2002). Freud: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Science distorting science? – Hurlbert & Ling’s study into sex differences in colour preference.

Previously this semester, I produced a blog post criticising the media for distorting science. The media’s ignorance of science and their focus on ideas that sell, regardless of its scientific quality, have caused a great deal of controversy between scientists and journalists.

However, what happens when a research paper, which has been accepted into a scientific journal, is set out in such a way that even us as psychologists can comprehend why journalists may misinterpret it? From this the question arises – can we really blame journalists for jumping on assumptions if the speculations made by the researcher are so specific it seems plausible for those who are naive to assume they are true?

An example of this is an article in the Times Newspaper, named “At last, science discovers why blue is for boys but girls really do prefer pink”, which is based upon the research into the “Biological components of sex differences in colour preference” by Hulbert and Ling (2007).

At first glimpse, it appears the article has misinterpreted the research paper. Apart from Hurlbert and Ling’s (2007) original suggestion that there is a notion that girls prefer pink, the rest of the scientific study suggests that the female preference is ‘reddish’ contrasts. The article’s concentration on the colour pink suggests the journalist has confused the evidence of the original study with its hypothesis. This is a common mistake made my journalists.

The article also suggests that scientists have discovered the reason for this preference. However this is not true. A speculation was made by the researchers that the findings were evolutionary based, however nothing was confirmed. Unfortunately, the journalist has focused on these assumptions, and subsequently used them to create ‘facts’.

Yet can we blame the media for latching on to these speculations? In my opinion, we cannot. It appears that Hurlbert and Ling have purposefully applied biological and evolutionary concepts to their research to grasp the attention of the media. This area of research is very popular amongst society, and the researchers seem to have played upon that.

The title of the research paper is a key example of this. “Biological components” suggests that there is evidence produced in the paper to support the idea that the sex differences here are due to biological factors. Their data conversely does the opposite, with the importance of cultural differences displayed by the results for the Chinese participants. Therefore the title is misleading.

The evolutionary aspect is suggested as an explanation. No other explanations are given, and this speculation is given in such depth that there is no wonder the media portrayed it in their article. The paper suggests that a female’s requirement to discriminate between colours to fulfil their gender roles is what has caused them to have a preference for reddish colours. The idea of the evolution of female trichromacy appears scientific and well thought out. However one cannot help but query, how does a female’s ability to distinguish colours lead to colour preference? The explanation is lengthy, yet unfinished, and completely ignores the idea of cultural differences.

We must also consider that as a hunter, a male also would have to discriminate between the red-brown colours of the fur of an animal and the green grass. Therefore if the use of discrimination is what caused colour preference, wouldn’t males also have a preference to reddish contrasts?

Another questionable aspect of this paper is the use of a line graph to represent the decomposition of individual hue preferences. The graph implies that the entire colour spectrum was measured, therefore suggesting the variables were continuous. However the researchers state that a standard group of eight colours were used. Is the manipulated use of this graph an attempt to make the research appear more scientific than it actually is?

Mean hue preference curve (Hulbert & Ling, 2007)

Although it is evident that The Times Newspaper inaccurately assumed that girls prefer pink from the scientific study, I do not believe we can blame them for their naivety. The scientific study itself is overridden with flaws and assumptions, and provides a minefield for journalists to play upon and misinterpret. In my opinion, it is Hurlbert and Ling, not the Times Newspaper, that has distorted science.

To test or not to test – the use of Standardized Testing.

Standardized testing is used to identify specific psychological characteristics in individuals. It is commonly used in the diagnosis of clients, for example to help diagnose language delays and disorders, and to assess cognitive skills. Tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (2008) which measures intelligence are widely used. However, despite universal acceptance, can standardized tests such as these accurately identify characteristics in every individual, and subsequently be used to influence the work of psychologists?

A standardized test is a measure that is scored and administrated in a consistent manner. For every standardized test there is a set of normative data obtained from samples of the population, which is used to compare the test participants to.  This sets standards by which the individual client can be compared with. These tests allow psychologists to work from the same baseline, and know that they are adhering to the same criteria.

However, what happens when these ‘norms’ are not as representative as initially suggested? An example of this appeared in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (Hathaway and McKinley, 1943), which was revised in 1989 to improve its validity. The original sample was found to have lacked representation of ethnic minorities; therefore the revised version used a larger sample that was representative of U.S census figures of 1980.

Reviewing standardized tests should be a necessity, as this allows any flaws to be smoothed over and improved upon. Tests which are absent from any form of review may not be reliable and valid.  For example, many of the height and weight charts still used today have not been amended since as early as the 1950s. This ignores the changes of our modern lifestyle, which have led to taller, more overweight adults and children. Bundred , Kitchiner  Buchan (2001) found there was a highly significant increase in weight and BMI under the age of four from 1989 to 1998.  Results such as this will skew the upper distribution; therefore how can the results from these tests accurately reflect the size of individuals in modern society?  Height and weight charts are commonly used to monitor development in childhood, and if a child scores on the upper centile for weight and is perceived as being overweight, this can lead to anxiety in parents.

We must also consider if it is acceptable, ethical and accurate to imply a certain test score indicates some kind of impairment. For example Naremore, Densmore and  Harman (1995) suggested issues with the use of standard scores in language impairment. A standard score indicates how many standard deviations a piece of data is above or below the mean. Language tests in particular are often standardized using only children of‘normal’ language ability. Therefore, when deciding a ‘cut-off’ point for language impairment, some of these children will appear below the line. This will mean that any other children of a normal language ability who subsequently take the test could also appear below this statistical line. It will therefore be difficult to distinguish between those children who actually have language impairment and those who do not.

Inevitably, although standardized tests are used often in Psychological research, we must remember that reliability and validity are not in-built qualities of these measures. When assessing individuals, it is vital that these levels are high, as the effect that these tests can have on an individual can significantly impact on their future, and can have life-long implications. Precision is vital, as an incorrect diagnosis can incorrectly colour perceptions of those around the client, and will determine the treatment given. However as long as we are aware of these tests’ limitations, in the differential diagnosis of conditions, the use of them is not significantly detrimental on society.

The media – an assumption too far?

When one develops a research paper that experiences substantial acclaim, it can then be presented in a psychological journal. This allows for other psychologists to read influential pieces of work, and possibly develop upon these ideas through the act of falsification in subsequent research studies of their own. As psychologists we can accept that research should never be taken at face value, and that just because a study suggests causality, or that a result is ‘proven’, does not mean that this is correct.  As Karl Popper suggested, “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite”, and this idea is what allows psychology to scientifically progress in an accurate way.

However unless one is aware of these frailties of research, research can often be misinterpreted, and subsequently exaggerated. This occurs frequently in interpretations of psychological research presented in the media, where we automatically accept the information the media give us. This is using the method of authority, where we assume that the person who has written the article is knowledgeable about the given topic. It is often forgotten that these journalists are not psychologists, did not find the results themselves and are solely presenting the research in the way they think will make money. They have little understanding of science, yet their ignorance isn’t admitted in their articles. Due to this, the public are quite often misled into believing ‘facts’ developed from a cultivation of assumptions, and because of this the scientific value of psychological research is often left behind.

We cannot deny the importance for psychological research to be presented in the media, as this allows the public to gain insight into substantial findings, and ensure funding is given by the government for psychology to continue to find these interesting discoveries. However it is the way this research is presented that is the problem. An example of this is given in Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science. Newspapers quite often confuse the hypothesis of an experiment with the evidence, and because of this they inaccurately present the hypothesis instead of the actual results. The Times newspaper covered an experiment that showed that having younger siblings was associated with a lower incidence of multiple sclerosis. This was just an observation, however The Times misinterpreted this into “This is more likely to happen if a child at a key stage of development is not exposed to infections from younger siblings, says the study”. It is unlikely that readers are going to find the original source; therefore they are misled by the media.

Another recent example (which we were shown in our SWAC classes) is the claim produced by newspapers that “Brain chemical lack spurs rioting”. Dr Petroc Summer and his team of psychologists found that the concentration of a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA is related to a certain type of impulsive personality. The newspapers exaggerated and generalised these claims to the riots, and used causality to infer an inaccurate ‘cause for the riots’. The intrinsic nature of journalists creating causality from psychological results angered Dr Petroc and his team, and through this he produced an article on the problem of newspapers distorting science. The following article can be seen here.

Inevitably the reliability and validity of psychological research presented in the media is questionable. We, even as psychologists, are often too eager to lap up all the ‘latest research’ the media presents us, however it is vital we remember the concepts of falsification still apply beyond the original research paper, and that nothing, not even ‘facts’, should be taken at face value.

The use of statistics – is reducing human behaviours to figures ignoring the individualistic nature of our species?

It only takes one look in any newspaper or magazine to see the grip statistics have on modern-day society. Continuously we are presented with shocking statistics that project often conflicting inferences about trends in our behaviour. Therefore perhaps H.G. Wells was correct in saying “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.” Modern psychology thrives off statistics, with the necessity to place a figure to everything evident not just in the media, but in the research behind it also.

However one cannot help but question – how can an individualistic society so focused on the uniqueness of individuals have this urge to sit under the nomothetical roof of statistics? Why do we insist in our differences, yet are more than happy to be represented as a grouped numerical value?

Statistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis and interpretation of data. It can give an understandable figure to qualitative data, therefore creating a simple meaning that everyone can understand. Florence Nightingale believed in its strength when she suggested “Statistic…the most important science in the whole world: for upon it depends the practical application of every other science and of every art; the one science essential to all political and social administration, all education, all organisation based upon experience, for it only gives the results of our experience.”

We cannot deny that statistics provides us with an influential result, however the accuracy of this result is somewhat questionable.  “There are three kind of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” (Mark Twain, 1906); statistics can be manipulated to say whatever the research or media want them to say, therefore can we really trust the figures we’re given? Ben Goldacre highlighted this problem in his book ‘Bad Science’, giving numerous examples of not just the media, but professionals incorrectly manipulating statistics to provide them with the desired outcome. An example of this is the notorious case of Lucia de Berk, a nurse in Holland who has been in prison for six years, convicted of seven counts of murder and three attempted murders. An unusually large amount of people died when she was on shift, however she has never confessed and continues to protest her innocence. The prosecutor’s statistician proclaimed it was “one in 342 million against”, however Ben Goldacre shows the error in the statistician’s methods that have created this ludicrous statistic. As he suggests, before Lucia worked on the ward there were seven deaths, and the three years she did work there, there was six. “Here’s a thought: it seems odd that the death rate should go down on a ward at the precise moment that a serial killer on a killing spree arrives”.

Statistics can often forget to emphasize the likelihood that something could have occurred by chance. We are often provided with statistics suggesting ground-breaking findings; however they are often based on results from a small sample, with the statistical significance of the data being low. Who is to say that the deaths in Lucia’s ward didn’t occur by chance? We cannot ignore that unlikely things (such as getting struck by lightning) do happen!

To revert back to my original statement, one cannot forget that everyone is different. No two people, not even identical twins have exactly the same environmental experiences and upbringing, therefore how can we create statistics that represent everyone? Statistics thrive to find similarities that give significance to variables, but how can they do that if the sample is so diverse? We must also remember that individuals themselves are not consistent. People’s opinions, behaviour and health changes, and quite often we don’t even know ourselves what we want from life. How can reliable statistics be formed from such inconsistency, and more importantly, do we want them to?

It is true that statistics play an important part in our lives. Despite us insisting that everyone is unique, we are influenced largely by what statistics tell us about us as a society. However when one actually takes a look behind the figures as Ben Goldacre did, the incorrect manipulation behind them makes one question our national obsession with them. Inevitably, it is debatable whether solid, accurate figures can be created from a source so unreliable and diverse – that of the human mind.

Analyse the methods and implications of Rosenhan’s research on “Being Sane in Insane Places”

In 1973, Rosenhan conducted a field study to expose the effects and validity of labelling, in particular through professional diagnosis of psychological disorders. Although his results were greatly praised and have been highly influential in the field of clinical psychology, we mustn’t take Rosenhan’s research at face value, as alike every study his work has flaws.

Firstly however we must consider the implications of his research. Although it has led to stricter, better defined diagnosis of those with psychological disorders, the study was extremely unethical. The deception and misleading of the professionals breaches many of the ethical guidelines, and the participants themselves were put in extremely uncomfortable positions. An experiment such as this would not be accepted by the BPS today, however we must consider, does the insight this study provided into the problems of diagnosis and labelling overrule the embarrassment to the professionals and distress to the participants? This question is debatable.

Although to the eye Rosenhan‘s methods appear sound,  through reading his research paper it is easy to identify flaws. Anthony Clare stated that Rosenhan was “theorising in the absence of sufficient data”. He used an extremely small sample size of eight volunteers, therefore how can we know that perhaps the apparent hasty diagnosis for all the participants was not by chance? Another question that arises is the number of hospitals in the sample, as Rosenhan states there was twelve. Does this mean that four of these hospitals did not diagnose the volunteers with schizophrenia?

Rosenhan refused to identify the hospitals, as he believed it was a breach of their confidentiality. However this disallows anyone to back-up or challenge Rosenhan’s account at the hospitals, which in-turn prevents his research from gaining reliability and falsifiability. It appears through this that his research is not quite as valid as first meets the eye.

Hunter believed that one of the issues with the study was Rosenhan’s use of the word “normal”. “The pseudopatients did not behave normally in the hospital. Had their behaviour been normal, they would have talked to the nurses’ station and said ‘Look, I am a normal person who tried to see if I could get into the hospital by behaving in a crazy way or saying crazy things. It worked and I was admitted to the hospital but now I would like to be discharged from the hospital’”. Rosenhan in his own research paper complained of the conflicting meanings of terms such as “sane”, yet evidently he uses words himself in inaccurate contexts.

A programme created by the BBC named “How mad are you?” (2008) investigated the problems with diagnosis. In it, three mental health experts were challenged to see if they could make the distinction between “illness” and “health” in ten participants, five of which had various psychological disorders.  They were filmed during a week of activities, and the experts surprisingly found diagnosis difficult! As said by Ian Hulatt, “the public need to realise that you cannot just look at someone and make assumptions. When someone has been labelled with a disorder or episode of mental illness it’s very unhelpful to interpret everything they do through a poorly understood label.” This highlights the criticisms of Rosenhan’s study, as although it is common for one to blame the staff for not recognising the patients were completely sane, diagnosis of a disorder is a difficult process that inevitably can be subjectively influenced.

“If I were to drink a quart of blood and, concealing what I had done, come to the emergency room of any hospital vomiting blood, the behavior of the staff would be quite predictable. If they labelled and treated me as having a bleeding peptic ulcer, I doubt that I could argue convincingly that medical science does not know how to diagnose that condition”. As suggested by Kety (1975), The expert’s job is to diagnose; they do not expect an ‘actor’ as such to test them, therefore in my opinion Rosenhan’s study cannot be seen as detrimental to mental health experts’ reputation, rather the vicious, yet inevitable effect of expectations and labelling. However despite the criticisms, we cannot deny its influential grasp on psychology.