Psychology on the edge

Ella Rhodes reports on the annual question from the online magazine.

Online magazine The Edge has again drawn on a diverse range of the world’s sharpest minds to answer its annual question, this year: ‘What do you consider the most interesting recent [science] news? And what makes it important?’ We have drawn together some of the most interesting and topical answers given by psychologists.

Psychology in crisis
Perhaps unsurprisingly many psychologists chose the reproducibility crisis, and other concerns around the practices of some academics and journals in psychology, as their choice for the most interesting recent news in science. Psychology researcher and author Judith Rich Harris pointed to papers published in 2011 and 2012 that raised some initial doubts over findings in psychology – both published in Psychological Science.

What Harris described as ‘the final punch’ for the topic came last year when Science published work finding only 36 per cent of almost 100 studies in the top three psychology journals could be replicated. She suggested two reasons for the decline of truth in scientific research, writing: ‘First, research is no longer something people do for fun, because they’re curious. It has become something that people are required to do if they want a career in the academic world… People are doing research for the wrong reasons: not to satisfy their curiosity but to satisfy their ambitions.’ She suggests people should not be rewarded on the basis of how much they publish.

Second, Harris suggested the vetting of research papers had also gone awry and wrote: ‘I propose that this job [vetting papers] should be performed by paid experts – accredited specialists in the analysis of research. Perhaps this could provide an alternative path into academia for people who don’t particularly enjoy the nitty-gritty of doing research but who love ferreting out the flaws and virtues in the research of others.’

Professor of Psychology at Yale University, Paul Bloom, also touched on the topic and said some of the most interesting science news had been about science itself, referring to psychology as ‘patient zero’ with its well-publicised cases of fraud and concerns around psychology experiments and analyses of results. He said that although there was a lot to complain about regarding how this story was handled by the mainstream media, with psychology being singled out where a problem exists in other fields, it was still a significant story and good could come of it. He concluded: ‘A serious public discussion of what scientists are doing wrong and how they can do better will not only lead to better science, it will help advance scientific understanding more generally.’

Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College, said despite the ‘jarring’ findings in the Science paper mentioned above, the implications on psychological science would result in better practices in journals and universities. She pointed to the fact that many journals will now not accept single studies with small sample sizes and p values just below .05. She added: ‘Because new policies will result in fewer publications per researcher, universities will have to change their hiring, tenure and rewards systems, and granting and award-giving agencies will have to do so too. We will need to stop the lazy practice of counting publications and citations and instead read critically for quality.’ Winner concluded that, although a sea change takes time, it would result in the reporting of findings that are more likely to be true rather than urban myths, which in turn would lead to a better reputation for the field and a better understanding of human nature.

The rise of interdisciplinary approaches and big data
Moving away from the somewhat marred past of psychology and onto a seemingly, cautiously bright future from Adam Alter, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Stern School of Business (New York University). He pointed to the huge rise in interdisciplinary research as some of the most interesting science news recently. Alter wrote that while social scientists, particularly psychologists, used to examine individuals through a zoom lens, with the growth of academics from varied fields working together, we are garnering an increasingly ‘wide-angle lens’ view of the world. He wrote that another benefit of this type of project was encouraging academics to adopt a wider view within their own fields and added: ‘Many prominent papers published this year [2015] also include brain imaging data (a telephoto zoom lens), and data from social media sites and large scale economic panels (wide-angle lenses).’

Alter also points to researchers who have begun to complement ‘big data’ analyses with ‘zoomed-in’ physiological measures such as eye tracking and brain imaging analyses. He concluded: ‘The big news here is not just that scientists are borrowing from other disciplines, but also that their borrowing has turned over richer, broader answers to a growing range of scientific questions.’

Why we should fear the fear of unlikely threats
Professor of Psychology David G. Myers (Hope College) and his German colleague Gerd Gigerenzer (see December 2015 issue) both gave answers around a similar theme – how our unwarranted fears of terrorism when compared with more immediate threats, can be far more damaging than we might first expect. Myers wrote that recent surveys have shown we are much less fearful of greater, everyday threats, than of terrorism.

He asked why we fear flying when the drive to the airport is the most dangerous part of a trip. He wrote: ‘Underlying our exaggerated fears is the “availability heuristic”: We fear what’s readily available in memory. Vivid, cognitively available images… distort our judgements of risk.’ Myers added that we hardly notice the half-million children who quietly die from rotavirus per year: ‘Bill Gates once observed – the equivalent of four 747s full of children every day.’

Myers pointed out that ‘news-fed, cognitively available images’ make us overly fearful of tiny risks – which may go some way to explaining why an estimated $500 million is spent per U.S. terrorist death, compared to $10,000 per cancer death. He concluded, chillingly, with a quote from Media researcher George Gerbner’s 1981 words to a congressional subcommittee: ‘Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures.’

Gigerenzer, Director of the Center for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) similarly pointed to statistics that each year more Americans die from lightning than terrorism, and increasingly are more likely to die from preventable medical errors in hospitals – unnecessary deaths have risen from an estimated 98,000 in 1999 to 440,000 annually.

He explained this fear of what, in all likelihood, will not kill us: ‘It is called a fear of dread risks. This fear is elicited by a situation in which many people die within a short time.’ He pointed to striking figures that following 9/11 many Americans avoided flying and drove their cars instead resulting in around 1600 deaths from car accidents – more than the number killed the four hijacked planes.

Gigerenzer referred to this as Osama Bin Laden’s second strike and wrote: ‘Although billions have been poured into Homeland Security and similar institutions to prevent the first strike of terrorists, almost no funding has been provided to prevent the second strike.’ He concluded that making the public more aware of how terrorists exploit people’s fears could save lives and added: ‘It could also open people’s eyes to the fact that some politicians and other interest groups work on keeping our dread risk fear aflame to nudge us into accepting personal surveillance and restriction of our democratic liberties.’

Many other psychologists contributed, including Steven Pinker, Tania Lombrozo, John Tooby, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Bruce Hood, Nicholas Humphrey, Kurt Gray, June Gruber, Abigail Marsh and Diana Deutsch. 

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