Wednesday, 11 March 2009

How can we improve the science and practice of psychological science?

The journal Perspectives on Psychological Science has published an unmissable open-access issue all about how we can improve psychological research. There are 26 articles in all, focusing on how psychological research is conducted, reviewed and published, as well as papers on the teaching of psychology and the application of psychology in the real world.

Perhaps most enjoyable is a piece by David Trafimow and Stephen Rice of New Mexico State University who imagine the kind of editorial reviews famous scientific papers of the past would have received, had they been reviewed by contemporary psychologists. Among the papers Trafimow and Rice believe would have been rejected are Einstein's paper on relativity and William Harvey's paper on systemic circulation of blood!

Based on current review practices, they predict a rejection letter to Einstein from a typical contemporary psychological editor would include the following: "At best, your theory provides an incremental contribution, which is not sufficiently strong to justify publication in a journal as competitive as ours."

To William Harvey, Trafimow and Rice imagined the following editorial conclusion: "Although your argument is extremely clever, your dependence on entities that cannot be directly measured and the general inability of your theory to make predictions that might be falsified preclude publication in a journal as competitive as ours happens to be. You might consider sending your work to a philosophical journal, where speculative arguments such as yours might be evaluated more favorably."

Apart from its entertainment value, the purpose of Trafimow and Rice's exercise is to demonstrate the biases and rules of thumb that pervade the way psychologists review each other's work, from subjectively evaluating the importance of new ideas, to expecting new research to be connected to previous literature. Addressing their psychological colleagues, the pair conclude "Above all, do not be the next person to squelch a potentially great work because of ill-considered criticisms, even if the criticisms are standard in the field."

Elsewhere Edwin Locke argues it's time to bring introspection - the act of reflecting on one's own mental processes - out of the closet, after an unofficial ban lasting over 100 years. "The anti-introspection bias discourages psychologists themselves from introspecting, and not only because colleagues would probably frown upon it," he says. "Virtually no top journal would consider introspective reports to be publishable. Yet, introspection could provide valuable raw material for building theories, especially if psychologists worked together to stimulate one another’s thinking."

Shelley Taylor argues that psychology journals need to become a little savvier in this age of online publishing and cross-fertilisation between scientific disciplines. "Many of our papers are simply too long. Does anyone actually read them?" she asks. "For example, the flagship journal of social psychology, the Journal of Personality of Social Psychology, is often characterized by multiple studies that differ from each other in tiny ways, making the review process tediously long and the articles tediously dull. Other journals are increasingly adopting a word limit between 2,500 and 6,000 words, and psychological journals might profitably do the same."

In what is surely one of the most important contributions to the special issue, Ludy Benjamin Jr. and David Baker call for the history of psychology to become a compulsory element of doctoral courses in psychology, arguing that such a move would provide a vital antidote to the fragmentation of the discipline into ever more specialisms. "As psychologists, we share a connection, and that connection is found in our shared history. We owe it to our students and our discipline that a framework exists that causes us to see beyond the narrowness of our daily endeavors."

All the papers in the issue are worth checking out, but the last one I'd like to mention here is by Gregory Walton and Carol Dweck, who argue that psychology is failing to meet its potential to help address social problems. Psychology, they argue, is uniquely placed to help, offering as it does rigorous methodology combined with insight into psychological processes. Walton and Dweck point to psychology's identification of "stereotype threat", in the context of group differences in performance, as one example, and decision framing, in the context of organ donation, as another. "When people are required to opt-out if they do not want to donate their organs, the suggestion is that opting-in is the favored choice," they write.

"It is hard to think of an important social problem that does not have a psychological component," Walton and Dweck conclude. "Yet sometimes in the general clamor of the public discourse, psychological issues and solutions are lost. With a sustained emphasis from researchers and journal editors, psychologists can begin to illuminate the psychological dimension of other seemingly intractable social problems. By exploring these social problems, psychologists may identify novel psychological phenomena, join interdisciplinary teams of problem solvers, and display the strength and unique contributions of our field."
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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