Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Child's play! The developmental roots of the misconception that psychology is easy

The widespread misconception that psychology is easy and mere common sense has its roots in the biased way that children work out whether a topic is challenging or not.

Frank Keil and colleagues asked children aged between five and thirteen, and adults, to rate the difficulty of questions from physics (e.g. How does a spinning top stay upright?), chemistry, biology, psychology (e.g. Why is it hard to understand two people talking at once?) and economics. The questions had been carefully chosen from earlier pilot work in which they'd all been rated as equally difficult by adults.

Consistent with the pilot work, the adults in the study proper rated the questions from the different disciplines as equally difficult. However, children from age 7 to 13 rated psychology as easier than the natural sciences - physics, chemistry and biology, which they rated as equally difficult.

Young children can't possibly have the depth of understanding to know which scientific questions are more difficult. Instead they must resort to some kind of mental short-cut to make their verdict. Keil's team think that children's feelings of control over their own psychological faculties - memories, emotions and so forth - and the superficial familiarity of those kinds of concepts, likely lead them to believe psychological concepts are easier to understand.

A second study provided this account with some support. This time children and adults rated the difficulty of questions from within the various branches of psychology. Similar to the first study, the children, but not the adults, rated questions related to social psychology, personality and emotions as progressively easier, compared with questions related to cognition, perception and biological psychology, which they rated as progressively more difficult.

So, when do these childish misconceptions leak through into adult judgments? For a third study, another batch of children and adults were again presented with the same questions from the different scientific disciplines, but this time they were asked to say whether they would be able to solve each question on their own (or require expert help) and to estimate what proportion of the adult population would know the answers.

This time the adults as well as the children tended to say they could solve more psychology questions on their own, compared with questions in the other sciences, and kids and adults estimated that more people knew the answers to the psychology questions. Remember these were psychology questions that adults had already rated as just as difficult and complex as questions in the other sciences. 'Such biases [towards seeing psychology as easy] may be observed when tasks do not so directly ask about difficulty of understanding and instead use measures such as ease of learning on one's own,' the researchers said.

Keil's team said their findings have real-life implications, for example in the court-room. 'If psychological phenomena are seen as usually quite easy to understand and largely self-evident and if such judgments are inaccurate and underestimate the need for experts,' they warned, 'cases might well be decided in ways that unfairly exclude valuable expert insights.'

In fact, the researchers pointed out that such situations have already occurred. In the US trial of former Presidential Assistant I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, for example, the judge disallowed the use of psychology experts on memory, on the basis that the jury could rely on their common sense understanding of memory. This is particularly ironic given that prior psychology research has shown that jurors and judges have a woefully poor understanding of how memory actually works.

ResearchBlogging.orgKeil FC, Lockhart KL, & Schlegel E (2010). A bump on a bump? Emerging intuitions concerning the relative difficulty of the sciences. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 139 (1), 1-15 PMID: 20121309

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Related article in The Psychologist magazine: 'Isn't it all just obvious?'


Daniel Simons said...

Thank you for posting about this study. You beat me too it! (Keil was my graduate school adviser many years ago, and I love this line of work on people's intuitive beliefs about psychology.)

I do want to quibble with one aspect of the conclusion. People do consistently misunderstand how memory works, and that does have important implications for expert testimony in the courtroom, but the Libby case is not a good example of such misunderstandings at work. The reason why has nothing to do with your political beliefs about the case.

Although expert testimony about memory might be excluded without a full understanding of memory distortion, that wasn't the case in the Libby trial. In the Libby case, the debate about whether to allow expert testimony on the fallibility of memory was extensive and came down to a preliminary hearing in which Elizabeth Loftus testified on behalf of the defense and other experts consulted on behalf of the prosecution. The court was well informed about the issues, and Patrick Fitzgerald himself had read much of the literature and grilled Loftus about it.

I'm a big fan of Loftus's work on the fallibility of memory, but the question here was not whether memory distortion happens or even whether people understand how memory distortion works. The question was whether the particular kind of memory distortion that has been studied extensively was applicable to the sort of memory failure that Libby's defense was claiming happened.

Although plenty of studies have shown that memory for personal experiences can become distorted over time, none of those studies had systematically examined whether memory for important, personally meaningful events (e.g., high-level conversations) occurring on a number of occasions can then be forgotten entirely. Loftus and others argued that evidence for memory distortion could generalize to this situation, and Fitzgerald managed to convince the judge that it couldn't. The core issue was whether the evidence that would underlie the expert testimony would be germane to the case, and after hearing arguments about the evidence, the judge concluded it wouldn't. That's a lot different than excluding memory testimony because it was "obvious."

Unknown said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks v much for your interesting comments. However, despite what you've argued, I still believe the substantial point remains. Here's what the Judge in the Libby case actually said:

'the Court has no doubt that aided by the normal trial processes, and the assistance of very capable legal counsel, the jurors will have the ability to collectively draw upon their common-sense understanding of memory and render a fair and just verdict.'

In their report on the proceedings, MSBNC said the judge wrote: "the average juror may not understand the scientific basis and labels attached to causes for memory error" but jurors encounter the "frailties of memory" as a "commonplace matter of course" and do not need the guidance of a memory expert to use their "common sense" in the understanding of how memory works.

In other words, this is a perfect, real-life example of the child-like biases uncovered in this study leaking out into adult judgment. The Judge was confusing the immediacy and familiarity of psychological phenomena with the understanding of those same phenomena.

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