Why you shouldn’t trust psychological research.


By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

The Psyche

Why you shouldn’t trust psychological research.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Do not trust psychological research.

Much psychology research is unhelpful.

In writing this blog, I read a lot of research. I’m looking for ideas and suggestions for ways to be helpful to people struggling with life’s problems.

Occasionally I find some extremely well-done research that is enlightening and helpful. Much of the time, what I encounter is a lot of published studies of dubious value. Let’s look at the problems with much psychological research and why it may be less than helpful.

Most of the research is not about you or your problems.

If you are a person struggling with depression, anxiety, loneliness, or low self-esteem most psychological research will not help you. If you’re encountering memory problems, you may find a lot of studies about how rats memory works. Don’t expect a whole lot of practical help. If you’re a businessman looking for ways to convince people to buy your product, skip the psychology research and take a good look at marketing research.

For a discipline that began with the lofty idea of being the science of thinking and behavior how did it get so far off into academic research with so little value to people in distress?

Psychology research often is performed on a select group of people who are very different from the general population and predominantly different from those people who struggle with mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. People most likely to seek treatment for problems are systematically excluded from many research studies.

A recent study I read about attitudes towards relationships which highlights this issue: this research was conducted using a convenience sample of students in a psychology class. The majority of the respondents were 18 to twenty-year-old female college students at a private 4-year college who were living at home, were unmarried, and had never been in a relationship for more than two years. While this study may tell you something about the attitude of young women who are not yet in a relationship, towards relationships it is not very applicable to working with couples who have relationship issues. Here is a highlight of the problems you may encounter when reading psychological research.

Psychological research is often conducted in fantasy land.

A lot of research is done by professors at four-year colleges. Much of this is driven by their need to create something to publish if they want to keep their jobs. The sample in the studies is often full-time students who attend during the day. Two-thirds of these students are female. This results in excluding most men, most people with full-time jobs, night students, community college students, the employed, and the unemployed, and so on.

Minorities, the elderly, and other special populations are underrepresented.

Our population is aging. Depression is common among the elderly. Repeated studies have found that minority populations are not engaged in treatment. Results of most studies will not generalize to the most impacted people.

Psychological research excludes people who are incarcerated.

Mental health and substance issues are common among incarcerated populations. Excluding those populations biases the results by underestimating the number of people with a problem and by excluding people with multiple issues.

People with substance use disorders are excluded.

The majority of people in treatment for substance use disorder also have a mental illness. At least half the people with a mental illness report a substance use disorder. Counselors working in treatment settings are primarily working with people with one or both problems. While some psychological research may include people with depression or anxiety, most exclude anyone with a diagnosable disorder.

Anyone with less than 12 years of completed education is excluded.

One result of doing psychological research on average people in academic settings is to exclude all those people who dropped out of school or failed to complete a high-school education. As our society has become more technologically focused more years of schooling has become a necessity. Excluding people who are not enrolled in college in research studies has excluded the people most likely to be seeking help in public settings.

The verbal yardsticks used in psychological research may be inaccurate.

One of the significant challenges in treating mental illness is the difficulty of communicating through words. Many clients lack a functional feelings vocabulary. When you try to use words to describe symptoms not everyone agrees on which words describe which symptoms. A great deal has been written about the “big five” psychological constructs. Those Big Five constructs were created from more than 100 different possible constructs. Introverted versus extroverted personality, doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

The sample size and research are often microscopic.

Grab any 10 or 20 people off the street and asked them a series of questions about their feelings, their life, and their problems and you can get radically different results. Results done at one school in one district may not reflect results you would obtain at other schools in other areas. When it comes to specific mental health issues, I have seen studies published with fewer than ten people. The chances that those ten people represent in any way millions of other people is nonexistent.

Results of many psychology experiments can’t be replicated.

Back in the 1960s, many people were “psychology majors.” The promise that psychology as a discipline could help us improve our selves, society and solve problems seemed great. Unfortunately, much of what people learned back then and since has turned out not to be accurate. Today psychology is experiencing a replication crisis — many of the things I learned in psychology classes were the results of one “landmark” famous experiment. As the years have passed, other experimenters tried to reproduce those results. Unfortunately, doing the same research more than once has produced different results.

Results psychological research do not generalize to other populations.

The “Psychological principles” we discover in one place and at one time haven’t held true when applied somewhere else or in some other year. Experiments, particularly surveys about attitudes and issues, done in America don’t necessarily hold true in other countries. Results of studies on young, white, female, college students have in no way remain valid when applied to minorities, men, the unemployed, the mentally ill, the addicted, and so many other populations.

Mental health is about abnormal psychology.

One small branch of psychological research deals with “abnormal psychology.” The things we now call mental illness and substance use disorders are included in the field of abnormal psychology. Unfortunately, more than half of all the people in America will experience a mental health or substance use disorder. “Normal psychology” is not about normal people. The majority of normal people will experience one or more episodes of something described by “abnormal psychology.”

The next time you read about a startling new revelation from the field of psychology, you may need to take out your salt shaker. I still read a lot of that research, but I’m much more skeptical now that I was in 1966 when I thought I might want to be a psychology major.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Three David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

SasquatchWandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive? The guests had come to Meditation Mountain to find themselves. Trapped in the Menhirs during a sudden desert storm, two guests move through a porthole in time and encounter long extinct monsters. They want to get back to their own time, but the Sasquatch intends to kill them.

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