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.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

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What is Abnormal Psychology?

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

What is

What is Abnormal Psychology?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

How is Abnormal Psychology related to mental illness?

Abnormal Psychology used to be a chapter in psychology tests, sometimes it was a separate class. Personally, I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea of normal versus abnormal when it comes to psychology.

We used to think there were two kinds of people, normal and abnormal. Presumably the abnormal had something wrong with them and the rest of people were just fine. The more we study people the more convinced we become that there is a very wide range of what is normal.

Wikipedia has an extended discussion of Abnormal Psychology, though as a note to students be careful with this article, it is not up to date on the recent changes taking place in the field of mental health. For example, the DSM-5 has eliminated the use of the five axes system.

The working definition Wikipedia is using, at least as of today, appear to be more in the realm of “unusual behavior” as opposed to what gets diagnosed as a mental or emotional illness. In psychology, there is this tendency to look at behaviors as either adaptive or maladaptive. In mental health, we think that “adaptive” may well be in the eye of the beholder.

Think back to that “bell-shaped curve.”  When people are so variable how are we to tell how abnormal is abnormal? I have written elsewhere about how along the way psychology and counseling, mental health, in particular, got a divorce. Rather than try to figure out whether atypical ways of thinking were “abnormal” we are looking at – does this different way of thinking help you, as in Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or is this abnormality hurting you.

So the criteria for calling the behavior a mental illness is not it’s abnormality, but does this behavior, normal or not bother you, interfere with your working, school or relationships or does it interfere with other important areas of your life, like hobbies and so on.

The criteria for mental illness are about functioning and how do you feel about yourself. Those kinds of things. It is not about are you left-handed or extroverted.

People are not abnormal all the time about everything.

You can be very different about one thing and quite typical, I hesitate to use the word normal here, about other things. People can move around on this continuum we call recovery and wellness. So being abnormal about one thing, today, does not mean this abnormality applies to everything all the time. Even if it did, this is not necessarily a bad thing unless you think it is.

 Will studying Abnormal Psychology fix you?

Lots of students, typically first-year ones, find they are having emotional problems and they take a class in psychology, maybe become psychology majors, thinking this will “fix” them. They learn a lot of stuff but usually, none of this helps with the problems they are having.

Much of what you experience in life has to do with developmental stages. That high school to college transition can be a difficult time. Lots of stress, competition to do well. There are also those things about getting into relationships, trying out drugs and alcohol and figuring out who you are.

Some people get through, pass this hurdle, and some do not. Rarely does knowing that you are introverted or extroverted or exploring your thinking, knowing, perceiving, ENTI or other psychological theories help explain your depression or anxiety.

That normal think just does not always explain why some people do what they do. Really odd people become great successes and very normal people get angry about their partner’s behavior and show up at work sites with guns.

If you are feeling “different” consider talking with a professional who can explain what kinds of abnormal are OK and what kinds deserve treatment. No, you do not need to be crazy to get counseling. In fact, if you are having problems it makes sense to get help.

These “What is” sometimes “What are” posts are my efforts to explain terms commonly used in Mental Health, Clinical Counseling, Substance Use Disorder Counseling, Life Coaching and related disciplines in a plain language way. For the more technical versions please consult the DSM or other appropriate references.

More “What is” posts will be found at What is.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two 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.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.