Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Rethinking Psychology: Time for a Reality Check

The truth behind psychological truths.

Psychology is by far the newest hot topic in our society. Whether it's an instant diagnosis of an out-of-control actor or actress, airline pilot, sports figure, or political candidate, the media swarm to provide explanations in the form of quickie diagnoses and social commentary.  Even as the global economy proceeds in its faltering recovery, developing countries overturn their leaders, and the nation's debt continues to soar, the media quickly gloss over these events and instead focus their attention on the latest star's personality meltdown. Of course, although the media shape our perceptions of news events, they also base their coverage on what they think the public wants.  And the public wants psychology, or at least they think they do.

Whenever a star enters rehab, breaks up a long-term relationship, or sadly becomes gravely ill, there is invariably a media psychologist ready to comment. In many cases, the psychologist is a legitimate professional with appropriate background to provide insightful commentary. However, the commentary must come in such small sound bites due to time limitations that the subtleties are ignored in favor of obvious and broad generalizations.

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Psychologists portrayed in television dramas and sitcoms also perpetuate an image of the field that is inaccurate. Movie characters with psychological disorders may or may not be realistically depicted, but they invariably are slanted toward the psychopathic end of the spectrum. Given the popularity of crime dramas, it's natural enough that the majority of characters have antisocial personality disorder, substance dependence, or both.

We all desperately want to understand our behavior and this explains psychology's rising popularity. It's for this reason that we so often fall prey to psychological misrepresentations in the media and myths.

But what do we really know about psychology? Much of what people learn in high-school and college students introductory courses is scientifically accurate, particularly when students are exposed to great textbooks and great teachers. However, as in any field, there are changes and new knowledge that don't reach people who don't go on into more advanced study or keep up with the literature.

You may have heard, for example, that the only jobs open to psych majors who don't go on for a master's or doctorate are not actually in psychology.  If this were true at one time, it's no longer true anymore. There are a variety of great jobs open to people who majored in psychology in college. Many research labs in hospitals and private companies employ psychology majors with a bachelor's degree. These lab assistants conduct interviews, analyze data, and serve in administrative roles. Psych students with a background in research obtained while they were in college provide valuable functions in these labs and may stay in those positions for many years, receiving promotions as they continue to gain on-the-job training and expertise. Bachelor's level psychologists can also serve important functions in such jobs as behavior analysts involved in providing services to specific populations such as work with developmentally challenged children and adults. Outside of psychology, a bachelor's degree provides a valuable background for jobs in industry, sales, marketing, and a host of other people-oriented positions.

Moving into the realm of psychological knowledge, there is also much to rethink about the field. Some “facts” are never taught in a factually correct way because traditions handed down fail to convey the whose story. Who founded the first psychology lab in 1879, for example?  The usual answer we teach students is Wilhelm Wundt, who set up his psychophysics recording devices in Leipzig, Germany and began measuring responses. However, in that very same year, William James set up his own psychology lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was not an “experimental” lab in the same way that Wundt’s was, but James nevertheless intended to provide a scientific study of behavior through his newly-developed stream of consciousness method. Wundt may be credited with being more scientific than was James, but as you may recall, Wundt based many of his behavioral observations on thinking about what his mind was doing (introspection). Not really all that different from stream of consciousness when you come right down to it.

Then there’s the expression “Correlation doesn’t equal causation.” What psychology student has not memorized this mantra? While doing so, students come to believe that correlation can’t possibly demonstrate causation. I won’t argue that this statement was never true. For many decades, the only correlational statistic around (Pearson's r) offered no hope of determining directionality. However, starting in the 1970s, statisticians discovered ways to use correlations in prediction equations.  Mediational methods soon followed, and we now have impressive ways to draw arrows from predictors to outcomes in complex correlational models.  

By the same token, experimental studies weren’t always the best way to determine causality.  Students learn that by comparing the average scores of experimental vs. control groups, they can prove that the experimental manipulation “caused” the outcome. We know now that unless researchers control for possible third (fourth, fifth or more) factors, even studies using experimental designs may lead researchers to draw erroneous conclusions.  Random assignment of people to conditions controls for many problems in experimental studies, but doesn’t guarantee a completely clean path to causality.  A great example of this problem was the research that led to discovery of the "Hawthorne effect." You may remember this as the idea that being observed may lead to changes in performance apart from the treatment itself.  Just by conducting an experiment you may be producing spurious results.

Now let’s get to the idea that neurons, once destroyed, are gone forever. Neurons ordinarily do not replace themselves after they die. However, neurons can regenerate throughout the nervous system. Existing neurons also continue to grow new dendrites in healthy brains throughout life, making it possible to lay down new synapses, or connections, with other neurons. Instead of the brain simply withering and dying as we grow older, it has the potential for continued plasticity.

The old tried-and-true facts in social psychology are also going through important revisions. We are now gaining insight into the old adage that attitudes don’t predict behavior. The theory of reasoned action, developed in the 1970s, showed that our intentions and the expectations of our social group affect the attitude-behavior relationship. You can predict behavior from attitudes as long as you are measuring the right intervening factors. Researchers also know now that we have to take into account the attitudes that people don’t outwardly express in order to predict their behavior. You may say that you are completely unbiased toward people of different races, genders, or nationalities—these are your explicit attitudes. However, lurking under the surface of your outward open-mindedness may be the implicit attitudes that reflect your true, hidden, biases. A simple tool known as the Implicit Association Test compares your implicit and explicit attitudes. People’s implicit attitudes correlate much more strongly with their actual behavior, particularly when people wish to present themselves in a favorable light.

This brings us to a discussion of the unconscious and its role in everyday life. Just as Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious (a supposed fact which itself is a myth) led to the wide popularity of psychodynamic movement, the throwing aside of Freudian concepts is equally popular in a world now increasingly dominated by neuroscience. However, you don’t have to believe in the universality of the Oedipus complex to recognize that many events that we experience take place outside the realm of awareness. If you’ve ever been the victim of inattentional blindness, such as not seeing the “invisible gorilla,” you can certainly attest to the fact that you don’t perceive or remember everything that has ever happened to you.  

These are just a few out of many of the psychological facts that we once learned which are no longer considered facts (if they ever even were). I invite you to explore the many new and fascinating ways in which psychology is evolving. Keeping an open mind and challenging the status quo in any field will help you stay on top of the latest knowledge. In psychology, your open mind may also help you reach the goal we all seek of better self-understanding. 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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