Why We Deny Psychological Research
We may be more likely to ignore or discredit even robust psychological findings when they contradict our lived experience.
By Devon Frye published March 8, 2022 - last reviewed on May 3, 2022
Psychological research can help shine a light on why humans think, feel, and act the way we do. Yet when a finding doesn’t match up with someone’s identity or personality, new research warns, that person may be more likely to discredit it—potentially increasing public distrust in psychology itself.
In five studies, participants responded to two personality psychology findings: that people who believe in God are more likely to locate their self in their heart than in their head and that conscientiousness is negatively correlated with lateness. Participants rated how closely their lived experience matched up with the findings, how comfortable they were with them, and how much they denied their veracity. They also completed measures of the Big Five and other relevant traits.
Participants who perceived their personal experience as inconsistent with the research were more likely to feel uncomfortable with it and to deny it than those who found the findings congruent with their personality. How much their actual personality scores matched up was a less consistent predictor of discomfort and denialism. “Perceptions are everything,” says study author Nicholas Evans, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso. Feeling different from everyone else—even if that’s based more on perception than fact—can be mentally uncomfortable. “A natural reaction to reduce the discomfort is to deny the science.”
Denying that conscientiousness is linked to punctuality may seem benign. But it could bolster pre-existing distrust in psychology, Evans argues, with consequences that extend far beyond personality science. For example: “If people are skeptical of findings on the importance of mental health, they may not take mental health issues seriously or could downplay the negative impact of mental illness.”
Scientists and journalists, Evans says, should be conscious of their language when sharing discoveries, noting how strong effects are and if there are caveats. “Otherwise, people may believe that the findings do or should apply to everyone—and that’s rarely ever the case.” Psychological research contradicting lived experience doesn’t make either invalid, he stresses. “We’re all unique. Having experiences that don’t align with research simply highlights that.”