Do you trust everything you read? How do you know the psychological article you are reading is accurate, unbiased, and helpful? Perhaps using your intuition.
However, there is a more systematic way of deciding if a post is credible and useful. It is called, cheekily I might add, the CRAAP Test. The letters in CRAAP stand for: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose.
An article on mental illness published in Psychology Today 30 years ago, even if written by a top expert, may not reflect recent findings or our current conceptualization of mental illness.
Compared to physics or chemistry, psychology is still a very young science and some of our most basic assumptions in the field have been challenged by new scientific findings. So it is essential not to assume older views of personality, behavior, and cognition are necessarily still accepted by the scientific community.
Some questions to ask regarding the currency of an article you are reading:
- When was the content written?
- When was it published?
- Has it been updated since then?
As you begin reading an article, keep in mind the reason you selected to read it. Sometimes the written material does not address the question you thought it would; perhaps the author failed to answer the question, the title was intentionally misleading, or you misunderstood what the author intended to explain.
Perhaps you are not the intended audience (i.e. the information is too technical or too basic for you).
Also important to the relevance of an article are the depth and breadth of coverage. An introductory book on mental health treatments, for example, needs to cover common types of medications (e.g., benzodiazepines, SSRIs) and forms of psychotherapy (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy). A post on the benefits of, say, biofeedback for social anxiety, does not.
Questions regarding relevance:
- Why are you reading this information?
- Does it deliver what it promises?
- Are the language and coverage appropriate?
If the information you are reading comes from an individual’s personal experience, make sure the author is experienced enough in the field and has used a systematic approach to analyzing his or her experiences. Why? Because all of us, including doctors, are prone to many biases. (One such bias is explained in the video below).
Greater trust in the author is usually required when the information provided concerns a complex topic, is based solely on the author’s personal experience, or disagrees with what is widely believed by respected people in the field. Case in point, if a person says you should spank your children, you might want to carefully examine the person’s source of information because the weight of evidence currently suggests spanking is ineffective and harmful.
Questions regarding authority:
- Does the author have an academic degree in this area from a reputable college?
- If the information provided is based on experience, is the writer experienced enough?
- Are the writer’s conclusions based on an objective and systematic approach to evaluating his or her experiences?
Psychology is—or inspires to be—an empirical science, so major psychological claims need to be verified by scientific experiments. If what you are reading is said to come from research, check the references and click the links.
Psychology researchers often write in a manner that shows their respect for truth. For instance, they suggest that a variable (e.g., exercise) makes some event (e.g., happiness) more likely or probable, not certain. This is not false modesty but an appreciation for the shortcomings of statistic methods and the elusive nature of the truth. The scientists’ certainty increases mainly with more replications of the study (i.e. researchers in other labs getting the same results).
So look for a lot of evidence when someone makes absolute claims.
One last point: Watch out for an expert being quoted out of context. The specialist’s claim may be accidentally or deliberately misconstrued. When in doubt, go to the source.
- Has the author cited sources for the assumptions and claims?
- Are most of the sources scholarly (e.g., peer-reviewed academic journals)?
- Have the results of these studies been replicated?
The last element of the CRAAP test is the purpose of the article. One may write for various purposes: Informing the reader of an occurrence, explaining how something happened, entertaining, selling, persuading, and other motivations.
Also look for ulterior motives, conflicts of interest, and hidden agendas. Even a highly objective researcher may sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, provide biased guidance or make unsubstantiated claims. The writer might be providing an opinion (in the guise of a science-based article) about a controversial topic or a topic that has affected him or her negatively in a deeply personal way, or writing the piece as a way to promote a product or service.
Conflicts of interest and financial motivations can be so powerful they even influence research studies, which is why The New England Journal of Medicine and many other journals now require authors to disclose any financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
So, as you read, ask yourself:
- What is the author trying to accomplish (e.g., inform, entertain, convince, sell)?
- Is there any evidence of conflict of interest or hidden agenda?
- Is the report discussing a sensitive topic? Might the author’s personal feelings have negatively influenced the objectivity of the article?
Concluding thoughts on critical reading
To evaluate the usefulness and reliability of the information you are reading, ask a lot of questions, like: What does this mean? Why? How does the author know? Who said that? When? Based on what evidence? Better yet, have a list of the CRAAP Test questions (Figure 1) and get to work. Do not forget to click the relevant links or look up references. This approach may help you not only sharpen your intuition and not waste your time on inferior articles but also understand and recall what you read better.