Making sense of psychology headlines

Psychology news and how to use it

Posted Feb 22, 2011

Before I provide you with some answers to these questions, I'll get some basic points across. Psychology is a science and its contributions to the understanding of behavior are based on empirical research. Psychologists who provide treatment rely upon principles based on scientific evidence. The news stories don't always reflect these facts. Instead, many of them rely on popularized, digestible versions that may or may not be accurate.

Let's take an example. You read the headline: "Men Forgive Girlfriends Who Cheat - If It's With A Woman."  Intrigued, you click on the link to the story. As it turns out, the story is based on a study in which college undergraduates were instructed to read various cheating scenarios.  They were not asked about actual relationships of theirs but were asked to imagine how they would feel in these situations. How does this information change your interpretation of the findings? Do you wonder how people would react if their actual partners cheated on them? Think about the age of the participants. Chances are that if they're typical college students, they're 18 or 19 years old. Now ask yourself whether you're confident that these students would respond in ways that are typical of adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and older or even people in their late 20s.

Eye-catching images and ear-catching sound bites like the cheating headline clamor for your attention. Stories about love, sex, or some combination of the two are particularly alluring. But before you make drastic decisions based on these stories (such as telling your man that you cheated on him but only with another woman), think again.  He's not going to jump for joy, no matter what those study authors said they found.

Evolutionary psychology loves to get in the game of making psychology sexy. One of their favorite themes concerns ovulating women. Headlines translate "ovulating" to "fertile." At the time of the month when a woman is ovulating, so the theory goes, she gives off cues that turn on a man's sex hormone, testosterone.  Supposedly the man will now lust after this woman because she's raring and ready to go. Now the human species can propagate. Without these signals, we'd be doomed to extinction, I suppose.

In one recent study, announced by the misleading headline: "The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women," men involved in romantic relationships found an ovulating attractive woman less attractive than did men not involved in relationships.  In interpreting the results, the author of the study, "It seems the men were truly trying to ward off any temptation they felt toward the ovulating woman," said Dr. Maner, who did the work with Saul Miller, a fellow psychologist at Florida State. "They were trying to convince themselves that she was undesirable. I suspect some men really came to believe what they said. Others might still have felt the undercurrent of their forbidden desire, but I bet just voicing their lack of attraction helped them suppress it." I become suspicious when I see statements such as "I bet" in a scientific context.  You can bet in Vegas, but not in an interview reporting on scientific findings.

Let's look at the actual article. There were 38 undergraduate men who participated in the study. The women recorded their day in the menstrual cycle, but there was no check to see if they actually were ovulating or not. Men in a relationship judged these "ovulating" woman less attractive by about 2 points than did men not in a relationship, a difference which was statistically significant. However, the authors didn't report on the beginning and end point of the scale. Truncating the scale is a typical trick used to emphasize small absolute differences. And guess what, there was another problem. There was no control condition in which men rated women who did not report they were ovulating. Finally, as in most of these studies, the participants were all undergrads.

The gold standard for judging the quality of a study's results is whether the study is published in a scientific journal that's reviewed by experts in the area. However, even if a study meets this standard, there's no guarantee that the news story pays attention to the study's limitations. Study authors are urged to speculate wildly about the meaning of their findings and like Maner, often do. Problems in the research are rarely revealed in the media because they don't fit conveniently into the news format. Most news writers want stories that provide answers, not those that raise more questions.

You might well say: "How can I, a non-PhD, or non-researcher, figure out what's wrong with a news story covering psychology research?" I can't even get my hands on the article, much less understand it even if I could get the article. There are ways you can separate the good from the bad and ugly. One is to follow reliable sources. The American Psychological Association does an excellent job of vetting its news stories as do many other professional associations and societies.  Secondly, you can put on your own critical thinking cap. 

The expression "correlation does not equal causation" may sound a bit ethereal, but it sums up the most important critical thinking advice you can ever hear. For this example, let's switch from matters of the metaphorical heart to matters of the physical heart. A news story reports on a paper given at a conference claiming that stroke risk is related to lifetime history of drinking diet soda.  You drink diet soda. Are you going to be likely to suffer a stroke? Don't put that soda can away just yet. It's possible that drinking diet soda causes stroke, but a third factor, such as obesity, could actually be in play. People who are overweight also drink more diet soda and also have a higher risk of stroke. Weight could be the common factor causing diet soda and stroke to appear to be related.

Although many students tend to roll or shut their eyes when their statistics professors take them through these types of analyses, the critical thinking process can be fun. How many possible additional factors, can you think of in any given case? Perhaps people who drink diet soda have higher stress in their lives, placing them at greater stroke risk. Or it's possible that diet soda drinkers also eat more unhealthy meals in general. The diet soda drinkers may also exercise less, thinking that since they're watching their diet, they don't need to exercise, and therefore miss out on an important way to prevent strokes. It's even possible that people who are told by their physicians that they're at risk for stroke end up drinking more diet soda to help cut down on their sugar intake but make no other changes in their lifestyle habits.  They then remain more or perhaps even more susceptible to stroke.

These examples show that looking for alternative explanations before accepting quick sound bites as truth doesn't take a Ph.D. in statistics. If playing Monday morning quarterback when reading scientific articles makes you nervous, though, you can find guidance in various places online. Googling past the initial headlines may lead you to discussions in other sources that provide you with more grist for your critical mill.

Here are five simple "news you can use" guidelines:

1. Use reliable sources. Subscribe to RSS feeds and the twitter accounts of reputable scientific organizations and experts.

2. Put on your critical thinking hat. You may not feel qualified to second guess a scientific report but anyone can ask questions and should.

3. Look at who the subjects of the study were. Headlines about human behavior are often based on studies involving lab animals or college undergraduates. Do the authors of the article over-generalize from these samples to human behavior at large?

4. Check out the strength of the finding. If you're about to make a change in your behavior on the basis of a single study, you need to make sure that the advice is based on solid stats.

5. Don't rush to changes your lifestyle. A study reported on Tuesday may be contradicted by another one on Thursday. Don't do anything radical especially if you may be putting yourself at risk.

It's inherently fascinating to find out why we behave as we do. Learn to be discerning in which advice you follow and you'll make sure to maximize your benefit from the many valuable insights that psychology has to offer.

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, Ph.D. 2010