Laypeople Feel Qualified to Judge Psych Research

Many people are fascinated by psychology, but they often rely on popular sources

Posted Jul 01, 2014

If you are reading this then there is a better than average chance that you have an interest in psychology. Psychology in general, and positive psychology in particular, is unlike virtually every other science. While molecular genetics and paleontology seem mysterious, the science of happiness has an "everyday" feel. While you probably don't hold a strong opinions about graviational fields or the mechanics of bird flight you likely do have some thoughts on happiness and other psychological topics. 

Because of the unique nature of psychology–it is, after all, the science of people–the everyday person has long had an intimate relationship with this discipline. Laypeople often read psychological advice on topics ranging from better relationships to forming new habits to becoming more optimistic

This raises an interesting question: Is positive psychological science the domain of experts? Or, do lay people have a legitimate right to be consumers of this science? While I would not presume to be the final arbiter of this issue, I do have some thoughts on the matter. 

We should begin to answer the question of how laypeople interact with positive psychology by simply asking them. To this end, I recently conducted a study that employed a sample of 173 everyday folks interested in positive psychology and seperate sample of 7 experts who publish on the topic. Here are some initial results: 

 1. Laypeople rely on popular sources

This should come as no great surprise. While 63 percent of the everyday respondents indicated that they relied on academic journals as primary sources of information, 86 percent said that they read popular books by academics and 70 percent said they relied on social media. 100 percent of the experts, by contrast, reported reading academic journals and fewer than half checked social media.

 2. There is a "popularity effect"

Certain topics are far more likely appear in popular sources. Subjects like meaning and resilience are "sexier" than topics like Hope Theory and Self-Regulation. Despite the fact that some topics receive far more research attention it is the cleverest, most counter-intuitive studies on the sexiest topics that recieve media attention.The result is that there is little agreement among laypeople about which topics constitute positive psychology. Only 66 percent of the respondents said that "happiness is central to positive psychology" even though there is more published research on that topic than on three other topics combined: meaning (82 percent said this was central), mindfulness (70 percent), and resilience (74 percent). It's not that lay people were totally off base–in fact, they did a pretty good job overall, but they tended to weight popular topics. 

 3. There is a "fame effect"

People tend to focus on topics rather than on researchers. Manydo not necessarily know that Angela Duckworrth is the name of the researchers most associated with the topic of "grit." When asked about 10 researchers it was those who are the most famous, not necessarily the largest contributors, who were endorsed by laypeople. A perfect example of this is Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher with 2 popular books and 71 publications listed in PsycInfo (the professional psychology database). 66 percent of the laypeople thought she was "central to positive psychology" and 30 percent were not familiar with her. By contrast, Laura King, a woman who is Lyubomirsky's co-author on one of the most highly cited articles in positive psychology and who has 94 publications listed in PsycInfo, was recognized by only 23 percent of the respondents. The major difference between these two women is not their academic chops but their reach to the popular world. 

4. There is over-confidence

When asked to weigh in on the strength of research on various topics the experts showed a fair degree of agreement with regards to happiness, Broaden & Build Theory, and mindfulness. They believed–nearly uniformly–that the research on these topics is strong or very strong. When the nonexpert people were asked the exact same question, they endorsed (strongly/very strongly at that) the categories of research as follows:

Happiness: 72 percent

Broaden & Build Theory: 58 percent

Mindfulness: 79 percent

Now, here's the kicker. Although only 63 percent of laypeople reported actually reading academic journals the number who said "I don't know" for happiness research was zero, for mindfulness research was zero, and for research on the Broaden & Build Theory was a measly 5 percent. Again, there is little question that lay people actually have a fairly impressive knowledge of this science; but it is equally clear that they believe that they are more expert than they really are. 

It is with this last in mind that I caution my own students not to rush to closure on topics. You think you know whether money buys happiness? You don't. You think you know the single largest factor contributing to happiness? You don't. It's not that I know and you don't; I don't really know the answer either. Science is a dynamic source of knowledge and our understanding of these topics is constantly changing. I tell the people I train to keep an open mind about the current state of research and to keep abreast of new developments by reading primary sources. 

If you are interested in getting primary sources on positive psychology you might be happy to know that a number of researchers, myself included, host .pdfs of their articles that they share with colleagues and those interested in positive psychology.