“Evidence-based psychology informs all that you are; how you view your world, what you do in the world, and ultimately, how you change your world”
Human experience, psychology and science
Psychology – the scientific study of mind, behaviour and experience – has something to say about every aspect of being human. How we think, learn, feel, act and interact with others have all been studied extensively.
So what do we mean by ‘studied’? Several things have distorted popular notions of psychology and research, principally TV reality shows (such as Big Brother) that are still promoted as social ‘experiments’. More correctly they are observation exercises.If we wanted to turn TV shows into true experiments there would need some form of data collection. So we might measure self-esteem of all participants entering the Big Brother house. Then we measure the participants again after the first week in the house. We than apply statistical analysis to see if the two groups of scores show statistically significant differences. That in essence would be an experiment. Whether or not it is socially significant is another matter entirely. Just watching people behaviour bizarrely in bizarre circumstances tells us little or nothing about human in the real world. It’s just the modern-day equivalent watching the lunatics in Bedlam. It probably has more to say about the people who like to watch.
Making sure the research ‘does what it says on the tin’
One of the key concepts in psychology is the operational definition. This means that the researcher defines a key concept for the purposes of the experiment. For instance, how do we measure confidence or self-esteem? We might use a recognized measure of confidence – usually one that has been developed through research. Having an operational definition means that researchers that follow in our path know exactly how we defined and measured key concepts. If they use our operational definition it means that we can compare results. If we have different operational definitions then we are not comparing like with like. Compare this to the PR research approach where they select a measure because it looks good on face value. In research terms this is known as face validity. This applies to quizzes in magazines. They look as though they are measuring a concept. However no one will have tested this to see if it really is the case. Measures in psychology need to have construct validity which means that they are really measuring what they claim to measure. Such measures also need to have reliability, which means that they repeatedly measure the same thing. Anyone who has taken less-rigorous personality quizzes will know that results may vary depending on mood or time of day. Of course it is possible for a measure to be reliable but not measure what it purports to measure. It might be reliably measuring something else entirely. This is one of the key issues that a rigorous academic approach to research addresses.
Is everything that claims to be research really research?
We often hear research mentioned a great deal in the media. Usually it is some study with a slightly sensational slant. Much of the research we see in the press and on radio is not academic research. Often it in the form of surveys carried out by public relations companies as a means of promoting a product or a service. Sometimes these studies do contain elements of real psychology and sometimes they are such a load of hokum. Notable examples of the hokum variety include formulae that tell us the best time to buy an ice-cream or book a holiday (Blue Monday). These are categorized as surveys. They differ from surveys in academic research because essentially they are designed to advertise and the questions are selected accordingly. Now I have taken part in such exercises. I turned down the Blue Monday campaign because the ready-made formula presented to me was clearly a sham. However I did agree to participate in several campaigns for The Learning Council to encourage people back into education. I was also able to include aspects of real psychology that had take-away value.
Academically based research including surveys is far more rigorous than the PR based stuff. Academic researchers will take into account past research on a subject, a project will have to consider ethics and the research will go through a peer-review process before it is published. When a research paper is submitted to an academic journal it is reviewed anonymously. The reviewers can recommend the paper to be accepted for publication, accepted but with amendments or rejected. The researcher receives the feedback. It’s a slow process. It’s a rigorous process. Science is all rather cautious and conservative. Compare with this PR research which can be completed in days and then disappears as quickly as it appeared.
.Psychology as a science – not without its critics
The status of psychology as a science has been hotly debated. It’s one of the first questions faced by new students of psychology. One of the main criticisms is that it is unscientific to use the model of the natural sciences and treat people as if they were mere things. There are also many psychologists who have questioned what we mean by evidence. Many researchers focus on capturing the words of participants as a way of democratizing the research process, that is to let people speak for themselves rather than have their responses constrained by the research design. This addresses many of the criticisms that psychology is sometimes rather abstract and not relevant to the real-world.
Uncovering what common sense overlooks
So when we use the phrase ‘evidence-based research’ it refers to research that has gone through academic channels. Evidence-based research builds on past findings, inspires better questions and yields further insights. It is a continual process. Evidence-based psychology builds on past research, has relevance to the present and also has an eye on the future. This evidence-based approach to is vital in uncovering what common sense often overlooks. It is the role of the applied psychologist to translate research findings into something meaningful in ‘the real-world’.
About the Author: Dr Gary Wood
Chartered Psychologist Dr Gary Wood specializes in translating evidence-based psychology and coaching into workable solutions. He has studied psychology for over 24 years, and has over 19 years experience teaching in several UK universities. Gary has extensive real-world experience of training, coaching, designing research, project evaluation, and working with the media. His book Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It aims to put the psychology back in to self-books, and has been translated into several languages. His latest book is Unlock Your Confidence aims to put social psychology into confidence and esteem building. Dr Gary Wood runs his own coaching, training and research practice in Birmingham and Edinburgh, UK.
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