Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Psychology's Awkward Puberty

There's a theory of typical neural development I remember from my times as a neuroscience student. It goes like this: in the beginning of development, the brain's tissues rapidly grow in size and thickness. General-purpose cells are replaced with more specialized cells. Neurons proliferate, and rich interconnections bind them together.

Around the time of puberty, neurons start dying off and many of those connections are pruned. This isn't a bad thing, and in fact, seems to be good for typical neural development, since there seems to be an association between mental disorder and brains that failed to prune.

In the past half a century, psychological science has managed to publish an astonishing number of connections between concepts. For example, people experience physical warmth as interpersonal warmth, hot temperatures make them see more hostile behavior, eating granola with the ingredients all mixed up makes them more creative than eating granola ingredients separately, and seeing the national flag makes them more conservative. Can all of these fantastic connections be true, important, meaningful? Probably not.

Until now, psychology has been designed for the proliferation of effects. Our most common statistical procedure, null hypothesis significance testing, can only find effects, not prove their absence. Researchers are rewarded for finding effects, not performing good science, and the weirder the effect, the more excited the response. And so, we played the game, finding lots of real effects and lots of other somethings we could believe in, too.

It's now time for us to prune some connections. Psychology doesn't know too little, it knows too much -- so much that we can't tell truth from wistful thinking anymore. Even the most bizarre and sorcerous manipulations still manage to eke out p < .05 often enough to turn up in journals. "Everything correlates at r = .30!" we joke. "Everything! Isn't that funny?" One can't hear the truth, overpowered as it is by the neverending chorus of significance, significance, significance.

This pruning process makes researchers nervous, concerned that their effect which garnered them tenure, grants, and fame will be torn to shreds, leaving them naked and foolish. We must remember that the authors of unreplicable findings didn't necessarily do anything wrong -- even the most scrupulous researcher will get p < .05 one time in 20 in the absence of a true effect. That's how Type I error works. (Although one might still wonder how an effect could enjoy so many conceptual replications within a single lab yet fall to pieces the moment they leave the lab.)

Today, psychology finally enters puberty. It's bound to be awkward and painful, full of hurt feelings, awkwardness, and embarrassment, but it's a sign we're also gaining a little maturity. Let's look forward to the days ahead, in which we know more through knowing less.

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