It's been a rich week of readings for wondering just what the hell we're doing. Loyka et al. (2019) present a framework for considering external validity, and this framework reminds us just how poorly we are doing at considering actual real-world human behavior. Tal Yarkoni has a preprint up that describes how implausible it is that the situations and stimuli we study will generalize to other situations and stimuli. Danielle Navarro has clarified her stance on preregistration by elaborating on how misguided she perceives hypothesis testing to be. Together, these articles remind us of the importance of studying the thing we actually care about, rather than what's convenient, because chances are that our findings won't generalize as simply as we expect, because a significant p-value only means that the null is wrong, and not that the alternative is correct.
These readings reminded me of some thoughts I'd jotted down following APA 2019. I'd been invited to present some of my research on violent video games. While I had a great session and had a lot of fun talking to a receptive audience about issues like measurement validity and publication bias, the overall APA experience was personally challenging. This is because one of the major themes of APA 2019 was gun violence and what the APA can do about it.
I attended a number of interesting sessions with presenters who studied actual violence by working and serving in communities, doing ride-alongs with police, interviewing people who had suffered violence and had perpetrated violence. This was draining in two ways.
First, there's a lot of human suffering out there. One presenter had found that many felons serving prison sentences for gun violence had themselves been victims of gun violence, often as early as age 14. He further found that, when people knew who shot them, they were less likely to tell the police. They trust the police so little that they would prefer to settle the score themselves, and the police are just somebody you can dump your cold cases on as one last hail mary. A mother from Newtown was there. Both of her children had been shot in the massacre. One died. She described crying until the capillaries burst in both her eyes. One gets the feeling that tragedy cannot be prevented and that many people are doomed to poverty and violence from the moment they're born.
Second, it made me frustrated with how far removed we are from the actual societal problem we want to study. We want to prevent gang violence, child abuse, intimate partner violence, bullying, aggressive driving, and harassment. Instead of studying the community members of South- and West-Side Chicago, we study college undergraduates, a bunch of nerds who would rather read a book than fight somebody and generally have enough money and safety to be able to do just that. Instead of studying shootings or fights or abuse, we study how much hot sauce these undergrads pour for each other or whether they think a rude RA should be able to keep their job. We even use proxies of proxies -- when it's too much trouble to see how much hot sauce they'll pour for somebody, we give them KI__ and watch whether they fill it in as KILL or KISS.
One of the APA speakers closed by reference to the old joke about the drunkard looking for his keys. The drunk is looking for his keys under the streetlight. A friend joins him and helps him look for a while, with no progress. Eventually the friend, exasperated, says "Let's try something different. Where did you last see your keys?" The drunk says "I dropped my keys over there in the bushes." The bewildered friend asks "Well then, why are we searching over here by the streetlight?" To which the drunk replies "Well, the light's good over here, and I'm afraid of the dark."
The light's good over here playing parlor tricks with college undergraduates and hot sauce. And it's certainly less scary than trying to get out in the rough parts of Chicago!
It's possible that I'm not well read and that there's a lot of great aggression research going on that studies these real problems. But mostly I see us running little experiments with just-significant results, or running survey designs that tell us something obvious and hopelessly confounded. Interviews and ethnography and field work seem to be for sociologists or criminologists, not psychologists.
What am I doing about it? Not much. For now, I'm doing my part by trying to test the convergent validity of our lab measures and see whether they actually agree with each other (preliminary answer: they don't). I often worry about my career, because I've never "discovered" some effect. You could do a decent job summarizing my last ten years as digging a deeper and deeper hole in what we think we already know, hoping to find some sort of bedrock that we can build from. So far, I'm still shoveling, assessing publication bias, failing to replicate findings, criticizing too-good-to-be-true results, and trying to figure out if our measures are at all valid and reliable.
I like the work that I do, and I think it's the best work I can do given my skills and resources and timeframe. But that work could be much more valuable if I could get out into the actual populations and environments that we're worried about. I had an RA with a connection at a maximum-security prison, but I wasn't able to pursue the lead aggressively enough and it slipped through my fingers. I'm not particularly smooth or adventurous, so I'm not enthusiastic about going into communities to understand gun violence. I'm pre-tenure, so what makes the most sense for me career-wise is to stick to doing more of the same research with college undergrads and MTurk workers. Maybe try to find some sort of eyebrow-raising lab effect that I can wildly extrapolate from.
I'm not sure what to recommend. As a field, we probably recalibrate our expectations; we can't expect a scientist to make three or four noteworthy, generalizable discoveries a year. Getting actionable and generalizable psychological findings will probably require orders of magnitude more effort and investment. We can make psychological science prepared for that investment by trying to improve the transparency and honesty of that process.
I'm gonna try to read more sociology and criminology. Maybe they know something we don't?