The State We’re In

Yesterday I put two questions to my friends: ‘What is a psychologist?’ and ‘What do psychologists do?’

I wanted to know how they thought about my discipline, spurred in part by dissemination of The Reproducibility Project’s findings earlier this week. Sure, I sometimes tell them about the things I read, and the things I get involved in, but I was curious about how all this ultimately came together with their knowledge of psychology from other sources. The answers I received followed three trains of thought:

  1. “For the practicing ones they try to find the reason why their patients are upset, and guide them back to healthy mind through therapy; for theoretical ones(?) they try to analyse why people act/feel a certain way?”

This one seemed closest to the truth – an understanding that not all psychologists were concerned with the same things. In particular, a distinction between therapists and academics. Not counting clinical psychologists that span both categories that this friend considered to be exclusive, a decent answer. The main emphasis does seem to be on feelings and therapy, though.

  1. If popular culture is anything to go by, then mostly murder… ;)”

Okay, Hannibal reference. Psychiatrists – fairly close. More therapy.

  1. READS PALMS/MINDS.”

Sigh. Thank you for your insight, housemate not taking this seriously. Despite you trying to make me giggle, you did actually hit on something – I’ve lost count of the amount of times people have told me they admire psychologists because they think Derren Brown (a famous illusionist here in the UK) is impressive.

I started out curious about what they thought of my discipline, but this soon changed into what they thought about me. With views of psychology like this, it’s easy to understand why I hesitate to call myself a psychologist. Perhaps it’s vanity, but as someone who focuses on research, I’m uneasy with people assuming that I’m a therapist (or a mind reader, I suppose).

But it’s not just about therapy, or the association with mental health services. In job applications asking for those who have studied psychology, I use ‘cognitive science’ as a catch all term, actively avoiding admitting that my degree reads ‘psychology’. Sometimes I even skirt around module titles from module courses that included that word. It’s ridiculous when I think about it.

So why do I do it? Why is ‘psychologist’ such an aversive term? I think it comes down to how the title is inevitably linked to common perception of the discipline, which then reflects on the potential quality of my work. With so much collaboration between neuroscientists and psychologists, and recent happenings with The Reproducibility Project calling into question our methods, alongside the variety of statistical sins listed here by Christie Aschwanden, it’s easy to feel like a light weight playing with the ‘real’ scientists. If I were working on the same project as someone with a degree that read ‘Cognitive Neuroscience’, I shouldn’t feel like I can’t provide valuable input because my degree haunts me with the title ‘psychologist’. But I do. Because that title is laden with the weight of millions of women’s magazine covers, self-help books and, more relevantly to an aspiring academic, the news inches detailing the failure of two thirds of replications. I hesitate to call myself a psychologist because I don’t want anyone to make assumptions my ability to produce quality scientific work. Even the title of this blog is a small tribute to this insecurity – as if psychological research has to be nudged into credibility by gentle reassurances that it ‘really is science. Honest!’.

Don’t get me wrong. I love psychology as a field, and this isn’t a rant distancing myself from the discipline. I still believe that there’s both scientific and human value to what I’ve studied that can complement, and even inform, the more physical measurements of neuroscience. But I also believe that much of that value is obscured by low quality research and the inevitable lack of paradigms we have as a young science.

These last two factors contribute considerably to the perception of psychology as unscientific. Academics commonly follow ‘publish or perish’ instead of being concerned with about the validity and value of their work commonly results in the former. It’s unfortunate that this isn’t something I’ve only read about, but in my limited experience, have found it to be very much part of the landscape of academia. At both universities I’ve studied at I had contact with academics aiming to push through as many publications as possible, regardless of quality. Experiments with poor design, inappropriate controls, and stimuli so poorly designed they distracted from the task. I found watching this stream of articles (over the few years of my undergraduate especially) quite frustrating, perhaps mostly because it seemed, at least to me, that those involved could be having so much more of an impact if only they were willing to exert slightly more effort. I can’t pretend that I know these people’s reasons for cutting so many corners that would be relatively easy to fix, and I’m sure that there is unspoken pressure from all sides which ultimately produces that kind of response… but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still find it immensely frustrating.

What’s worse, I feel like I’m the one in the wrong for feeling this way. To challenge any of this feels like I ‘just don’t understand’ because, as a recent MSc graduate, I’m still very much just dipping my toes. I don’t know if it’s a feeling that’ll somehow be shaken off at somewhere along the road, assuming I actually get an academic job or take on a PhD. Maybe the behaviour brought about by publish or perish culture is something that people come to accept as a necessary part of science, in order to stay competitive and put out high impact research somewhere in between the not-so-great articles. I suspect not, though. I think this feeling, at least for me, is likely to stick around. Perhaps I’m hesitant to call myself a psychologist because on some level I would be aligning myself with these kinds of flaws in our culture.

In spite of the title on both my degrees, seeing myself as part of the field of psychology is at times difficult. Though I hope that things will improve, I can’t help but feel like only a large, public group effort will reshape how psychology is viewed. I’m reassured by the fact that there’s been such attention given by the academic community to discussing The Reproducibility Project that this might actually happen.

I’ve met and worked with several academics who aim to publish as much as possible, while keeping a close eye on quality and impact. The ones that take advantage of newer technologies, design their studies correctly, and most importantly, care about the scientific quality of the final product. I’m hoping that, after the current uproar, these are the kind of psychologists that will bring the discipline out of the state it’s in.

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