Should You Take Advice From Psychology Studies?

When we read about a psychology study, it is easy to think that we should try following it’s conclusion as recommendations.

That might be a mistake.

Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, put it a little more strongly in his recent piece in his Scientific American blog.

“Psychological studies are not about you. They make few if any predictions about how you should live your life, how to tell if you’re an introvert, or anything else about you as an individual…Perfectly good suggestions paired with great research sounds like a recipe for informative and useful science writing, so why am I so grumpy about it? Because when put together in the wrong way, these ingredients can mislead people about psychology and its purpose, or worse, produce personal disappointment.”

And the kicker:

Experimental psychologists do not, by and large, claim their studies reveal much about any one individual.

I understand his point.

But I don´t totally agree with his article. A psychological study shows a certain hypothesis to be right or wrong. It comes to it’s conclusions only if the result is significant to the hypothesis.

And only if there are various statistical ways to prove that the result is significant, or could not have been caused by a coincidence.

Of course, the media in general is guilty of mishandling science. Misleading headlines, sensationalism, inaccuracies, and oversimplification are the rule, not the exception.

Don’t get me started on the pressure to sell advertising space, obsession with audience share and pandering to the lowest common denominator. But I will just mention that it is general “knowledge” that the average reading level of adults in North America is around grade level 9-10. (Age 15 or so)

On the other hand.

Lets say you read the results of a study on, for example, meditation being helpful for anxiety sufferers. If the results seem significant, it is more likely that if you stick to the behaviour proved to make most people less anxious, you are more likely to be happier than if you don´t stick to it.

So why not use it as self-help? Better yet, in an open-minded attitude of curiosity and experimentation.

Just don´t get frustrated and angry if the new behavior does not give the result you were expecting. Realize that was not for you.

As Zaki notes:

Findings from psychological studies are a bit like batting averages. Except—and this is critical—you’re not the batter. You’re the at bat. This is because psychology is a science of populations. A typical study might include 200 people, dividing them into groups (say, people told to act generously versus those told to act selfishly), and demonstrate a statistically significant edge in happiness for one over the other. Like a batting average, though, even strong differences across groups tell us virtually nothing about how generosity or selfishness would affect the happiness of any one person.

What do you think?