Friday, November 3, 2017


When I was an undergraduate student, and later a graduate student, if I wanted a summary of the state of the literature pertaining to a research question the narrative review was the primary - and in many cases - the only choice. For those needing a refresher, a narrative review is one in which the author or authors pick a set of studies to summarize, and then offer an intensive analysis of what that literature tells us about how well a particular research hypothesis is holding up. As someone who has certainly read my share of narrative reviews, and authored or coauthored a few of my own, such reviews do have a place. If done even remotely well, a narrative review can offer an encyclopedic summary of a research area, or a quick summary of recent research and theory for a particular line of inquiry.

The problem with narrative reviews was that they were ultimately subjective. Everything from the selection of articles to examine to the conclusions drawn was based ultimately on the particular whims of the authors. With such subjectivity, we were bound to find conflicting narrative summaries on any topic imaginable. If one had sufficient expertise in an area, one could quickly get to know the players well enough to suss out the perspective a particular author or team of authors would likely offer. If one were interested in whether or not psychotherapy was effective, for example, any literature review by Hans Eysenck was going to be predictably negative. However, for novices, or those simply wishing to reinforce pre-existing biases, narrative reviews were highly problematic.

Early narrative reviews on the weapons effect are particularly instructive. Depending on whether one read the work of Leonard Berkowitz and his former students or read the work of researchers who were downright skeptical to the point of cynicism, one would either be convinced that a weapons effect was real or that a weapons effect was non-existent. To make things even more frustrating, in the early 1990s, two book chapters in the same volume were published where competing authors examined mostly the same studies and came to radically different conclusions regarding the existence of the weapons effect. For any of us seeking some closer approximation of truth, such a situation was untenable.

The meta-analysis offered a promising alternative to that untenable set of circumstances. I will turn to that topic shortly.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

On tap for later

I am going to have a full schedule through the rest of the semester. Blogging, as always, is on the back burner under those circumstances. When I do resume blogging, I'd love to spend some time on a few facets of research in my field that have been bugging me for quite some time. One area I would love to spend some time on is the use and likely misuse of meta-analyses, especially in highly contentious research areas. As someone who has participated in such research on rare occasion, I might have a few things worth saying, some of which will be definitely have a tell-all flavor. Also on tap is a look at classic research that has failed to replicate, yet still gets reported in textbooks and popular media as "fact" long after being debunked (e.g., ego depletion, facial feedback, Type A/B Personality).

In the meantime, I have some awesome student research projects to supervise. Undergraduate students are a blast to work with, especially those who are truly enthusiastic about the research enterprise and who have yet to reach the sort of Kurt Vonnegut-style jadedness that seems to settle in on those of us at mid-career. I have some small projects conducted with some former students that need writing up. These will probably not go to top-tier journals, as our work is more often than not attempting some form of replication using diverse but ultimately college student samples, or is very exploratory research that would probably be deemed unimportant to the premier outlets. Those manuscripts will get submitted to legitimate peer-review journals and we'll eventually get some hopefully necessary lines added to their CVs as they head to grad programs. I also have my usual social psych and stats courses to finish up. Those are inevitably fun for me.

A little reflection: in the academic world, one does not often land in a college or university that generally functions well, where the members of one's department generally get along well with one another, and in which one can make lasting friendships within the community - completely unconnected to the college or university. I am one of those lucky individuals who managed to do so, quite by happenstance. In a very real and fundamental sense, I have everything I would want and everything I need. For that I am truly grateful. The academic environment, more broadly, is one that so often pushes its members to believe that they need to compete for "opportunities" that they will not want and which will only leave them unsatisfied and miserable, all the while being pushed to believe that they will find "more" of whatever they really don't want elsewhere. My advice is not to fall into that line of thinking. It is a trap. If you've got it good, enjoy. Smell the roses occasionally. You'll be better off for it.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

John Oliver on science

I love this humorous clip from John Oliver's HBO series. Oliver touches on a number of key topics, from some of the questionable research practices that have led to some legitimate concerns that we will be wrestling with for some time to come, as well as how poorly science gets portrayed in the mass media.

Monday, October 9, 2017

More on violent video games and aggression

Just to drive home the point about how to best make sense of the impact of violent video games on aggressive behavioral outcomes, here is an entertaining clip from one of my favorite series, Spaced:

Please note that this is actually a fair (and humorous) portrayal of the short-term impacts of playing violent video games. In this case, when interrupted during game play (think of that as a form of high frustration) Tim is considerably more rude to Daisy, his flatmate, than he would ordinarily be - a fact that Daisy clearly recognizes. In other words, yes, there is a real short-term impact of playing violent video games on aggressive behavioral outcomes, but those behavioral outcomes are likely quite mundane. Although I do think that these are outcomes that could be potentially damaging to interpersonal relationships, and that is a conclusion that I am confident the research would allow me to make, I don't see any substantial risk of violent video game play and actual real world violence. If you are a gamer, there is no need to panic. If you live with a gamer, as I do, expect that occasionally they will behave like jerks if they misattribute their arousal to a minor frustration rather than to the content of the game itself. So yes, the research findings on video game violence and aggression are real, but please, be responsible when interpreting those findings. I'd rather the research invite healthy skepticism rather than cynicism. In the meantime, I'm eager to get the latest version of Wolfenstein.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Thinking straight about media violence

I am a bit swamped, so this will be a very brief post. As one can sort out relatively easily, my area of expertise is aggression, and much of my work has examined the influence of aggressive or violent cues on various outcomes (usually cognition). Although I am at a primarily teaching oriented university, and carry a heavy teaching load (at least four courses, each an individual prep, per semester - plus summer), I do try to conduct research when I can and certainly make a point of staying current with the state of research in my area of expertise. One conclusion I am drawing is that much of the research in these areas became needlessly politicized probably long ago. Violent video games come easily to mind, but I could point to research on practically any other aggression-inducing cue. To wit, there is a faction who is convinced that violent video games are terribly harmful and another faction of individuals who are convinced that violent video games have no effect whatsoever. Here's my quick take, based on reading a number of original reports, contributing to some of that research myself, and reading far too many meta-analyses and critiques and counter-critiques of said meta-analyses: it is possible to acknowledge that there is a real tangible effect of video game violence on aggressive cognitive and behavioral outcomes (and I make that conclusion taking into consideration the very real problem of publication bias) and also acknowledge that video game violence is highly unlikely to be an antecedent to real life violence. My reading of the literature has led me to conclude that following scenario is likely the most plausible short term effect of playing video games: if one happens to interrupt a gamer while playing their favorite game, they will probably say some very regrettable things to you that they would not otherwise say, because aggressive thoughts have been primed by their immediate stimuli, they have been provoked (in this case interrupted while trying to concentrate) and attribute their arousal to the interruption. In other words, yes, one will act incrementally more aggressive than they might have otherwise, but that these behavioral outcomes that we observe in the lab, field, and in our daily lives fall far short of mass shootings and social collapse. Should we be concerned about the impact that video game play has? Of course. Should we panic? For goodness sake, no. I'll have more to say later, and I will want to expand a bit more broadly to other situational cues. More to come. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

How to explain the Trump era? Psychologists have some ideas.

Vox recently posted an article, 7 psychological concepts that explain the Trump era of politics. Some of these are concepts I've touched on briefly, such as Chris Crandall's recent work on normative shifts. Some others I haven't. If I have some time, I'll elaborate on some of these concepts more, but for now I will simply state that the article itself is interesting and thought provoking.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Beware "scholars" with fake credentials

Political Scientist Andrew Richards, a professor at University of North Carolina, recently published a damning exposé of White House insider "Dr." Sebastian Gorka. It is certainly worth reading in whole in order to gain some insight into how this particular fraud managed to fly under the radar.

On paper, perhaps, Gorka's credentials would have appeared legitimate: his dissertation was awarded in 2007 while he was enrolled at Corvinus University of Budapest. Unfortunately as Dr. Richards digs beneath the surface, it becomes quite apparent that there is less than meets the eye when it comes to Gorka's alleged expertise and scholarship. Richards summarizes the shoddy work contained within the dissertation, and also goes into the composition of the dissertation committee itself, which appeared to have at least two individuals who had obtained no more than a Bachelor's level degree and one Ph.D. who was a personal friend of Gorka's. In addition, it is not clear when exactly Gorka attended Corvinus University, nor if he was even present when the dissertation was accepted by his committee. Dr. Richards' statement that Gorka essentially was awarded a title from the equivalent of Trump University is sadly appropriate. In essence, the late Hunter S. Thompson would have had about as much right to claim the title of "Doctor" as Sebastian Gorka. The one thing Gorka was adept at, for a while, was to market himself as an anti-terrorism expert, based on a dodgy degree, and target those who were easy marks: media outlets, politicians, and audience members who were looking for an "expert" who would confirm their most deeply-held prejudices under the ruse of offering expert opinion.

What this sad affair says for the legitimacy of any degree awarded from Corvinus University I certainly am in no position to offer a judgment. Perhaps this was an isolated incident at an institution that normally offers better quality control. Or not. At the moment, I would defer to someone with some expertise on the status of Corvinus as an institution. The matter certainly does not help the institution's reputation.

For those curious, Dr. Richards does shed some light on the process of awarding a Ph.D., and the typical composition of a dissertation committee. His description is generally fairly similar to my own experience. The bottom line is that all committee members have the degree that they may or may not be willing to confer upon the Ph.D. candidate, depending on how the dissertation process up to and including the defense plays out. A good outside member is typically someone from a different department at the institution, and is present to assure that the process was above board. None of that appeared to be the case for Gorka. And given his lack of credentials, those seeking insights into terrorism and strategies for combating terrorism would be well advised to look elsewhere for legitimate experts.