Sunday, June 24, 2018

Speaking of stories

I think part of our role as educators is to have a good story to tell about our particular area(s) of expertise. Part of my narrative is that I am trained as a scientist first and foremost. As a scientist and as an educator, my job is to understand the facts available to the full extent possible. In the process, I am quite aware that not all facts are created equal, and that some are unintentional digressions whereas other facts my be intentional misdirects. Regardless, those of us who use those false narratives as we tell our own stories are going to lead our students astray and give us a false sense of security that those of us involved in a very young science have it all figured out.

For the longest time, I found the treatment of research in textbooks to be highly frustrating. Students gain the impression that research is just one string of successes, which then build upon other successes. The process on the surface appears seamless. And yet, when my students conduct their own original research, rarely do they find clean results. Often - sometimes because of their own methodological mistakes and sometimes because the research literature from which they draw is a bit murky - the process of doing science is far from seamless. The seams are not only visible, but visibly fraying. I find comfort in knowing that, and I try to communicate to my students that a large part of conducting research is getting it wrong, making mistakes, and then attempting to figure out what can be learned. It is a painstaking process, and one in which we're really still trying to get some sense of what we can know and what is yet to be known. We don't need to have all the answers. We do need to ask good questions and to keep our minds just open enough to abandon what is clearly not working.

So when I discuss zombies, whether in the form of ego depletion, the process and outcome of the Stanford Prison Experiment, any of a number of findings on subliminal priming and implicit attitude tests, I do so in order to make sure that my students have the other side of the story: our science is far from perfect. We sometimes appear to have a handle on a phenomenon, only to find out we never did. Sometimes, our colleagues pull one over on us and make it appear as if they found something they never really did. And in due time, we manage to eventually sort it out. The Stanford Prison Experiment is now a cautionary tale. There may be other findings that were more or less artifacts of various questionable research practices. We should not fear these findings, nor should we shy away from confronting the truth and conveying the truth as it becomes available. I'd rather do something other than tell my students that portions of the material in their textbooks are little more than psychobabble that should be (perhaps tentatively, perhaps permanently) dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence. And yet here we are. There are zombies in our field. I seriously doubt there is a full fledged zombie apocalypse, but we should be at least aware of the undead theories and findings that are walking among those findings that are truly alive and well.


Please check Karen Shackleford's latest post if you have a moment. Given what the US has been through the last couple weeks, and what so many on our aching planet have endured for much longer, it is a simple, concise statement. As something of a pop culture enthusiast, I am also interested in the stories our pop cultural artifacts attempt to tell. Whatever else we do with what amounts to our lives, listening to the stories of those who have been truly oppressed should be right at the top of the list. The truth is rarely pretty, often quite raw, and ultimately liberating. It is the truth that lights the darkness. The best storytellers do just that.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The psychology of community theatre

I realize that some will persist in defending Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), even after it has become obvious that the whole thing was a put-on, and is at best a cautionary tale for how not to conduct research. That comes with the territory. What does the SPE tell us that might be even remotely useful? I had been wondering about that, as at some point I need to make some mention of the SPE next time I teach Social Psych. So here the idea I am batting around:

The SPE tells us that if you give some actors a script, a stage, and a bit of direction, they will produce the performance that you as the director expect of them. Yes, some actors may forget a line or two, or decide to improvise. But the ultimate outcome will be little more than a performance that the director intended. At least I know what to expect the next time I go out to see a play. Brilliant. Maybe I'll shout out, "Zimbardo predicted that" when I applaud as the final curtain comes down.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Separating children from their parents is cruel...

...and invites potentially long-term psychological damage. On that point, Dr. LoCicero is correct. I have my doubts that those 27% or so of Americans who are perfectly okay with forcibly removing immigrant children from their parents (often refugees to begin with) would be persuaded by any data or any videos documenting the negative behavioral changes that occur when a child is separated from her or his parents for any significant length of time. We may want to accept the possibility that a significant proportion of that 27% simply get off on cruelty, especially when it is done to those they deem "other" or "less than". I'm more interested in reaching out to those who may have some vague awareness of what the US government's current "zero tolerance" policy is, but who may not quite understand the urgency.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Add the Stanford Prison Experiment to the list of zombies

I have been following the story of recent successful debunking of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the study that made Phil Zimbardo famous. This interview, by the author of the book exposing the unsavory truth of the methods and the coverup afterwards is well worth a read. I will undoubtedly have the book in my hands at some point in the next month or so.

Going forward, when I teach a social psych course, to the extent that I cover the Stanford Prison Experiment at all, it is as simply a cautionary tale and nothing more. The experiment (or perhaps more properly the simulation) is more useful for teaching students how not to conduct and report scientific research. In that sense, I still think Zimbardo's work has some merit. We can train students to critically examine what happened over the course that the experiment was run, how the findings were presented, and to understand when and where Zimbardo's practices departed from what we would consider appropriate practices. Zimbardo's narrative as currently taught is essentially worthless. The Haslam and Reicher (2001) replication attempt may be of more interest.

In the meantime, this bit from the interview did jump out at me:

I think the implications of Haslam’s and Reicher’s research do a better job of accounting for some of the things that the Stanford Prison Experiment used to be offered to explain. The basic theory is that we are more prone to follow orders when we identify with the leader who seems to share our values and frames those orders in the language of our shared values.

This almost reads like a textbook definition of how obedience to authority, and how various forms of authoritarianism may work. As for the original experiment, I am so over it, as far as any value added to our understanding of human behavior. Otherwise, we have what amounts to the trappings of a reality show before there were reality shows. Research participants coached, a "good participant" effect to make the findings conform to pre-existing beliefs held by the principal investigator, and a false narrative that perhaps gives the public some sense of comfort that they lack agency when faced with apparently powerful social situations (yes - the power of the situation is important, but we probably play more of a role in how we react to each given situation than many may want to acknowledge).

As much as I hate adding to the list of classic research that I now teach as utter b.s. to my students, I'll keep doing so as needed. The good news is that the solid research holds up, thankfully. Our science itself, to borrow from Zimbardo, is not a bad barrel generally. There are some bad apples who have found the rotten spots that may exist in that barrel, and it is now up to each of us - regardless of our career status, regardless of our own shortcomings, etc. - to fix, in order to prevent bad apples from doing needless damage.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Something to watch: Peeriodicals

The people who brought us PubPeer (a post-peer review site) recently launched a site called Peeriodicals, which is intended as a way for scientists to curate preprints and existing articles on a specific topic or area of interest to them. This new site is in beta mode at the moment. The intention is to offer something a bit more positive than PubPeer, which exists mainly to critique published articles. Keep in mind that these curated "journals" are not "journals" in the tradition sense of the term, as the articles curated are ones that already exist. That said, there does seem to be an opportunity for interested scientists to act as editors, form editorial teams, and create collections of preprints and published articles that deserve attention. We'll see how it works out. Good intentions do not necessarily lead to good outcomes, but one can hope so in this case.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The "Learning Styles" myth should be swept into the dustbin of history

I have voiced some skepticism about "learning styles" before. It seems good for a quick refresher now that many of us are either prepping for summer courses or prepping for our fall courses. Scientific American has a good and readable article on the topic of learning styles. Although students can apparently identify their preferences for acquiring new information, those preferences do not appear to have much of any impact on how they perform. Fortunately there are some techniques that do appear to aid in enhancing test performance - such as spacing study sessions over more extended periods of time (as opposed to cramming), using multiple modalities (visual, auditory, etc.) while learning new material, and using what I think of as elaborative processing as opposed to rote memorization. These are techniques that were researched extensively by cognitive psychologists several decades ago, and they appear to be "tried and true" as best as I can tell. As I like to remind my readers (and myself), fads come and go. I find it best to ignore the fads.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Apparently the secret to changing your life...

is to only change one thing at a time. I certainly find this to be a fascinating idea, as someone who is at something of a crossroads. I'll be the first to admit that my life could use something of an overhaul, especially when it comes to work-life balance. My initial approach this past year was to try to fix a bunch of facets of my life at once. As I reflect on how well acting on that particular approach was working out for me, I had to realize that the answer was not especially comforting. Then again, I realize that we as a species do poorly at multi-tasking, and making a lifestyle overhaul can lead to the temptation to multitask. So, I am trying something different for the remainder of this year, and see how well that works: I am starting by only working on one facet of work-life balance, which is the practice of saying no to requests that go beyond what I already know I can reasonably handle professionally and financially. I decided to start with repetition of that one modest act in part because that was part of my overhaul process already, and because I could already see the beginnings of some reinforcement for doing so. The idea is that by the end of this calendar year, I will be more of the friend, family person, and colleague that I want to be as opposed to someone who is chronically overextended and stressed out. If there were ever a time to do so, it is now. I have the privilege of being at a place where I am well-enough regarded, I perform well enough as an instructor, and I am coming to my own in some other service areas where I work. By focusing on a few things I like and which I do well, and declining on those tasks or requests (usually these are ones that fall outside my primary aim of prepping students for the workforce after graduation) for which I may be capable, but for which there are probably others who are just as well-suited or better suited, I can take time to relax and spend with those I love. The time I could take tonight in order to watch the Supernatural episode Scooby Natural (which was freakin' awesome by the way) that I had on DVR with my daughters was due to simply taking a pass on something else. The time spent watching that episode and the conversation that followed is a memory each of us will cherish for as long as we live. There will always be demands on my time, but being at a point where I can just do my job and no more, to volunteer only when it makes sense to do so, etc. is all I really wanted in the first place. But to get to that point, I have to keep practicing saying no much more often. It's a modest start, but one that may lead to my saying yes to other activities that will truly improve my life over time. In the meantime, I hope I don't end up reading that the research I am using to guide me is not replicable.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Postscript to the preceding

The day I post something critical of Elsevier I get quite an uptick in traffic from The Netherlands - coincidentally where Elsevier has its headquarters. Obviously I cannot infer causality from correlation, but it is an interesting little coincidence. Make of it what you will.