How Research Applies to You
As information has become more freely available online, there has been a trend towards making research findings available. This has been both for academics (through databases containing PDFs of peer-reviewed articles) and for non-academics (through online posts/stories, not unlike my own blog posts). The former has come with its own complications, but in this post I want to focus on the challenges of the latter. Specifically, I want to provide words of caution for anyone reading online posts based on research articles: the findings of any one study, even if legitimate, generally have very little relation to your own life.
In order to get a better sense of why this is the case, I want to highlight a few things related to the role these types of posts play online. And yes, I fully acknowledge this post is based on my own perceptions of the problem and not on research. But when all I'm advocating for is caution, I feel that's of little importance.
And to be clear, I'm not saying that the research isn't valid, or that it should be ignored. This post pertains specifically to online posts that suggest you make big life changes based on the findings of one single study.
First, we need to consider the audience that these posts are meant to target. The temptation is to think that the posts are intended for a well-informed general audience. Afterall, there is certainly an audience of people who are genuinely interested in research findings without having to read the actual published studies (which can be difficult to work through). In fact, I expect the majority of people who have made their way to my site and my other content fall within this group.
But many such posts are not really aiming for that audience. Really, they are aiming for the most general audience possible, so they can get as many views as possible. Why is that the case? Well...
Most sites make their income by posting ads in various places. (My site is no exception). But content makers only get paid if people actually visit their site and see their ads. Because of that, it's hard for major sites to resist the temptation to appeal to a larger audience. Why focus your articles too much, and risk not having money to cover your costs, when you can broaden things a bit and feel more secure?
Now that's not to say that content creators are doing this intentionally or maliciously. (There certainly are some out there who are, but they usually stand out pretty clearly and are easy to avoid). Instead, I think that this occurs subtly. But that still makes it important, because when the goal is to make the post reach a broader audience there is something that takes priority. Which is...
When most people read content online, they want to get key points quickly and easily. Google themselves, as part of their AdWords group, give suggestions about how to get more views. These include suggestions like using numbered lists, which more and more people are showing a preference for. They're quick, you can read the key points, and move on. It's completely understandable.
The problem is that research is almost never simple or clear. It's incredibly complex and messy. When looking into research, readers should be doing a number of things:
- Critiquing how the study was done
- Considering who the participants were
- Thinking through how problems and terms were defined
- Trying to think of alternative explanations
- Looking for holes in thinking/reasoning
- Comparing to other studies
And the list could go on. No single study ever tells us much, as they should at the very least be replicated. (And all fields of science are struggling with replication currently; psychology has been the most often discussed, but medicine and other fields are struggling as well).
When it comes to working with humans (whether in psychology, medicine, etc.), there is no way for things to be simple and clear. If a post portrays results of a single study as clear-cut, then you should be skeptical.
(Notice I keep saying a single study; results that are replicated by many studies, and online posts that describe the results of multiple studies in detail, should generally be given more credence).
How to Think about Research
So if things are messy and complex, how should you think about research (and posts based on research)? You don't need to have a graduate degree in a scientific field to be a smart consumer of researcher. You don't even need to necessarily do all of the things I listed above. But what you should do is the following:
- Understand that research explains groups and trends; the findings do not describe or apply to individuals (such as you)
- Understand that for every "significant" result there may well be a "non-significant" result that wasn't published (it's harder to publish non-significant findings)
- Understand that research can never take into account all possible factors; we control for as much as we can, but there are always things that muddy the waters
- Always be skeptical about any post that goes into detail about, and makes suggestions based on, just one (or only a couple) articles
- Keep in mind that it is common for people to "cherry-pick" (i.e., only select) articles that are interesting and/or agree with them
So in short, how does research apply to you? Well, any one article has little relation to your specific life and circumstances. If you see an article online that discusses how "research says" or "research shows," wait to see if more studies find the same thing.
Researchers don't look to articles with interest and belief; we look at them with skepticism. Only after a finding stands against multiple attempts to disprove it do we consider it "supported" by research. Even then, it's not necessarily a certainty. Many things we previously believed to be certain are in fact turning out to not be true in various contexts. And it's important that you all, as readers of these posts, view them in a similar way.