Wednesday, July 18

writing {evidence}

Have you had one of those "yeah... nah" parenting moments lately? 

You know the type. You hear some expert banging on about the latest study from the University of They that scientifically proves your child will be stupid/ugly/fat/homeless/imprisoned if you don't get on board like yesterday. So you start thinking about how you could integrate this pearl of wisdom du jour and you realise it's just not going to fly. Not in your family and not on your watch!

And you feel good about it. You keep on keeping on. Nobody has scurvy and your three-year-old hasn't started experimenting with heavy eyeliner. Exhale.

But then that pesky piece of research pops up again and again. It takes on a life of its own and becomes ingrained in public discourse as an inviolable Law of the Universe.

Family mealtimes (saintly). Co-sleeping (possibly dodgy). TV watching (heinous). Reading aloud (miraculous). Smacking (let's not go there).

But are family mealtimes helpful if your other half doesn't get home till 7:26 and your kids are fainting with hunger at 5:47? Is watching TV really going to melt your toddler's brain, particularly if it gives you a precious hour in which to not go completely fruity?

It's frustrating. You concede that Dr Whatsit-Whiteteeth on that breakfast TV show might have a point. But they don't know you and they certainly don't know your kids. You feel guilty for not doing something that might actually be of benefit, but you have neither the time nor the patience to dabble in some woo-woo fix that would rocket your stab-o-meter through the roof.

So it doesn't surprise me that I've heard...

"Where is the actual real scientific evidence
for this load of coddswallop?!

... more than once in the last few years!

One of the advantages (?!) of being a uni student is that I get to do lots of essays. And they require research. And I have to look up actual real scientific evidence. Oh yes I do!

So if you're one of those folks who suspects parenting gurus are conspiring to turn us into mindless hippies with deranged offspring - but you just want to make sure - then you might find this handy...

A Cheat's Guide to Psychology Research

Step One - Choose Your Weapon

Open Google Scholar. No, not just Google - you want the 'Scholar' site. Instead of the usual search that picks up popular links, Google Scholar limits the search to scholarly articles written by universities, think tanks, scientists and the like. Not everything is legit, but it's slightly more cerebral than regular old Google.

Step Two - Name Your Beef

Enter your search terms just like you would in regular Google. For example, if you want to find out whether it's safe for your ten year old to stay home alone for an afternoon you might enter "children home alone safety". If you're keen, look at the left side of the screen and limit your search by date to grab the most recent studies.

Step Three - Prepare To Engage

Scan your results for a likely suspect and click on the link. You'll most probably be catapulted to a busy-looking page belonging to a reputable institution. Check out what that institution is, and if they sound dodgy then go back and pick another link. When you find a legit organisation, locate the 'Abstract' of the study you've selected. It should be fairly prominent on the page.

Step Four - Tear That Sucker Up

An Abstract is a little summary that accompanies every piece of psychology research. It's a snapshot of each section of the study - why they did it, how they did it, what they found, and what they think it all means. They're usually short (less than 300 words) and a well-written Abstract should be enough for a non-psychologist to get the vague gist of the research without having to open the actual report. Some sites will set the Abstract out beautifully while others will just plonk down a paragraph of science-speak. Either way, it'll run like this...

  • Purpose/Objective The researchers outline why they've done this study. This is to summarise what's already known, to identify any gaps in the existing knowledge, and therefore to demonstrate how their study will be of value. Organisations who fund research are fussy creatures and usually object to funding Contiki tours for Captain Obvious.
  • Method This is where the researchers might list how many people took part, their backgrounds (age, gender, ethnicity etc) and what kind of research was undertaken (eg surveys, interviews, observations etc). If the number of participants is very low or from a very narrow demographic then the study might not be useful to your circumstances, so be wary.
  • Results The Results section is all about compiling the facts and statistics from the raw data collected during the research. Thankfully there are gifted people who are great at calculating this stuff! This section is supposed to be completely objective and devoid of interpretation. It's important to look at the Results without jumping to conclusions, as numbers alone can be misleading. It's often these Results sections that have certain 'current affairs' shows rubbing their hands in glee. Apparently balanced information just doesn't rate!
  • Discussion/Conclusion This is where the critical thought comes in. Researchers look at all the stats and try to make heads and tails of it. For example, the Results of a discipline study might show that many adolescents who were smacked as pre-schoolers also (coincidentally?) exhibit symptoms of depression. A researcher could use this data to conclude that smacking has a long-term negative impact on children. However, a more objective researcher would look at other factors and may theorise that parents who smack children tend to have a disorganised parenting style, making them more likely to resort to smacking. It could well be the ineffective parenting that negatively impacts children, and not the physical punishment. A good Discussion or Conclusion will look at the Results from all angles, identify any failings of the research (they might have left something out or introduced bias), and then recommend what future researchers could consider studying.

Step Five - Rinse And Repeat
After your first Abstract reading you might prefer to pull your nose hairs out with chopsticks than continue searching. Or, you might find it handy to read a few more Abstracts to see if other studies came up with similar results. If you feel particularly academic, you might even venture into reading an actual report. If so, I recommend you skim the Introduction, Method and Results and save your eyeballs for the Conclusion, as this is where the nitty gritty will be discussed. In any case, you should be able to get a good picture of what the real actual scientific evidence is for your particular beef!

Occasionally you'll come across a report that requires a purchase. You can purchase it (obviously) but you could also try to schmooze a uni student or librarian into locating it through an online journal database. I doubt that's very ethical, but this is warfare, right? You will probably run into some redunkulously big words so try here for some handy definitions. And if you're keen to read a better how-to guide than mine, click over here and get enlightened!

So there you have it!
Yes, I might be just another psychology student trying to justify her very existence. But, on the off chance that this is handy for you, you're welcome ;-)

Is there a particular nugget of "wisdom" that you just can't swallow?
Are you an academic or a psychologist? If so, would you mind correcting my mistakes? Ta!


  1. Hey,

    i have linked an article about the lay v science dichotomy, i think we all need to have a reflexive approach to any "research" and be careful to not see "research" as a one size fits all!

    I think you will like the article, or at least the abstract!

    1. Thanks, I'll have a read!

      I agree with you about the one size fits all problem. As parents we hear so much 'wisdom' but it's often delivered in small sound bytes that are only useful to part of the audience! It's so important to look at who the research was conducted with and take it with a grain of salt.

  2. psychologist here - a good summary and reminder to not just be sucked in by the old 'research says' and 'studies show'. Readers prob need to know a bit more about critiquing research too ie what makes a quality study and what are some of the common pitfalls in research and stats - the mistakes made and how results can be skewed/misinterpreted etc. Maybe a part #2 post?


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