Thursday, February 21, 2019

Why we don't pay attention to "psychoanalysis": Female anatomy and hysterical duality

Female anatomy and hysterical duality. Aya Zaidel. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Feb 7 2019,

Abstract: This article attempts to add another layer to our understanding of the phenomenon of hysterical duality. The author postulates that hysterical duality can be explained based on the dual-aspect model of feminine sexuality, which exhibits two initially contradictory paths: one derived from primary vaginal sensations and the other from clitoral pleasure. At first, these two paths create a fundamental split between representations of internal space, containment and motherhood and representations related to auto-eroticism and the effacement of the Other’s presence and needs. The author argues that this manifest contradiction makes the attainment of integration in feminine development an intricate and protracted process, which involves an act of inversion. This inversion entails a post-Oedipal disavowal of primary vaginal sexuality, pending its rediscovery through the encounter with the Other. Hysteria is thus viewed as the result of a failure to perform this inversion and an inability to extract oneself from the position of a “Vaginal Girl”, who defines herself through the desire of the other. This pathological course of development leaves the hysteric’s sexuality in a split state and traps her in the duality of clitoral pleasure versus penetration, which unconsciously represents humiliation and exploitation.

By sketching this process along a timeline, we could argue that the girl knows what she is not supposed to know and thus cannot wait to rediscover what she already knew. Her premature knowledge of her vaginal sexuality operates as a trauma which halts time and development. Thus, she is denied of the suspension and incubation processes that are deemed so vital to feminine development by Freud, Montrelay and Braunschweig and Fain. In other words, the girl cannot perform the required act of inversion: to shift from pre-symbolic sensuous knowing (her primary knowledge of the vagina) to not-knowing (denial of her own sexuality and being part of a group) and then to mature knowing (acknowledging the vagina as part of a whole). Instead, we can theorize she is faced with three options: to adhere to her initial state, to adopt the opposite position or to keep alternating between these two states. All three options entail an incomplete transformation and a constant return to the same position.

It seems that one can notice the connection between the impossible predicament of the ‘‘vaginal child’’ and the phenomenology of hysteria. In fact, when one views hysteria as a failed inversion, one can see how it entails three potential presentations: the first entails acquiescing and holding one’s ground. In this state, the woman identifies herself as a container, a ‘‘cesspit’’, and presents the position of a good, placating and obedient girl. Under the surface, one finds outrage and a phantasmatic sadomasochistic world, where feminine sexuality is subjected to ‘‘vaginal logic’’ (i.e., operates in line with a devouring oral scheme). This state resembles what Montrelay called the first psychic economy, which is a continuation of the primary vaginal sensations which have an annihilating effect. As this state involves an unsymbolized sexuality which subverts the processes of representation and symbolization, this psychic position is related to somatization, dissociation, hysterical ‘‘excess’’ and ‘‘masquerading’’ and additional phenomena that express regions that were left without representation, as blind spots or dark continents. The second presentation entails a transition to an inverted position, but the inversion seems to stop midway. The woman is ‘‘stuck’’ in an oppositional stance that is linked to ‘‘clitoral logic’’, which states that only what is visible is  significant. This is a constant state of resistance and protest against the feeling of not being recognized by the group and it may manifest in symptoms of nausea, vomiting or vaginismus. However, as mentioned, this attempted rebellion merely betrays the woman’s surrender and her acceptance of phallocentric law. In this state, the anger and the outrage are on the surface, while underneath there is an inability to disengage from primary vaginality in order to eventually turn it into a source of pleasure. The third and perhaps most advanced presentation entails a constant motion between the two previous states, an oscillation between a state of inviting submission which conceals defiance and rejection of the Other and its opposite. This precludes any opportunity for completing the inversion and is rather a closed-off fluctuation between the two poles.

The various hysteric presentations, all of which involve being trapped midway between seduction and isolation—a result of being a ‘‘vaginal girl’’—can be depicted through different prisms. In sexual intercourse the woman cannot associate sexual pleasure with the vagina and penetration. This is because the vagina, with whom she is identified, is the very reason of her disappearance. Therefore, there is often a tremendous gap between the capacity for sexual arousal and enjoyment and different degrees of vaginismus and an unconscious notion of intercourse as humiliating. In other words, because the vagina is the locus of trauma, one can witness a ‘‘healthy’’ and often even a promiscuous and licentious sexuality, so long as the vagina is not involved. The trauma surrounding the existence of the vagina may account for the hysteric’s strange amalgamation of seductivity and disgust. According to this position, the hysteric is seductive because she is truly interested in sexual contact with the Other. In fact, she can only stay in the safe and visible areas of sexuality, where there is no risk of revelation, which equals  effacement. When consummation draws near, she becomes constricted and overwhelmed with shock, disgust and repulsion. She appears to be saying ‘‘I am willing to be sexual as long as no one needs anything from me, as long as I can keep from surrendering—thus simultaneously revealing and erasing myself’’.

The same dynamic, with its various presentations, is evident on the level of object-relations. Sometimes, the woman yearns for a ‘‘real’’ strong man who could rescue her from her intolerable identification with her mother. Unfortunately, that same man, whose presence indicates the existence of the vagina, symbolizes the very identification from which she is trying to liberate herself and paradoxically sends her back into her mother’s lap. In other words, her potential liberator is also her subjugator and she cannot reveal herself because this revelation means effacement. At other times, an opposite, ‘‘clitoral’’ logic may prevail, which is the very same logic under a different guise. In this case, the explicit presentation is that of a woman who defies her vaginal identity (which she had, in fact, failed to deny), who rejects the mother and identifies with the father, to the extent that she may sometimes argue that she has no need for a man at all. Nevertheless, this defiance can be intuitively recognized as a profound wish for a relation that could actualize and even force upon her the unattainable submission. That is, the origin and the outcome of this maneuver are identical to the previous one: intercourse is perceived as ‘‘providing a service’’ and penetration is not pleasurable. Yet another option, which may be more common, is the constant alternation between these two states, as described by Kohon (1984): identifying with the mother and rejecting the father at one moment and identifying with the father and rejecting the mother at another.

This dynamic, which is often evident in the transference of hysterical patients, places the analyst in an impossible situation. When the patient accepts and takes in an interpretation, she feels humiliated, erased and inferior in relation to the analyst. In her eyes, that which revealed her (an adaptive interpretation) had erased her; that which liberated her—had subdued her. Similarly, one can notice the constant motion between groveling and stubbornness, between a saccharine and a contentious attitude. Thus, there may be sudden shifts between struggle (accompanied by a sense that the analyst is superfluous), and undifferentiated yearning (accompanied by a sense of utter dependence). As mentioned, these two states seem to operate in a separate and detached manner.

In many ways, this description is similar to that of borderline personality disorder. Therefore, it begs the question of why not define these binary shifts as a derivative of a dependence/independence conflict and a good/bad split? This will not only offer a sound depiction of this dynamic but may also sever the offensive and perhaps even reductive link between hysteria and femininity. Unfortunately, history has shown that any depiction which ignores the sexual aspect makes hysteria disappear and erases its unique character. The hysterical woman, who traps the analyst in an impossible and intolerable dynamic, is often a woman who is capable of an integrated view of the Other, who can contain the Other, show empathy and be a kind and devoted mother to her children (or a sensitive and skilled therapist…).18 In other words, defining the hysteric split in terms of the basic Eros/Thanatos or good/bad split would be inaccurate and would hinder an integrated view. More than any difficulty in maintaining a complex, multi-faceted, intimate and close relationship, hysteria entails a constant sense of rage, victimhood and a difficulty in feeling satisfaction and enjoyment.

It sometimes seems that hysteria has no clearer indicator than its elusiveness. The plasticity of its symptoms, its ability to manifest as both a structure and a state and its way of bending itself to fit various suggested etiologies—these give the impression that we are looking at a mirage. Hysteria seems to absorb everything into it, to constantly reshape itself to suit the mold of what is projected onto it, to keep reinventing itself. It needs an audience and it lives for one, it fades when you look away and reappears according to the spectator’s will.

But hysteria is not only elusive, it is also difficult to understand and decipher: when you touch upon early experiences, you lose your grasp on later ones; when you focus on the mother, you lose hold on the father; when you treat endogenous factors, you let slip actual traumas and so on. Perhaps more than any other disorder, hysteria reveals to us just how limited our sight is, the extent to which the sense of sight itself is hysterical—obsessed with exteriority and beauty, incapable of representing things hidden and unknown, disguising what is secret behind a thousand masks.

In this paper, I have nevertheless tried to tackle a certain structural layer of this deception. I have described the complexity of feminine development, which disobeys the Aristotelian demand for a sequential plotline where one thing leads to another and instead moves in two separate channels at once. These channels, a product of how feminine anatomy may be registered in the unconscious, are supposed to progress towards a functional sexual unity in which vagina and clitoris, passivity and activity, maternal and paternal identity converge to create a being that is somewhat more whole. This is a highly intricate task because, as mentioned, progress in a given channel is in diametric opposition to its counterpart. The unification of these two modalities and their integration as two reciprocating positions occur through an act of inversion, which suspends the primary vaginal sensations pending their rediscovery. This inversion may lead to a more complete feminine position—which includes the ability to look beyond the visible and represent the ‘‘nothing’’.

According to this position, the hysterical woman is one who remained a ‘‘vaginal girl’’—who rushed along and began to shoulder the weight of knowing about the vagina and about the existence of an inner space prematurely—with the burden, the accelerated maturity, the victimhood, and the alienation this entails. Such accelerated maturation, stemming from external or internal circumstances, prevents the hysteric from cathecting her body as a whole and completing the course of feminine development. She thus fails to attain functional unity and her sexuality remains in a state of duality. She is caught in-between, in a closed world of duality, where she is either seductive or disgusted, inviting or isolated, groveling or stubborn. This perspective, which focuses on endogenic sexuality—which stays mysterious and hidden—may offer a clue. We can thus make the conjecture that the trauma of the hysteric lies not only in the encounter with the external world or with overwhelming sexuality in general; rather, it is simultaneously born from the body itself, from inside—as a premature and precocious representation of the vagina: the part of her sexuality that can offer pleasure and enrich the ego when sexual integration is achieved but, when it acts independently, grounded in primary, pre-symbolic sensations—it erases and is erased, annihilates and devours and, most of all—it is subservient to the Other.

Therefore, after trying not to be tricked by the deceptions of the gaze, but to find what is hidden and constant, we may return to Charcot’s immortal dictum:

‘‘C’est toujours la chose ge´nitale, toujours … toujours … toujours’’ [It’s always a question of the genitals, always … always … always …] (Gay, 1988, p. 92).19

We claim that venting can be epistemic work: if one vents to the right sort of person, knowledge can be gained about an oppressive social structure, one’s place in it, and how to repair the epistemic damage it creates

Venting as Epistemic Work. Juli Thorson & Christine Baker. Social Epistemology, 

ABSTRACT: We claim that venting can be epistemic work: if one vents to the right sort of person, knowledge can be gained about an oppressive social structure, one’s place in it, and how to repair the epistemic damage it creates. To justify this claim, we define both epistemic damage and venting, and contrast venting with related notions such as complaining and ranting. Using Code’s understanding of testimony, Dotson’s notion of a linguistic exchange, and Fricker’s distinction between testimonial and hermeneutical injustice, we describe when and how venting is epistemic work. We also discuss the way venting is distinct from consciousness raising. We conclude that although one goal of venting is to repair epistemic damage for individual women, venting’s positive epistemic impact prepares women to challenge hermeneutical injustice.

KEYWORDS: Venting, epistemic damage, epistemic personhood, testimony


Juli received the following email from a student we will call Audrey:
In one of my classes, the professor had a very typically masculine communication style, to the point where anyone who was uncomfortable interrupting, speaking over other classmates as well as the professor, or engaging in extremely aggressive and combative argument, was prevented from speaking. Speakers were interrupted mid-sentence, and every conversation was a battle. Ideas that were not completely formalized were made to sound silly. The result of the overall culture of this classroom was that only a few men spoke and participated in discussion, and women rarely said anything. I grew to hate this class. Realizing that others felt the same way I did only happened after a planned venting session between three of the women in the class. All of us are typically confident and hardworking; we are eager to learn and participate in classroom discussion. However, as we discovered when we vented, in that class we felt stupid and unwelcome. It wasn’t just doing the venting that made me feel better. Listening to someone else vent about the same situation was equally cathartic to me because it made very clear that the problems were not imagined, and that the situation was harmful on the whole. It helped make clear to me, and I think this also happened for my friends as well, that my judgment was trustworthy in this case. The venting did nothing to directly fix the classroom culture. The venting addressed our perceived isolation and failure to make accurate judgments. Providing a venting platform for the other women was a relief even before I spoke because I knew I was not the only one diagnosing the situation as problematic and stifling.

It seemed to us that this class was causing epistemic damage. It was undermining the epistemic personhood of these women. During this class, they began to think of themselves as less able to know; and consequently, they felt they were not fully a part of the epistemic community. Because all three of these women had taken a class in feminist ethics and epistemology, they had the tools to use venting to begin to repair this damage. Our goal is to justify the claim that venting can be epistemic work. When venting is successful, we can gain understanding about an oppressive social structure, our place in it, and how to repair the epistemic damage it creates.

Luck as a Double-edged Sword: Personnel and Performance Changes After Lucky Outcomes in the National Football League

Siler, Kyle. 2019. “Luck as a Double-edged Sword: Personnel and Performance Changes After Lucky Outcomes in the National Football League.” SocArXiv. February 20. doi:10.31235/

Abstract: Luck is an omnipresent factor which influences experiences and outcomes for individuals and organizations. This article analyzes how lucky and unlucky outcomes influence future organizational learning, decision-making and performance. Team statistics and outcomes are analyzed over 769 National Football League seasons for 32 franchises from 1990-2015. Four specific sources of luck are identified and measured: 1) divergence of win outcomes from actual team quality; 2) difficulty of opposition; 3) fumble recovery rates and 4) player injuries. Teams and players have little or no influence over these lucky factors, which nevertheless influence game outcomes, and by extension, the careers of players and coaches. Luck alters game outcomes and in turn significantly influences the retention or firing of coaches and players, which shapes their career incentives and decision-making. In addition to negatively affecting future performance via distorted learning, luck can also generate perverse incentives; in this case, encouraging risk aversion and scapegoating. Mistaking noise for signal – and conflating luck with skill – is conducive to poorer future decisions and outcomes. Paradoxically, luck can provide a means of skill-based advantage for savvy decision-makers, who learn more effectively from noisy feedback than others who are misled.

Lucky outcomes appear to induce distorted learning and suboptimal personnel decisions, which also degrades future performance.

Ten neuromyths were endorsed by more than 50% of prospective science teachers; existence of learning styles (93%) and the effectiveness of Brain Gym (92%) were most widespread

Pre-service Science Teachers’ Neuroscience Literacy: Neuromyths and a Professional Understanding of Learning and Memory. Finja Grospietsch and J├╝rgen Mayer. Front. Hum. Neurosci., Feb 14 2019.

Abstract: Transferring current research findings on the topic of learning and memory to “brain-based” learning in schools is of great interest among teachers. However, numerous international studies demonstrate that both pre-service and in-service teachers do not always succeed. Instead, they transfer numerous misconceptions about neuroscience, known as neuromyths, into pedagogical practice. As a result, researchers call for more neuroscience in teacher education in order to create a professional understanding of learning and memory. German pre-service science teachers specializing in biology complete neuroscientific modules (human biology/animal physiology) during their studies because they are expected to teach these topics to their students. Thus, they are required to demonstrate a certain degree of neuroscience literacy. In the present study, 550 pre-service science teachers were surveyed on neuromyths and scientific concepts about learning and memory. Pre-service science teachers’ scientific concepts increased over the course of their training. However, beliefs in neuromyths were independent of participants’ status within teacher education (first-year students, advanced students, and post-graduate trainees). The results showed that 10 neuromyths were endorsed by more than 50% of prospective science teachers. Beliefs in the existence of learning styles (93%) and the effectiveness of Brain Gym (92%) were most widespread. Many myths were endorsed even though a large share of respondents had thematically similar scientific concepts; endorsement of neuromyths was found to be largely independent of professional knowledge as well as theory-based and biography-based learning beliefs about neuroscience and learning. Our results suggest that neuromyths can exist in parallel to scientific concepts, professional knowledge and beliefs and are resistant to formal education. From the perspective of conceptual change theory, they thus exhibit characteristic traits of misconceptions that cannot simply be counteracted with increased neuroscientific knowledge. On the basis of our study’s findings, it can be concluded that new teacher programs considering neuromyths as change-resistant misconceptions are needed to professionalize pre-service science teachers’ neuroscience literacy. For this, an intensive web of exchange between the education field and neuroscientists is required, not just to deploy the latest scientific insights to refute neuromyths on learning and memory, but also to identify further neuromyths.

Check also Dispelling the Myth: Training in Education or Neuroscience Decreases but Does Not Eliminate Beliefs in Neuromyths. Kelly Macdonald et al. Frontiers in Psychology, Aug 10 2017.

The prospect for electric vehicles as a climate change solution hinges on their ability to reduce gasoline consumption; but EVs are driven considerably fewer miles/y on average than gasoline-powered vehicles

How much are electric vehicles driven? Lucas W. Davis. Applied Economics Letters, Feb 20 2019. 

ABSTRACT: The prospect for electric vehicles as a climate change solution hinges on their ability to reduce gasoline consumption. But this depends on how many miles electric vehicles are driven and on how many miles would have otherwise been driven in gasoline-powered vehicles. Using newly-available U.S. nationally representative data, this paper finds that electric vehicles are driven considerably fewer miles per year on average than gasoline-powered vehicles. The difference is highly statistically significant and holds for both all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, for both single- and multiple-vehicle households, and both inside and outside California. The paper discusses potential explanations and policy implications. Overall, the evidence suggests that today’s electric vehicles imply smaller environmental benefits than previously believed.

KEYWORDS: Electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, vehicle miles traveled, rebound effect

Stephen Jay Gould’s Analysis of the Army Beta Test in The Mismeasure of Man: Distortions and Misconceptions Regarding a Pioneering Mental Test (Army Beta Test)

Stephen Jay Gould’s Analysis of the Army Beta Test in The Mismeasure of Man: Distortions and Misconceptions Regarding a Pioneering Mental Test. Russell T. Warner, Jared Z. Burton, Aisa Gibbons and Daniel A. Melendez. J. Intell. 2019, 7(1), 6;

Abstract: In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould argued that the preconceived beliefs and biases of scientists influence their methods and conclusions. To show the potential consequences of this, Gould used examples from the early days of psychometrics and allied fields, arguing that inappropriate assumptions and an elitist desire to rank individuals and/or groups produced incorrect results. In this article, we investigate a section of The Mismeasure of Man in which Gould evaluated the Army Beta intelligence test for illiterate American draftees in World War I. We evaluated Gould’s arguments that the Army Beta (a) had inappropriate content, (b) had unsuitable administration conditions, (c) suffered from short time limits, and (d) could not have measured intelligence. By consulting the historical record and conducting a pre-registered replication of Gould’s administration of the test to a sample of college students, we show that Gould mischaracterized the Army Beta in a number of ways. Instead, the Army Beta was a well-designed test by the standards of the time, and all evidence indicates that it measured intelligence a century ago and can, to some extent, do so today.

Keywords: intelligence; history of psychology; intelligence testing; Army Beta; Stephen Jay Gould; The Mismeasure of Man

Rolf Degen summarizing: The administration of aspirin made subjects more prone to experience disgust, probably as a compensation for the reduced inflammatory response

Lab, TCU H. 2019. “Why the Activities of the Immune System Matter for Social and Personality Psychology (and Not Only for Those Who Study Health).” OSF Preprints. February 20. doi:10.31219/

Abstract: A growing body of research finds that the activities of the immune system – in addition to protecting the body from infection and injury – also influence how we think, feel, and behave. Although research on the relationship between the immune system and psychological and behavioral outcomes has most commonly focused on the experiences of those who are ill or experiencing an acute immune response, we propose that the immune system may also play a key role in influencing such outcomes in those who are healthy. Here, we review theory and research suggesting that inflammation – a key component of the immune response to pathogens and stressors – may play an important modulatory role in shaping emotions, motivation, cognition, and behavior, even among those without symptoms of illness. Moreover, because inflammation occurs in response to a number of everyday social experiences (e.g., loneliness, stress), we propose that it may be an important mediator of many psychological and behavioral outcomes that are of interest to social and personality psychologists. We close by discussing potential opportunities for researchers looking to incorporate psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) into their area of inquiry.

Perceived Unfairness and Psychological Distress: Less Harmful as Age Increases

Perceived Unfairness and Psychological Distress: Less Harmful as Age Increases? Min-Ah Lee, Ichiro Kawachi. Social Justice Research,

Abstract: Does perceived unfairness influence psychological well-being differently according to age? We sought to examine the association between perceived unfairness and psychological distress, testing whether and how age moderates the association. Data were drawn from the Korean General Social Survey, a nationally representative cross-sectional sample, collected in 2 years (2011, 2012). The survey measured two types of perceived unfairness: distributive and procedural unfairness. We found that both types of perceived unfairness were positively and independently associated with psychological distress. Our results also showed effect modification by age; in other words, the harmful effects of perceived distributive and procedural unfairness on psychological distress decreased with age, suggesting that younger people were more distressed by perceived unfairness than older people. Our findings suggest that perceived unfairness is harmful to psychological well-being, but its effects become less salient as people age.

Why not release honest statements for research fields that are messy, inconsistent, have systematic methodological weaknesses or that may be outright unreproducible?

Embrace the unknown. Chris Ferguson. The Psychologist. For Mar 2019's issue, Feb 2019.
Chris Ferguson washes his hands of ‘science laundering’: cleaning up messy data for public consumption.


Consider the basic premise ‘Does X cause Y?’ It’s at the root of almost any question of interest to the general public or policy makers. Does cognitive-behavioural therapy treat PTSD? Does the TV show 13 Reasons Why cause suicide in teens? Can implicit racism be tested for, and does training reduce racism in society? Generally speaking, people outside of psychological science (and arguably many people within it) want the answer to such simple questions. And it is often in the interest of professional guilds – the advocacy organisations that represent psychology and other sciences – to give simple answers. The result is a communication of quasi-scientific nostrums that are, at best, partially true and, at worst, absolute rubbish.

Science laundering is the washing away of inconvenient data, methodological weaknesses, failed replications, weak effect sizes, and between-study inconsistencies. The cleaned-up results of a research field are then presented as more solid, consistent and generalisable to real-world concerns than they are. Individual studies can be irresponsibly promoted by press release, or entire research fields summarised in policy statements in ways that cherry-pick data to support a particular narrative. Such promotions are undoubtedly satisfactory and easier to digest in the short-term, but they are fundamentally deceitful, and they cast psychology as a dishonest science.

Accusations of science laundering have been levelled at professional guilds such as the American Psychological Association (APA) for many years (Ferguson, 2015; O’Donohue & Dyslin, 1996). The formula appears to be to take an issue of great interest to the general public or policy makers and boil it down to simplistic truisms using science language. In most cases, these quasi-scientific truisms are either politically palatable for the members of the organisation, which creates the illusion that social science tends to support liberal causes (Redding, 2001), or appear to make psychological science indispensable to a policy decision when, in fact, it is not.

My own field of video game violence presents a case study in this phenomenon. Twice, in 2004 and 2013, the APA convened a taskforce to study the issue. Both were composed of a majority of individuals with strong, public, anti-game views, unbalanced by sceptical voices (Copenhaver & Ferguson, in press). This was particularly puzzling given that no fewer than 230 scholars had written to the APA expressing their concerns about the quality of their public stances on this issue (Consortium of Scholars, 2013). It’s hard to shake the sense that ‘science by committee’ may be an ineffective way to reach objective conclusions, and that a taskforce report has little to do with the true state of a science; in this case, an area that has suffered a series of retractions, corrections, failed replications (e.g. Przybylski et al., 2014), failed re-analyses and null results using preregistered designs (e.g. McCarthy et al., 2016). Video game science was repudiated by the US Supreme Court in the 2011 case Brown v. EMA, and some scholars have expressed the view that the APA’s continued public stance on this particular issue has damaged the credibility of psychological science in the eyes of the courts (Hall et al., 2011).

Why do this? Why not change course and release honest statements for research fields that are messy, inconsistent, have systematic methodological weaknesses or that may be outright unreproducible? Incentive structures. Individual scholars are likely seduced by their own hypotheses for a multitude of reasons, both good and bad. Big claims get grants, headlines, book sales and personal prestige. I note this not to imply wrongdoing, but to acknowledge we are all human and respond to incentives.

These incentive structures have been well documented in science more widely, and psychology specifically, in recent years. Unfortunately, the public remains largely unaware of such debates, and ill-equipped to critically evaluate research. As one recent example, Jean Twenge and colleagues (2018) released a study, covered widely in the press, linking screen use to youth suicides. However, another scholar with access to the same dataset noted in an interview that the magnitude of effect is about the same as for eating potatoes on suicide (see Gonzalez, 2018: effect sizes ranged from r = .01 to .11 depending on outcome). Such correlations are likely within Meehl’s ‘crud factor’ for psychological science, wherein everything tends to correlate with everything else, to a small but meaningless degree.

In some cases, the meaningfulness of a hypothesis (such as saving children from suicide) can seem critical, even if the effects are trivial. And I can understand why professional guilds, who can be considered to function as businesses for whom psychology is a product they must market, are driven to ‘get it out there’. Perhaps they lament the perception of psychology as a ‘soft’ science (e.g. Breckler, 2005). Psychologists are often pushed to be more assertive in marketing or branding psychology (e.g. Bray, 2009; Weir, 2014, although also see Koocher, 2006 for a different approach), and professional bodies actively advocate for psychological science (Bersoff, 2013). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but such calls may inadvertently communicate that accuracy is of secondary importance. For instance, Weir (2014) quoted one scholar as indicating that ‘it’s more important to put the science out there, even if a news story misses some of the subtleties’.

To be clear, I am not suggesting anything remotely like bad faith: merely that the understandable zeal to promote psychological science may have backfired, insofar as promotional efforts often overlook psychology’s weaknesses.

The issue of poor communication can spill over into the clinical realm. For instance, a recent treatment guideline for post-traumatic stress disorder focused on recommending cognitive-behavioural therapy (APA, 2017). These recommendations were controversial with practitioners from other modalities, perhaps not surprisingly. A 2018 meta-analysis led by Joseph Carpenter found fairly modest results for CBT with PTSD (better results were found for other anxiety disorders), which raises the possibility that the clinical guidelines may be overselling its value.

Some readers may be thinking, ‘Isn’t it better to attempt to apply psychology to important societal issues even if the evidence available falls short of being conclusive? How certain do we really need to be before we stop fretting about overselling the value of our science?’ I take an unapologetically hard line on this: honesty must be a fundamental facet of scientific communication. We cannot and should not sweep under the rug inconvenient data, methodological weaknesses or tiny effect sizes for the sake of an appealing narrative, no matter how heartfelt that narrative may be. To do so simply isn’t scientific and, inevitably, will do more harm than good to our field.

In some cases, a ‘messy’ policy statement can still have important policy implications. They’re woefully difficult to find among professional guilds, but government reviews are sometimes more honest. For instance, a 2010 review of violent video game research correctly identified conclusions as inconsistent and limited by methodological flaws (Australian Government, Attorney General’s Department, 2010). Despite the messiness, this review paved the way for Australia to rate more violent games, which previously had been effectively censored, unavailable even to adults.

Ultimately, we should be looking to educate the public about data. People are complex; behaviour is messy. Often psychological science doesn’t have the answer, and we should be comfortable with a response that is murky, convoluted, difficult to parse, controversial, non-politically correct or simply ‘We don’t know’. It’s time for psychological science to embrace the unknown and become more honest about our debates, methodological weaknesses and inconsistencies.

Our brave pioneers

After climbing down from my high horse on science laundering, it is only fair to recognise that our field has seen some pioneers push toward better, more transparent and open methods. This ‘open science’ movement has often been fraught with controversy and even acrimony, but it deserves to take hold as a way forward to clearer scientific values.


Others, to be sure, are less enthusiastic. In one infamous early draft of a 2016 column by Susan Fiske, she referred to data replicators as ‘self-appointed data police’, and to ‘methodological terrorism’. Fiske’s detractors tended to view her comments as defending a status quo of elite scholars, restricting peer commentary and sheltering bad science. Her defenders worried over the proliferation of harsh peer comments online (comments that themselves did not go through peer review). In fairness, Fiske had a kernel of a fair point – the replication process did sometimes savage individual scholars in a way that appeared to kick a dog after it was down. For instance, Amy Cuddy appeared to be singled out as a sacrifice for the replication cause (see Susan Dominus’s 2017 New York Times piece). Although discrediting the power pose hypothesis is fair game, was it right for Cuddy to be humiliated repeatedly in the public eye? Did her own self-promotion, including a TED talk that remains the #1 Google search result for ‘power poses’, open her up to particularly harsh criticism? Do we feel less sympathy for Phil Zimbardo over new analyses of the Stanford Prison Experiment (see ‘Time to change the story’) because he spent decades promoting it?

These are hard questions to answer. Yet it’s clear we can’t go back. We can’t return to the false-positive results of the past, nor continue to reify them because they’re part of a comforting narrative of how wonderful psychological science is. Only by embracing change, openness and transparency can psychological science progress. Sure, let’s have a conversation about the most civil way to make these changes happen. But ultimately science is about data, not people, and we should worry less about personalities and more about methods that produce the best data. Those who have pushed for open science and this renaissance in psychology deserve great credit.

- Chris Ferguson is Professor of Psychology at Stetson University

Key sources

Copenhaver, A. & Ferguson, C.J. (in press). Selling violent video game solutions: A look inside the APA’s internal notes leading to the creation of the APA’s 2005 resolution on violence in video games and interactive media. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.
Ferguson, C.J. (2015). ‘Everybody knows psychology is not a real science’: Public perceptions of psychology and how we can improve our relationship with policymakers, the scientific community, and the general public. American Psychologist, 70, 527–542.
Fiske, S. (2016). Mob rule or wisdom of crowds [Draft of article for APS Observer]. Available at
Gilbert, D.T., King, G., Pettigrew, S. & Wilson, T.D. (2016). Comment on ‘Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science’. Science, 351(6277), 1037.
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