What Research Problems Challenge Psychology Today?
It cannot be denied that psychological research has been creating huge impact on the society. People, relationships and institutions are duly affected by findings made in psychological research. Perhaps the effects of Psychology on society are felt mostly in the educational system, parental roles, business and corporate settings, and law. Because of the tremendous impact of Psychology on society, psychologists are increasingly being aware of the possible implications of their studies, and the ethical issues they bring. Research is consistently being evaluated on the potential bias on women and marginalized societies, and increasing attention is being made on how psychological information should be presented to the public in order to reduce misunderstanding and oversimplification of research results.
This article aims to enumerate the ways psychologists try to address problems of ethics, bias and information consumption on research.
Guidelines in Conducting Psychological Research
The American Psychological Association (APA) issued guidelines to protect the rights of the participants in any research study. The guidelines address the following issues in psychological research:
- Informed Consent. Research participants must be provided with information on their rights as participants in the study, especially their right to withdraw from participation, and the possible risks the study might pose on their health and well-being.
- Confidentiality. Because of the potential abuse and misuse of personal information gathered from participating in a research study, researchers should secure the anonymity of the personal data of the research participants.
- Deception. There are instances in which a psychologist cannot disclose the full details of the research design to the participants due to risk in contaminating the results. There are research methods in Psychology that pose problems of Social Desirability and Participant Bias. Participants might be influenced to act differently by their expectations of the goals of the research and the need to show socially desirable behavior to the researchers. Because informed consent is a very important aspect of conducting ethical research in Psychology, the APA has ruled out that deception may be done if, and only if, the study will bring no harm to the participants, the participants will undergo debriefing after the study, and the study cannot be conducted in any other way.
- Debriefing. Debriefing is done to inform the participants of what transpired in the study, including the results and implications of the study in ways that are understandable to the research participants. This is especially important in research studies that use deception.
The Role of the Federal Government
In the United States, the federal government has its take on proper implementation of a research study. The Federal Office for Protection from Research Risks ruled that informed consent should be used in research involving the study of mental disorders. It released regulations on research on pregnant women and fetuses, and ethical guidelines for AIDS vaccine research. It also raised felony charges on research involving egg and embryo swapping.
On Animal Research
5% of the participants in psychological research are animals, 90% of which are rodents. According to Neal Miller (1985), animal research has large contribution in the field of psychotherapy and behavioral medicine, particularly in the treatment of anxiety and other mental problems, in the rehabilitation of neuromuscular disorders, in the alleviation of memory deficits, in reducing the effects of stress and pain, in methods of preventing drug addiction and relapse, and ways of helping premature infants gain weight. Because APA guidelines on informed consent, confidentiality, deception and debriefing are not applicable to animal participants, a separate set of guidelines is issued to protect the rights of these animals. First, the potential benefit to humans must be weighed against the potential harm to the animals involved in research. Then, a system for housing, feeding and maintaining the physical and psychological well-being of the animals must be delineated and approved upon by a committee on animal research.
Gender Bias involves preconceived notion about men and women. It influences psychological research in terms of choosing the research topic, the gender of the participants, and the research design. For instance, when Psychology was at its early stage, results from studies using male participants are extended to females. It is also evident nowadays that Pop Psychology unduly magnifies gender differences, especially in terms of intelligence. The result is a vicious cycle that perpetuates stereotype about men and women. Today, psychologists attempt to reduce gender bias by reorganizing theories that are originally based on research involving only male participants, to include the female population.
Ethnic and Cultural Bias
Research bias is not only evident on women. In psychological research, bias in terms of ethnicity and culture is also widespread. Early psychological research did not involve the participation of some ethnic minorities. Because education is considered a form of luxury in the early 1900s, data from ethnic minorities through psychological tests constructed primarily by western psychologists are clumped together as Data Noise. Furthermore, consumers of psychological information tend to adopt Ethnic Gloss, viewing ethnicity as more homogenous than it really is. Psychologists strive to use ethnic gloss by becoming more specific in their description of the research participants - including important information on their social background, residence, use of language and birth location. Psychologists also warn their readers of the limited generalizability of their results and recommend future studies involving participants of other ethnicity. Just like addressing gender bias, psychologists are increasingly revising theories made from research on western participants to include recent findings from cross-cultural research.
Consuming Psychological Information
The most common modes of distributing information from psychological research are the television and the internet. In order to capture the viewer or the reader to attend and listen to the "news," the media oftentimes follow trends and sensationalize or exaggerate research findings. Because of limited airtime (and perhaps because of short attention span of the audience), the "news" presented usually lacks information on the participants, the research design, and criticisms made by other experts on the field. In addition, reporters oftentimes do not distinguish between causation and correlation, leading to possible confusion and misunderstanding of research implications. In order to become wise consumers, the following set of guidelines is recommended for evaluating psychological research presented in the television and the web:
- Distinguish between group results and individual needs. Just because a research finding shows that a certain group tends to act or become this or that way doesn't apply for all. For example, if a research finding states that males tend to act more aggressively than females, it doesn't mean that your boy best friend acts more aggressively than your girl best friend. Always remember that aside from being social, human beings are also unique, both in genetics and in experience.
- Avoid generalizing from a small sample. Most psychological studies are conducted using university students as participants, usually at a number ranging from 20-100. A small sample cannot represent the psychology of the national population, especially of the entire human race.
- Avoid generalizing from a single study. Every psychological research has its own strengths and weaknesses. Similar findings from multiple studies provide reliability to research results by highlighting the strengths and reducing the weaknesses of a single study.
- Differentiate between causation and correlation. Correlation means that the pattern of two sets of data shows a relationship, but this relationship cannot be explained in terms of which set causes the other. On the other hand, causation means that in the two sets of data, one set directly causes the other.
- Consider the source of information. Any writer or reporter can write and talk about anything under the sun. Because academic journals and credible newspapers and magazines employ professional editorial board to review and prevent distortion of information, they stand much higher against the popular tabloids in terms of reputation and credibility. But even with these media, a consumer of psychological information should remain critical about the "facts" presented to him.
Research Challenges Plague the Scientific Community
The above-presented problems in research anticipated by most psychologists are present in other scientific disciplines as well, although in varied forms. Thus, it stands to reason that research problems do not reflect lack of anything scientific in a discipline. In fact, recognizing limitations in research makes science more rigorous than other forms of inquiry.