Should psychology be ‘dumbed down’ so it’s accessible to everyone?

5 Feb

This put simply is whether or not psychology should be open for all to understand or whether it should be reserved purely for scientists and those that are knowledgeable on the subject. This poses questions of whether or not the findings in psychology (a field that professes to study in order to improve society) is actually of any benefit to everyday life. On the one hand in order for scientific research in general to be understandable to the public certain aspects have to be simplified as without a technical understanding the whole concept would be lost on the majority of the population. However in the ‘dumbing down’ process is not some part of the findings lost in translation and therefore does this not detract from the overall concept?

The wording that goes into research and the publication of research is chosen specifically by the researcher in order to convey their findings exactly the way that they understand them and how they wish them to be presented. To paraphrase words where such thought has gone into their presentation cannot help but to take away from the findings even if it is just marginally. For example no one would think of taking a timeless classic novel and changing the setting and plot in order to make the story easier to be understood by todays generation. This would be seen as a desecration of culture. So why is it viewed necessary for science? The main culprit of this ‘dumbing down’ of science is the media and seeing as their aim is to improve ratings I seems that they are the most likely to twist the findings of any study. For example a Telegraph article in Jan 2009 claimed that a scientist had found evidence to suggest that it was greenhouse gases that caused an ice age. They then went on to misquote the scientist himself and ignore any attempt to correct the mistake- his research had actually found that a hot greenhouse gas filled atmosphere could co-exist with a cold ‘snowballed earth’. This just shows that when research is taken by none specialists and put into ‘understandable’ words often the information is misrepresented.

However the answer to the question of why science is treated this way seems, to me, to lay in the fact that areas like science study things in order to improve society, how can they do this if their findings are illegible to anyone without a PhD in the area of study? Not only is it important that findings are understood in order to be implemented but also it stands to reason that people will only ever take an interest in something if they can understand it. Take for example physics very few people understand the simple theories let alone the complexity of Quantum physics. This is being reflected in the declining number of people choosing to take physics at a higher level of learning. In order to maintain interest in psychology and to inspire future researchers theories and studies need to be understood by none specialists.

In conclusion though it is important for fields like psychology and science to make themselves accessible to none experts the way that this is done needs to be monitored in some way to ensure misrepresentation isn’t given. Maybe the researcher themselves could create a laymen friendly version of their findings? Just an idea.

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7 Responses to “Should psychology be ‘dumbed down’ so it’s accessible to everyone?”

  1. Rebecca Fecitt February 6, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

    You are absolutely correct about how the media can misinterpret what the researcher actually says. This can cause chaos if published to the wider community who may not have much knowledge on the subject. People are often too quick to judge something they do not understand and this judgement is carried on through generations, for example, mental illness is still a subject that people think negatively on. Angermeyer & Matschinger (2003) found their participants had a negative view on people who were diagnosed with schizophrenia as they believed they were dangerous. You have to ask yourself why people have this belief and perhaps the answer is because the media does not accurately report findings.
    Yet Psychology is an incredibly interesting subject as it is based on human (and animal) interaction and behaviour. Therefore limiting the knowledge to just psychologists and other scientists would prevent the wider community from gaining such useful knowledge. Parents who have children with intellectual disabilities would benefit hugely if research was published describing the disability in more detail and could help provide support, reassurance and comfort to the family. I think people who are not knowledgable on the subject deserve a chance to have this information put to them in simpler explanations- after all what is the point of all this research into behaviour if your not going to share it with everyone?

  2. Rory February 7, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    I agree with you when you say the research that comes out of psychological studies should be made more widely available, but I do not believe it is down to the psychologists themselves to have to change the way they would report their findings in order for the majority of the public to understand.
    As you mentioned, the newspapers and other media that edit the psychological findings in a way that makes it more understandable to the less scientific-minded people out there, should have a duty to not skew the context of the results to make articles more appealing. Although the headlines could sell papers, the content would be false, as you stated with the Telegraph case.
    In order for psychology to be more accessible to everyone, it should be put on the curriculum at an earlier age for children/teenagers or perhaps combined with science in some way. There are many psychological studies such as Zimbardo’s prison study (1971) or Thigpen and Cleckley’s multiple-personality case (1954) that do not have to be dumbed down in order for people to be fascinated and engaged.

  3. hollyhallam February 8, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    I don’t think anyone would take a timeless novel and change the plot and setting to make it more accessible for audiences, no, but as an avid theatre goer, I’m struggling to think of a Shakespeare play I’ve seen that hasn’t had the country and/or the time period it’s set in changed to make it more accessible to the modern audience. Has this dumbed down or distracted from the storyline? No it hasn’t, it’s given the audience an enhanced interest and understanding. I think this directly reflects the way in which we need to make psychology, especially research into more complex areas like cognition and neuroscience, more available to the general public. Researchers have to write up their findings in a certain way for maximum efficiency for publication in journal articles to be read by other experts but there can only be so much harm done by dumbing this down a little to express key points can only distract from the key concepts so much if reported by the researcher. For example, writing “fMRI scans showed zctivity in the anterior cingulate cortex was positively correlated with feelings of distress in the exclusion condition,” for a journal article can easily be paraphrased as “brain scans showed that when participants were left out of a virtual reality game, the more distress they reported, the more activity there was in a brain area associated with physical pain,” without losing too much of the original meaning. One of the main reasons we investigate psychology is to provide practical applications that are beneficial to the general public, but what use are these applications if we can’t explain to them how and why they’re helpful?

  4. cmcdermott17 February 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    This is a very interesting blog which has raised queries that I have never before questioned. In my opinion however, it would be almost pointless for psychologists to research if their findings were not simplified for society to understand. From my own experience, it can be very time consuming reading research reports outlining every individual detail from the study. I am completing a degree in psychology and have this opinion, so would therefore predict that for a person with no interest in the subject, research reports would be very difficult to read. Although magazines and newspapers might over exaggerate slightly, they display the information clearly, in an exciting and interesting way. I also believe that the majority of people now understand that newspapers (particularly those such as the sun) have a tendency to make news sound more appealing by twisting the information. I did however find it quite shocking that according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, The Sun was the best selling newspaper of 2011 with 3, 001, 822 copies sold. I do not feel however that this affects psychological research as it is important for research to be made accessible for everyone and if that means simplifying details slightly then I believe this necessary.

  5. psuef1 February 8, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    Although you make a good point about the negativity of Psychology being so complex, which I do agree with partly, I think a more outstanding issue is whether the society that may not understand findings now, would accept them if they were ‘dumbed down’. It is questionable whether Psychology should be considered a science – we’ve all learnt about it this year and we all have confounding opinions. But whether we believe it is or not, I think to a certain extent for psychological research to mean something to the public, it needs to be. Does it’s complexity actually make the public perceive it as on par with natural sciences? You are right that it’s complexity does make it open to incorrect interpretation by people working in the media who don’t understand it or want better stories. But knowing their reputation for wanting to provoke emotion or intrigue in their readers/viewers, I think they would continue to twist research regardless of how hard it is to understand. In my opinion, making Psychology easier to understand could potentially do more harm than good.

  6. TheLittleBlogOfPsi February 10, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    I definitely agree that psychological research needs to be either written in a simpler way, or possibly the researcher should produce 2 copies, one scientific which people with the right knowledge can read and think of further research, and one copy that is written for general public. I believe the main reason that media twists results found by researchers is because they do not understand the pure nature and aims of that particular study. It is definitely up to scientists to explain the true nature of the study. According to Berthnthal, (2002) we need to focus on public and their understanding of psychology, because their only contact with psychological research is through misinterpreted media articles. Furthermore we need to show people how our research influences their lifestyle and how it improves their quality of living as currently the general public have little understanding and little trust with the psychological research, and they get annoyed that their hardly earned income goes on things that are either common knowledge or that are absolutely useless to society.

    http://0-psycnet.apa.org.unicat.bangor.ac.uk/journals/amp/57/3/215.html

  7. prpln February 10, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    I definitely agree that published psychological research is generally quite difficult to understand! As a psychology student having to reading journals on a regular basis, I frequently find myself struggling to understand what the researcher is trying to convey. However, a lot of the experiments that are being conducted are complicated and do deal with complex issues; there is no way of the researcher being able to explain the information in a different way without losing the essence of their research.

    However, I think that an expert in their field would just as insulted by being asked to produce a dumbed down version of their research as a playwright! These journals that we read have had many months, and perhaps even years of editing; they have put an extensive amount of time and effort into producing the journal in order for it to be published, it would not be appropriate, or fair for that matter, for them to have to produce a “lite” version of their research. It is important for the findings of studies to be available to a wider audience, rather than them having to get misrepresentations of the information in the media; the problem is that there is no middle ground at the moment between the two. Nevertheless, it could be countered that the only people who go to the effort of reading the majority of these journals are experts; other people who read them are people that may have a personal interest in the topic, for example, intellectual disabilities, and these people will strive to understand it, they will research terms that they do not understand.

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