Pop Psychology Hurts All of Us
I’ve always had a problem with people who love to tell everyone their New Year’s resolution only to fail it within a couple of weeks. Growing up in Christian, upper-middle-class family who believed in the American dream, I tend to embrace the “work in silence” protestant work ethic paradigm. And so I wasn’t surprised when psychology confirmed my intuition that it’s better to keep your goals to yourself.
I saw the headline a week ago that I shouldn’t share my goals. Instead of doom scrolling past it, though, I actually read the article. Reading it, it made me wonder how they even determined whether or not to share your goals. Unsurprisingly, it was a low-grade study that failed to capture the complexity of human interaction (see study 1). They had people write down their goals, told them these goals would go to a professor in their intended field of study, and then half were told that the goals didn’t meet the standards they were looking for and thus weren’t read while the other half were notified that their goals were read. Then they brought the subjects back to see if they achieved their goals.
Those that thought others knew their goals were less likely to complete their goals than those who thought others didn’t know. It would appaer that telling someone about your goals reduces the chance you execute on it. But does this study really say that? No. The external validity (ability to generalize the results to the real world) is so shockingly low as to make any application of this finding to the real world to be laughably impossible. What this study really measured is how much telling a single, random professor your goal (not even by saying it but by writing it on a piece of paper) affected your ability to complete your goal. It completely neglects the obvious benefit of telling other people your goal: that they may have resources to help you achieve it.
I don’t have an issue with the study so much as what people did with it: they made a gross generalization about what the study said while ignoring other evidence.
I’ll be honest — I’ve done it myself. And it’s common for humans to take this approach to science. We rely on our typical gossipy, story-telling method of communication that by the time the information reaches the 100th person is so different from the actual truth that it is pointless in sharing anymore. And it sure doesn’t help that studies often sit behind a pay-wall, meaning that we have to take the pop psychology report at face value.
Pop psychology is ruining the integrity of the field of psychology as well as interfering with individuals’ lives. It’s why I am always hesitant to pick up a Malcolm Gladwell and why I have a strong aversion to any book on psychology not written by a professor — the stories told may sound great but the evidence behind them is a ghost of its storied self. While I am glad that information is more readily available than ever before, the sea of data that comes at you each day makes it difficult to scrutinize fact over fiction. When people are impressed by how many books you have read versus how well you analyzed those books, we are only strengthening the preference of having an air of being well-informed while under the hood you know absolute trash.