Tackling student skepticism of psychology: Recommendations for instructors

Strategies to address student misconceptions about psychology

By Scott O. Lilienfeld, PhD, and Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD

“Are you analyzing me right now?” Most psychologists receive this question from students, laypersons or both at some point after sharing their professional identities. Indeed, psychology is often all Freud, all the time, and many or most psychologists are clinicians to the average person (Ewing et al., 2010). Moreover, surveys suggest that the general public does not hold an especially positive impression of our field’s scientific basis (Lilienfeld, 2011).

Not surprisingly, many beginning psychology students enter their classes armed with an array of misperceptions about our field. Not only do they often hold beliefs that are false or poorly supported (Kuhle, Barber, & Bristol, 2009), but they are often dubious of the scientific nature of psychology. Much of this skepticism, we contend, is largely inaccurate and stems from fundamental misunderstandings concerning the subject matter. Nevertheless, few psychology instructors address such skepticism proactively in their courses. As a consequence, many students may continue to harbor serious doubts regarding psychology’s scientific status — doubts that may impede their openness to learning about legitimate psychological concepts.

Numerous scholars have attempted to remedy misperceptions regarding specific psychological topics, such as the validity of the polygraph test and the purported relation between the full moon and strange behaviors (Chew, 2006; Kowalski & Taylor, 2009). Redressing these misconceptions in our classes is undeniably important. At the same time, we urge teachers of psychology to also counter higher-order misperceptions, especially those concerning the field of psychology in general. Although raising public awareness of psychological science, expanding and improving psychological science web resources, and renaming the discipline of psychology as “psychological science” are all potential ways to safeguard the future of the discipline (Ewing et al., 2010), all teachers of psychology can do their bit every time they teach a psychology class. In this article, we present and rebut widespread student misperceptions about psychology, providing the instructor of psychology with key information and teaching tips to counter each of them. We focus in particular on misconceptions regarding psychology’s scientific status (see Lilienfeld, 2011, for an extended discussion).

Psychology is merely common sense

To most students, psychology is little more than common sense (Chabris & Simons, 2010; Stanovich, 2009). On the first day of their introductory psychology classes, students can readily generate a number of beliefs that they find to be intuitive and obvious. These include the notions that (a) opposites attract, (b) we use only 10 percent of our brain power, (c) expressing pent-up anger reduces anger, (d) strange behaviors are especially likely during full moons, and (e) on multiple-choice tests, one should stick with one’s original answer even if a different answer seems correct. Yet all of these assertions are false or at best poorly supported (see Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2010, for over 300 examples).

Key teaching tip: Provide students with research that contradicts each of these claims (see Lilienfeld et al., 2010) and repeatedly test students on these claims’ validity. Introduce them to the concept of hindsight bias, the tendency to perceive outcomes as foreseeable once we know them. Once we learn of a psychological finding, it frequently appears self-evident (Kelley, 1992; Watts, 2011).

Psychology is not really a science

Students often perceive psychology as considerably less scientific than traditional “hard” sciences, including physics and chemistry (Holmes & Beins, 2009), and they often question the scientific nature of our field. There are at least three reasons for this skepticism. First, such fields as physics and biology use objective measures (e.g., volts, chemical levels). In contrast, self-reports, which are widespread in much of psychology, may be perceived by students as plagued by memory biases and other subjective artifacts, which in their eyes may appear to be fatal flaws. Second, students often believe the hard sciences to be characterized by more exacting research designs. Third, students may assume that the replicability of results of psychology cannot match those of the hard sciences. Many psychology instructors may hesitate to get too technical when describing studies, especially in a high school or introductory class, but this may be exactly what is needed.

Key teaching tip: First, point out that subjective measurement does not necessarily imply a lack of scientific rigor. For example, ample data attest to the validity of self-reports of personality and attitudes for many purposes (Chan, 2009). Second, discuss specific examples of robust psychological science and point out how psychological methods are sophisticated safeguards against human error. For example, the fields of social and cognitive psychology routinely use randomized control groups and blinded observations, and randomized controlled trials, placebo control groups, and blinded designs are common in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and allied fields (Kazdin, 2003). Moreover, many subdisciplines of psychology rely on sophisticated statistical methods, including correlational, multiple regression, and structural equation modeling techniques. Third, note that psychology’s lack of replicability may be overstated. Hedges (1987) found that the results of particle physics studies aimed at estimating the mass or lifetime of stable subatomic particles (e.g., the muon) were in general no more consistent that those of psychology. In addition, psychologists have been more proactive than scholars in other fields in addressing potential problems with the replicability of their findings (Yong, 2013).

Psychology is not useful to society

Even with teachers’ best efforts, students often fail to see the degree to which psychology applies to everyday life. To most of them, the role of biology in health seems clear. The role of engineering in bridges and buildings also seems clear. In contrast, because the breath of psychology is often not evident to students, it is easy for them to assume that psychology has proven largely useless to society.

Key teaching tip: Select some of the myriad real-world applications of psychology that you know will best resonate with your students. (See Lilienfeld, Lynn, Namy, & Woolf, 2011 and Zimbardo, 2004, for selective summaries.) Some key examples include: 

  • Operant conditioning techniques help manage the behavior of conduct-disordered children and have played a key role in training animals. 

  • Psychology is used to construct standardized tests for college and graduate admission and personnel selection tests for employees. 

  • Social psychology research has reformed eyewitness lineups to minimize error. Many police departments now ask suspects to line up one at a time, not at the same time. 

  • Perception researchers have helped improve the safety of vehicles and apparatuses (e.g., lime-yellow fire engines are easier to see in the dark than are red fire engines).

Psychologists and psychotherapists are the same

Most undergraduate students (and their parents) perceive psychologists as extremely similar to psychiatrists (r = .98) and as extremely dissimilar (r = .11) to scientists (Webb & Speer, 1986). In one study, undergraduates estimated that 67 percent of psychologists are clinical, counseling, or school psychologists when the actual figure was 50 percent; in another study, undergraduates estimated that 56 percent of psychologists are in private practice when the actual figure was 39 percent (Rosenthal, McKnight, & Price, 2001). Part of the problem is that psychologists are routinely confused with individuals in other “helping” professions. Wong (1994) reported that only half of a sample of 286 college students and staff felt they could distinguish among psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts.

Key teaching tip: Draw students’ attention to the misleading coverage of psychologists by the entertainment media. Many films refer to psychologists and psychiatrists interchangeably or blur the boundaries between psychologists and psychiatrists by depicting the former as prescribing medication (Schneider, 1987; von Sydow & Reimer, 1998). Share information about what different psychologists do.

Psychology is pretty useless (part 1): It cannot make good predictions

Many students recoil every time they hear instructors answer a question with the phrase ‘it depends.” Students who hear these words may throw their arms up in frustration because psychological research does not seem to be able to predict anything with certainty. Students may also be dismayed when a study only predicts a small percent of variance or when correlations do not exceed r = .30. Clearly they think psychology is not powerful enough to predict behavior well.

Key teaching tip: Remind students that psychology has a high “causal density” (Manzi, 2010): The sheer number of causal variables tends to be much higher than in physics and other hard sciences. Furthermore, statistical associations in psychology, in contrast to those in physics, tend to be highly probabilistic, in part because these associations are often context-dependent (Meehl, 1978). For example, the relation between divorce and negative outcomes in children is almost certainly contingent on a plethora of variables. As a consequence, it is probably impossible to assign firm numerical values to such statistics as the “percentage of children who suffer ill effects following divorce.” Many psychological theories are useful, albeit incomplete, explanations of natural phenomena. This incompleteness stems in part from the enormous number of moderating variables in any given case, as well as a lack of knowledge of the values of these variables. The good news is that psychology’s ability to generate successful predictions often far exceeds chance (Meyer et al., 2001).

Psychology is pretty useless (part II): Everyone is unique, so how can it predict behavior?

Given human uniqueness, it is easy to assume that psychology cannot yield meaningful generalizations across individuals. For example, we might conclude that because each person with major depression is different, it is impossible to identify psychological treatments that are effective for many, let alone most, people with this condition. Yet the reality is that unique variables may be largely or entirely irrelevant to the underlying mechanisms of the treatment in question (Hill, 1962).

Key teaching tip: Use a vivid example: For example, although all individuals with melanoma are surely unique, 90 percent or more of cases of this form of skin cancer are largely curable with early surgery (Berwick, 2010). Similarly, psychiatric diagnoses, like medical diagnoses, do not imply that all individuals within a category are alike in all ways. They imply only that they are alike in one crucial way, namely the core signs and symptoms that comprise the category (Lilienfeld & Landfield, 2008).

General teaching tip: Acknowledge and address underlying sources of skepticism

Our field has a storied history of attempting to change misperceptions (Chew, 2006; Holmes & Beins, 2009; Kowalski & Taylor, 2009; Taylor & Kowalski, 2004), but a great deal of work remains to be done. In terms of misperceptions about the field as a whole, part of the problem is that students are exposed to scores of poorly supported or outright inaccurate pop psychology materials purporting to be scientifically based. Although about 3500 self-help books are published each year, only about 5 percent of them are subjected to scientific testing (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2006), and many rest on feeble scientific foundations (Rosen, Glasgow, & Moore, 2003). Other self-help books advance claims that go far beyond available data. Psychologist John Gray’s enormously popular “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” book series (e.g., Gray, 1992) implies that men and women differ so vastly in their communication styles that we can regard them metaphorically as inhabiting different planets (Lilienfeld et al., 2010). Yet meta-analyses show that gender differences in most communicative variables, such as frequency of interruptions, amount of self-disclosure, and sheer verbal productivity, tend to be small in magnitude (Hyde, 2005).

A related problem is that to most students, the public face of psychology is not represented by psychological researchers or scientifically minded psychotherapists (Lilienfeld, 2011; Stanovich, 2009). Instead, our field’s public face is represented largely by such media personalities as Dr. Phil McGraw (“Dr. Phil”) and Dr. Laura Schlessinger (who is not even a psychologist; her PhD is in physiology, although she holds a certificate degree in marriage, family, and child counseling). The primary popular magazine whose title contains the word “psychology,” Psychology Today, is designed to appeal to a general audience, featuring articles on such “pop” psychology topics as love, relationships, work, and happiness, most of them written by nonexperts from a largely nonscientific perspective (Benjamin & Bryant, 1997).

Teachers can play a valuable role in educating students about psychology’s scientific side. The reality is that many misunderstandings of the subject matter stem from what we might term “understandable misunderstandings.” Because psychology is part and parcel of our everyday lives and is subjectively “immediate” (Keil et al., 2010), many students assume it to be intuitively obvious. Yet, as we have seen, familiarity should not be confused with genuine understanding. As instructors, we must be prepared to acknowledge the understandable bases for student skepticism of psychology (e.g., that psychology is mostly common sense knowledge or usually trivial in real-world importance) and tackle such skepticism head on in our courses.


Scott O. Lilienfeld, PhDScott O. Lilienfeld received his A.B. in psychology from Cornell University in 1982 and his PhD in psychology (clinical) from the University of Minnesota in 1990. He is now professor of psychology at Emory University. Dr. Lilienfeld’s research interests include the causes and assessment of psychopathic personality, evidence-based practice in clinical psychology, and approaches to teaching scientific thinking. He is president-elect for the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychology and recipient of the 2013 James McKeen Cattell award for outstanding lifetime contributions to applied psychological science from the Association for Psychological Science.

 

Regan A. R. Gurung, PhDRegan Gurung is the Ben J. & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay. He received his B.Sc. from Carleton College and his PhD in psychology (social/personality) from the University of Washington. Dr. Gurung's research focus is on teaching and learning, cultural approaches to health, social media, and impression formation and objectification. He is past-president the Society for the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, Midwestern Vice-President for Psi Chi, and recipient of the CASE Wisconsin Professor of the Year (2010) and UW System Regents Teaching Award (2011).

 

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