One thing has become consistently evident as I talk with members of the association and read mail sent generically to the "APA President." Many groups and individuals would like to use behavioral science as a rationale to promote or oppose political and social policy agenda. In many instances, psychological science can provide important answers to guide policy, but the very nature of behavioral science data will often contribute ambiguity. Politicians, social advocates, and people in general, do not tolerate ambiguity well.
Most of the variables psychologists study originate with hypothetical constructs (e.g., adaptation, coping, intelligence or personality). How people choose to define and measure these constructs leads to assorted claims of validity in all its forms. For example, do the questions we ask seem to directly address the behavior under study (i.e., face validity or content validity)? Better still, do the data we collect seem to predict future behavior (i.e., predictive validity)? When we attempt to apply data from a piece of research to help address a public policy concern, we must remain mindful that findings often do not generalize well. Other population variables are not always equal, and regression to the mean remains ubiquitous.
Findings that may surprise
As we strive to conduct and disseminate high quality behavioral research, some people might respond angrily to, discount or ignore data that do not comport with their beliefs about how things are or ought to be. Consider the following examples.
John Jost and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 88 samples from 12 nations analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition and confirmed that several psychological variables predict political conservatism (e.g., heightened dogmatism, reduced openness to experience and intolerance of ambiguity). They concluded that the core ideology of political conservatism stresses resistance to change andjustification of inequality, modifiedby needs that vary across situations and disposition to manage uncertainty and threat.
Kelly Brownell has studied obesity extensively and notes that nutritionists have offered relatively consistent dietary advice for decades, while Americans continue to gain weight. He has proposed a controversial "Twinkie Tax" to raise the price of inexpensive high fat, high calorie, high sugar foods, in what he calls a "toxic food environment."
Linda Waite and colleagues found frequent attendance at religious services linked to higher emotional satisfaction and pleasure in sex. Christopher Ellison and colleagues found domestic violence reports lower for the more religiously observant couples sampled.
Several studies of domestic violence have suggested that males and females in relationships have an equal likelihood of acting out physical aggression, although differing in tactics and potential for causing injury (e.g., women assailants will more likely throw something, slap, kick, bite, or punch their partner, or hit them with an object, while males will more likely beat up their partners, and choke or strangle them). In addition, data show that that intimate partner violence rates among heterosexual and gay and lesbian teens do not differ significantly.
Science, not sound bites
I hope some of these findings surprise you. I know that some may appear contrary to your personal values, beliefs or social policies you wish to advocate for (or against)-and hopefully you will veiw such unexpected findings with an open mind. Such findings can serve to spur on further research in a given area.
I hope that after reading this column you will agree that psychological science cannot be held to a standard of political correctness by social liberals or conservatives. Any attempt to use isolated behavioral science findings to frame answers to broad social policy questions will require a level of explanatory detail and nuance that defies the sound bite mentality of many news outlets and political messages. Ideally, policy-makers need to draw on the body of psychological research in a given area to inform their decisions.
Let's not sell psychological science short. Rather, let's continually strive for a full and accurate accounting of ways in which our science can better inform public policy.