Most Psychology Research Is BS
Here’s the real stuff you need to know to optimize your life
With close to 40 million views, the TED Talk on power posing is one of psychology’s most-shared videos ever.
According to Amy Cuddy, the Harvard researcher behind the power-posing study, if you stand in a confident posture (think Superman or Superwoman) for a mere two minutes, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol will plummet and your testosterone will skyrocket.
Cuddy’s famous paper on the subject claims that this two-minute exercise causes testosterone to increase by 20 percent and cortisol to drop by 25 percent.
Unfortunately, no one has been able to replicate her research.
This isn’t the only troubled finding in the world of psychology. There’s been a recent rash of behavioral science studies getting overturned—one replication of 100 psychology studies found only a 36.1 percent reproducibility rate.
Is all of psychology this bad?
Yes and no. While many areas of research are complete bunk, others are very solid — life changing even. In this article, I’m going to help you figure out which psychology headlines you can ignore and which you should integrate into your life. Below are some principles that can guide you toward separating fact from fiction.
Principle #1: If It Sounds Like Magic, It Probably Is
Part of what originally attracted me to psychology was how powerful and magical it seemed. For example, one study found that you could change the speed people walk by merely exposing them to words associated with old age. Words like “gray” or “wrinkled” supposedly changed how participants moved. That’s practically a superpower.
Unfortunately, like Cuddy’s study on power posing, these results are untrue.
The study makes it seem like humans can be magically controlled through subtle, simple changes. Recent replication attempts of this words-associated-with-old-age study, however, have met with failure.
The replication researchers noticed that the volunteers moved more slowly only when the experimenters testing them expected the volunteers to move slowly. In other words: The original study wasn’t (necessarily) fraudulent—rather, it was poorly run.
This study, by the famous psychologist John Bargh, was featured in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” the magnum opus of Daniel Kahneman, the king of behavioral economics. It shows the corrupting impact of a bad study as other researchers try to build on top of it.
Bargh’s study is part of a cluster of suspect studies in the area of priming. The priming effect goes something like this: If you expose someone to a concept, then their perception and behavior will change in powerful but almost imperceptible ways to fall in line with that concept.
For example, if you give someone a hot drink to hold, and then have them talk with strangers, they’ll be “warmer” and friendlier than a group handed a cold drink. Psychologists actually published a paper claiming this.
Unfortunately, a similar study, in which participants were exposed to either warm or cold packs before choosing whether to receive a prosocial (helping others) or selfish reward, failed replication:
“We conclude that there is no evidence that brief exposure to warm therapeutic packs induces greater prosocial responding than exposure to cold therapeutic packs.”
The magical thinking in these failed studies is characterized by a small, temporary activity producing massive long-term change. In other words, be wary of psychology headlines that promote a quick fix.
Here’s an even bigger example of this magical thinking.
In Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s growth mindset work, students were permanently transformed after hearing a short lecture about mindsets, brain plasticity, and the amount of control people have over their achievement. According to the study, students scored better on tests and earned better grades years after receiving the growth mindset magic.
This again is the quick-fix magical thinking — a single lesson showing large, measurable results for years afterward.
Not surprisingly, Tom Chivers, science writer for Buzzfeed, writes:
“[S]ome statisticians and psychologists are increasingly worried that mindset theory is not all it claims to be. The findings of Dweck’s key study have never been replicated in a published paper, which is noteworthy in so high-profile a work. One scientist told BuzzFeed News that his attempt to reproduce the findings has so far failed. An investigation found several small but revealing errors in the study that may require a correction.”
Again and again, claims that are too good to be true make great headlines but poor science.
Which leads us into our next principle…
Principle #2: Small Changes Generally Do Not Lead to Large Results
In general, whenever someone is trying to sell you on a small change or short-term intervention, it’s time to show them the door.
If small changes led to huge results, then people would be chaotic messes. Let that sink in for a minute. If change were easy, then you couldn’t trust your relationships. Every time you went out with friends, you would find that one of them had metamorphosed into a completely different person. This is (usually) not the case.
People are actually pretty stable throughout their lifetimes. They generally keep the same interests and tastes. Stability is the norm, and change is hard. You already know this — that’s why I assume you’re reading this personal development article.
If we’re going to be successful in our desire for self-improvement, we have to approach the subject with clarity and objectivity. We have to understand the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We have to get the idea that a few small tweaks performed over a few days will not make any measurable difference in our lives. We have to be committed to consistent action over a period of weeks and months. We have to understand that change takes real thought and effort.
Which leads us to the next principle…
Principle #3: Change Takes Time
There’s an inertia to life. The longer we stay the same, the harder it is to change. If you’ve been eating a Chipotle burrito bowl for dinner for the past two years, it’s unlikely that you’ll suddenly start making fresh kale salads at home instead.
If you’ve been watching an episode of TV upon arriving home from work each day for the past few months, you probably won’t start hitting the gym after work.
While you may be thinking, “Shoot, inertia sucks,” inertia is not the enemy.
In fact, inertia is our friend. Habits are the drivers of inertia. They allow us to continue cruising in the same direction we’ve been going. When that direction is negative, we cry out in anger and bemoan, “How hard it is to change!”
When that direction is positive, we pat ourselves on the back and thank our good habits, but we don’t think about the fact that the stubbornness of our habits is a great gift.
A remarkable life is built upon a latticework of positive routines.
When you’re cruising down the road in the wrong direction, you want to slam on the breaks, spin the car around, and make up for lost time. That’s understandable. Unfortunately, it’s misguided.
How long do you think it takes, on average, to form a new habit?
A day? A week? Twenty-one days? Thirty days?
If you ask a room full of people this question, almost everyone will tell you it takes either 21 or 30 days. This is a vast underestimation.
The most recent research to come out shows that, on average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit. That’s more than two months of consistent behavior and practice. Complex and effortful habits look like they take even longer to solidify — sometimes even hundreds of days.
Any given change you want to make will take consistent time (and probably effort) to materialize. If you go into a self-improvement routine expecting instant or quick results, you will be disappointed.
If, however, you enter with a realistic idea of how long things are going to take, you’ll be much more resilient to the inevitable setbacks and hardships you’ll encounter. After all, you knew this wasn’t going to be quick. Realistic expectations are half the battle.
So, what magical tactics do work?
Principle #4: Take Care of the Basics
The personal development world takes cruel pride in encouraging people to “push until it hurts” and sacrifice sleep and well-being in the name of “greatness.” This is complete BS.
Yes, change is hard. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it’s probably going to hurt a bit. But this doesn’t mean you need to make your life a living hell, full of pain and sleep deprivation, to become a better person.
The foundation of any path toward greatness starts with the Three S’s:
- Social support
You need to make sure you get enough sleep, eat good food, and have a positive social life. These three things are necessary for your energy levels, and any great and satisfying life will be built on top of these three pillars.
If you aren’t sleeping 7.5 to eight hours a day, that should be your priority. I could write 10 articles on the importance of sleep and its role in memory consolidation and neuroplasticity.
There’s nothing more important for your general health, energy, and learning. If you want to ensure that the changes you’re making and the things you’re trying to learn stick, you need to give your brain the chance to properly strengthen the new neural pathways and connections you’re forming. This is one of the core purposes of sleep.
In addition, energy stores (glycogen) are replenished during a full night of sleep. If you’re not sleeping enough or getting poor-quality sleep, your neurons just aren’t going to have the raw materials they need to function properly.
Which leads to the next point: If you aren’t eating enough good food each day, that should be your priority. We humans are quite expensive to run. The average person burns between 1,600 and 2,500 calories a day. We’re furnaces, taking in energy and producing thoughts and movements. Make sure that you feed your body the proper fuels so it can operate effectively. Don’t skip breakfast and lunch (this is more common than I would have thought). Experiment with different diets. Find one that fits your lifestyle and makes you feel good.
Once you have your physical needs covered, it’s time to work on your social needs. If you aren’t spending enough time with close friends (friends who are supportive of you), then that should be your priority. A robust amount of research shows that social isolation—even if it’s just perceived—is stressful and physically damaging. As the neuroscientist John Cacciopo summarizes:
In a meta-analysis of over 100,000 subjects published in 2012 by Julianne Holt-Lunstead and colleagues, the effects of social connection on health were comparable to smoking and about three times larger than obesity.
This also doesn’t seem to be due to a lack of functional help (encouraging you to exercise, cooking for you, etc.) from friends. It seems to be due to hormonal and inflammatory changes triggered by isolation.
Don’t underestimate the power of these basic building blocks of life. If you don’t have these things, then you shouldn’t spend time on anything else.
Although we should all note that these three things fall outside of the realm of magical thinking in that they require sustained effort — you can’t just get one good night of sleep or eat one healthy meal.
Change is a slow process, but the results are solid.
In other words, when you’re looking at psychology research, be skeptical of the studies that show huge results in a short amount of time. Those of us who care about large personal improvements are really looking to do a massive rewiring of our brains. The science of neuroplasticity says this is possible, but it always takes time.
Sustained effort and time. That’s the mantra for scientific personal development.