Up-Goer Five Challenge: Psychology

Psychology using the ten hundred most common words

Recently I learned that some scientists have taken up the challenge of describing their research using only the “ten hundred” most commonly used words in the English language, inspired by this xkcd comic. I may be late to the party, but I’m definitely joining! Since I’m not conducting research at the moment, I’ve asked friends on Facebook and the people of Twitter to give me suggestions of terms to “explain”. I’ve picked the best six of the suggestions—okay, there weren’t that many suggestions—and now it’s time to get to work.

Twitter evidence.

To make the challenge more fun, and for me to have some time to get the hang of it, I’ll “explain” the terms in three levels of difficulty, doing two terms per level. To make sure that I’m not using any forbidden words, I’ll write my explanations in the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, built precisely for this purpose.

Level 1

The most basic. I’ll find a suitable explanation for the term (let’s face it, probably off Wikipedia) and then try to directly “translate” it by changing around the words that are not allowed.

“… the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence. On the other hand, people of high ability incorrectly assume that tasks that are easy for them are also easy for other people. (Wikipedia, July 29, 2018)

The “Ten Hundred” Way:

The “I do not know that I do not know problem” is a normal wrong thinking situation in which people who know very little have a wrong sense of being better than others and believe that they think better than others, although they do not. The normal wrong thinking situation of thinking they are better than others happens because people who know very little find it hard to know how little they know; without being able to notice their own thinking, people who know very little can not really decide if they know a lot or not. On the other hand, people who know a lot think that things that are easy for them are also easy for other people.

“[Terror management] theory proposes that a potential for anxiety results from the juxtaposition of death awareness—presumably a uniquely human capacity made possible by cognitive abilities such as self-awareness and abstract thought—and the instinct for self-preservation, which is common to all animals. To defend against this potential death anxiety, people must believe that some valued aspect of themselves will continue, either literally or symbolically, after cessation of their biological body. Literal immortality takes the form of an afterlife (e.g., heaven), whereas symbolic immortality takes the form of extensions of the self (e.g., children, achievements) continuing to exist after the person’s biological death […]. Whether literal of symbolic, this cultural anxiety buffer consists of two components: (a) belief in the validity of a cultural worldview and the standards and values associated with that worldview and (b) belief that one is meeting or exceeding those standards and values, that is, self-esteem.” (Burke et al., 2010)

The “Ten Hundred” Way:

The “idea of having less fear of death” is that we can feel a deep fear because of bringing together the fact that we are able to know that we will die — something which maybe only humans can do because we are able to know who we are and to think about things that are not real things — and the fact that we usually try to keep living, as all animals do. To have less fear about death, people must believe that something they like about themselves will continue, either really or as an idea, after their body dies. Really being able not to die means some form of life after life (such as in the sky, as god might say), and being able not to die as an idea means that some part of us (such as our children or things we have done) will continue to be real after our death. In its real or idea form, this way of stopping the fear of death that is within all of those who are of one big group has two parts: the thought that what our big group thinks about the world and finds good is true and the thought that we do the things the way our big group thinks we should or even better, that is, liking who we are.

Level 2

A little harder. I’ll read about the terms and make up my own definition, and then try to translate that into a ten hundred version.

P-hacking refers to a collection of strategies researchers sometimes use, alone or together, to achieve significant results in data analysis. These strategies can be at the level of data collection itself—for example, performing the analyses after running X participants and stopping when the results are significant—but more often involve tricks in data analysis, such as performing many analyses that were not preregistered and only reporting those that reach significant results. These practices dangerously inflate the likelihood of false positive results, reducing trust in the extant literature, and must be addressed by the field if psychology is to ever become a mature science.

The “Ten Hundred” Way:

“Important number changing” is a group of ways that people who study the world sometimes use, either just one way or many ways together, to make it seem like they found something important. These ways can be used when you first look at the world — like, taking notes about the world many times but stopping when the notes seem to be important — but are more often just wrong ways of looking at your notes, such as looking at your notes in many different ways without having told anyone that you were going to look in those ways but only telling others what you did if you find something that looks important. By using these ways, we find things that look important but aren’t much more often than if we did not use these ways, which makes us believe the notes of other people much less, and we must talk about these ways and change them so that we can say that we study people and their thoughts the same way other people study the more real things in the world (such as rocks and green things).

Object permanence is the realization that objects that are no longer visible (audible, touchable, …) nonetheless still exist. It is a crucial skill that young children develop over time, and makes for fun “glitches” in babies—“peekaboo!” It is yet unclear when exactly babies develop object permanence, but studies and theoretical work suggest that it occurs at some point between 3 months and 2 years of age.

The “Ten Hundred” Way

“Thing staying” is the knowing that something that you can no longer see, touch, smell, and so on is still real and did not really disappear. This is very important, and children learn it over time, leading to babies doing funny things — such as how they respond in the “I was here but now I am not here and now I am here again!” game. We don’t know yet when babies learn that things stay, but studies and thoughts by well learned people suggest that it happens at some point between three months and two years of age.

Level 3

The real challenge. I’ll create the “ten hundred” explanation from scratch directly into the text editor.

“Thought pain” happens when you do or think something that goes against your thoughts, what you believe to be true, or what you like to believe to be true. This idea means that, if you were to believe that hitting other people is bad, and then you hit another person, you would feel thought pain. In order to feel less thought pain, people do one or more of several things: they can change what they do (and stop hitting others); they can change what they think (maybe hitting others is not so bad); they can think new thoughts to make their old thoughts and what they did go better together (I only hit him because he is bad, and it is good to hit bad people); or they can change what they think about what really happened (I barely touched him, it wasn’t really hitting). This way we can control what we think and what we do so that we feel as little thought pain as possible.

Humans are different from each other, both in their bodies and their minds. One way in which people’s minds are different from each other is in how they take in the world around them. Some people, who we call “easy to excite”, take more time to look when entering a new situation and get more easily excited (and tired) by too much happening around them; it is good for them to sometimes leave situations where too much is happening for a more quiet place, so that their mind has time to slow down, rest, and make sense of what happened. These people also notice more things than other people, and they can think of more things than others and understand some situations better. What’s more, they are often better able to fit into different situations than those who are not easy to excite, as long as they have enough time to do so. Because this way in which people are different is not well known, other people can think that those who are easy to excite actually don’t like hanging out with others and focus too much on what goes on inside their minds instead of focusing on the world and people around them. This can be bad if people who are easy to excite start believing that there is something wrong with them, which there isn’t. That’s why it’s very important that many people learn about this.

Final Thoughts

First of all, thank you for reading and special thanks to Sasha Boychenko, Joseph Isai, Koen Smets, and Gesa for giving me ideas for the terms. I hope you enjoyed the little exercise; I certainly did!

While going through the exercise, a few things caught my attention. Even though I tried to “design” the levels to slowly increase the difficulty, writing for level 3 did feel easier than before. This could simply be a learning effect, but it’s also possible that level 3 is just a more harmonious way to go about this task. Letting myself use only the allowed words from the start forced me to change how I approach the task and search for the simplest way to explain only the most crucial aspects of each concept.

Even though I tried to make the texts both easy to read and substantive, the results proved to be too clunky for my taste. Many words that I would think are quite common—creative, action, sensitive—didn’t make the cut, and I had to find suboptimal workarounds to express the same thought. Maybe with a little more practice I would get used to expressing complicated ideas using only the most basic of words, but would I want to? The words we use, even the complicated and rare ones, were created with the purpose of facilitating communication, and, for the most part, they are very useful. It is up to us to learn how to use words in a way that takes advantage of the generous vocabulary of the English language while taking care to communicate as simply as we can. Writing, including scientific writing, need not be a display of intelligence; we all lose when someone’s brilliant thoughts are understood by no one else.

Thus, this kind of challenge may be a useful exercise for people who are used to writing in a dense and hard to read voice and who would like to practice writing more simply and clearly. However, it is not replacement for actually trying to write more clearly in your daily work.

In the end, this was a fun exercise with, I think, quite funny results. I’ll probably do it again; any ideas for terms I could describe? Comment here or send me a Tweet it you feel inspired :) And a challenge from me: can you describe something from your field using only the most common ten hundred words?

I love psychology, and I love writing about it. Archive of my posts and the Medium Psychology Highlights: https://medium.com/@vascobrazao/archive-5f53b955a775