Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Fun: An Insider's Guide To Psychology Prose

I have been writing empirical articles for a little while now, and one of things I have come to notice is that there is a very specific style that social psychologists develop in their articles. It's not a style that is reflected in other disciplines of science or even in other realms of psychology. Nor is this style represented in popular guides to academic writing (e.g., Gullickson, 1997) or in the official publication manual of the American Psychological Association.

 In today's Friday Fun post I thought that it might be fun to examine these stylistic techniques to (1) give you, as a consumer of science research, a better understanding of the articles you read, and (2) illustrate that sometimes journal article writing actually can have a second meaning. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on other patterns in science writing covered here or not. I've also included example quotes from my own writing!

The Counter Intuitive Hook
Perhaps no science has quite as much infatuation with the counter intuitive finding as does social psychology. As researchers, we seem to gain more respect and admiration from our peers to the extent that our research appears to find something counter to current understandings of social life. The counter intuitive finding could involve a study that discovers how a seemingly trivial aspect of the environment makes a huge difference in behavior, or in the finding that people react to a particular social situation in a way you wouldn't expect (e.g., agreeing with others about the length of lines even when those others are clearly objectively wrong). The counter intuitive hook is the part of an article that calls attention to how counter intuitive the current research is, and by implication, how much you as the reader, should be impressed! This hook is easy to identify in most social psychology articles because it typically contains words like "paradoxical" or "unexpectedly" and phrases like "contrary to this popular belief." It's important to understand that whatever the counter intuitive hook, it's probably true that the actual authors don't think of the finding as particularly counter intuitive any longer. After all, the researchers now research-based evidence, making the finding potentially quite intuitive.

"The hypothesis that those with less will tend to give more is inherently paradoxical."
--Piff, Kraus, Cote, Cheng, & Keltner, (2010)

The Unanticipated Effect Explained
Though social psychologists would like to have you believe that we anticipate all the results we find in our studies, this is actually untrue. In fact, a fair amount of research in psychology actually involves the observation of an unintended effect, and a rational explanation of some of the reasons that effect might have occurred. You can find these types of phrases throughout many of the most widely-cited articles in social psychology. Typically the explanation of an unanticipated effect contains words like "surprising" and "unanticipated" when describing the effect, followed by phrases like "this is likely because" or "we speculate." to explain the effect, and concludes with some broad call for "future research to test these predictions." I think it is safe to say that whatever explanation a researcher offers for this effect, their confidence in this assertion is potentially far lower than the prose make it sound.

"We speculate that the absence of both Own-SO/Yoked-SO and group status main effects reflects recent declines in the expression of explicit forms of... ethnicity-based out-group bias due to social desirability concerns and political correctness."
--Kraus, Chen, Lee, & Straus, (2010)

The List of Boundary Conditions
Publishing an empirical article is a triumph in science! I imagine that most social psychologists would agree that they are extremely enthusiastic about the research that they publish. However, at the end of any empirical article, this enthusiasm is often reigned in considerably. In the list of boundary conditions, a researcher must acknowledge the many special contextual factors that may diminish the generalizeability of one's findings, or may make possible extensions of this research more preliminary. This section always occurs at the end of a manuscript and typically starts with a phrase like "Notwithstanding the promise of the findings in this research" or "Despite the robust nature of these findings" or the word "caveat" and ends with a list of as many as 10 factors that create boundaries for the application of the research to real-life settings. Some of the more common boundary conditions include (1) the use of university student samples, (2) experimental generalizeability, (3) the importance of other factors, (4) the specific features of the context or sample that make this effect especially likely, etc... After reading an exhaustive section like this (and also after writing one) it is easy to lose sight of the importance and rigor of the current research.

"Several caveats, and the future directions they suggest, should be noted."
--Almost every paper I've ever written

The Literature Inconsistency Justification
Sometimes one's research is so counter intuitive that it is actually inconsistent with the established literature (or at least parts of it)! It is during these times that a researcher must attempt to explain how such inconsistency could exist, or if possible, why this apparent inconsistency in the literature is actually not an inconsistency. Typically this section of an empirical article will start by pointing out how the findings are "interesting" or "counter intuitive" or "unexpected" and then the writing will turn to an interpretation of the findings given "the research of Psychologist X and colleagues." The attempt to reconcile the apparent discrepancy in findings follows after. It is common to see many qualifiers in the literature inconsistency justification section like "perhaps" or "might" or "maybe" since the current results are in conflict with this other literature. In general, this section's primary purpose is to both acknowledge the inconsistencies in the literature, and to call for future research to solve the puzzle that the inconsistency has caused.

"The findings in the present investigation are also noteworthy, given recent evidence suggesting [the opposite]. One possible way of thinking about these two lines of inquiry is..."
--Kraus, Horberg, Goetz, & Keltner, (2011)

I hope today's post is helpful for when you are having trouble deciphering writing in social psychology. If you are reading this and have noticed other conventions in journal articles, please don't hesitate to respond in the comments!

Gullickson, T. (1997). Writing in Psychology: A Student Guide. PsycCRITIQUES, 42 (1) DOI: 10.1037/000075

APA Publications and Communications Board Working Group on Journal Article Reporting Standards (2008). Reporting standards for research in psychology: why do we need them? What might they be? The American psychologist, 63 (9), 839-51 PMID: 19086746

1 comment:

  1. ==concludes with some broad call for "future research to test these predictions."==

    I thought that it was and advised style to put the current research in a bigger picture at the end and suggest further research.