Relaxing With Some Silly Research

In psychology, there is a lot of bad research out there by all estimates. The poor quality of this research can be attributed to concerns about ideology-driven research agendas, research bias, demand characteristics, lack of any real theory guiding the research itself, p-hacking, file-drawer effects, failures to replicate, small sample sizes, and reliance on undergraduate samples, among others. Arguably, there is more bad (or at least inaccurate) research than good research floating around as, in principle, there are many more ways of being wrong about the human mind than there are of being right about it (even given our familiarity with it); a problem made worse by the fact that being (or appearing) wrong or reporting null findings does not tend to garner one social status in the world of academia. If many of the incentives reside in finding particular kinds of results – and those kinds are not necessarily accurate – the predictable result is a lot of misleading papers. Determining what parts of the existing psychological literature are an accurate description of human psychology can be something of a burden, however, owing to the obscure nature of some of these issues: it’s not always readily apparent that a paper found a fluke result or that certain shady research practices have been employed. Thankfully, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see why some particular pieces of psychological research are silly; criticizing that stuff can be as relaxing as a day off at the beach.

Kind of like this, but indoors and with fewer women

The last time I remember coming across some of the research that can easily be recognized as silly was when one brave set of researchers asked if leaning to the left made the Eiffel tower look smaller. The theory behind that initial bit of research is called, I think, number line theory, though I’m not positive on that. Regardless of the name, the gist of the idea seems to be that people - and chickens, apparently - associate smaller numbers with a relative leftwardly direction and larger numbers with a rightwardly one. For humans, such a mental representation might make sense in light of our using certain systems of writing; for nonhumans, this finding would seem to make zero sense. To understand why this finding makes no sense, try and place it within a functional framework by asking (a) why might humans and chickens (and perhaps other animals as well) represent smaller quantities with their left, and (b) why might leaning to the left be expected to bias one’s estimate of size? Personally, I’m coming up with a blank on the answer to those questions, especially because biasing one’s estimate of size on the basis of how one is leaning is unlikely to yield more accurate estimates. A decrease in accuracy seems like that could only carry costs in this case; not benefits. So, at best, we’re left calling those findings a development byproduct for humans and likely a fluke for the chickens. In all likelihood, the human finding is probably a fluke as well.

Thankfully, for the sake of entertainment, silly research is not to be deterred. One of the more recent tests of this number line hypothesis (Anelli et al, 2014) makes an even bolder prediction than the Eiffel tower paper: people will actually get better at performing certain mathematical operations when they’re traveling to the left or the right: specifically, going right will make you better at addition and left better at subtraction. Why? Because smaller numbers are associated with the left? How does that make one better at subtraction? I don’t know and the paper doesn’t really go into that part. On the face of it, this seems like a great example of what I have nicknamed “dire straits thinking”. Named after the band’s song, “money for nothing” this type of thinking leads people to hypothesizing that others can get better (or worse) at tasks without any associated costs. The problem with this kind of thinking is that if people did possess the cognitive capacities to be better at certain tasks, one might wonder why people ever perform worse than they could. This would lead me to pose questions like, “why do I have to be traveling right to be better at addition; why not just be better all the time?” Some kind of trade-offs need to referenced to explain that apparent detriment/bonus to performance, but none ever are in dire straits thinking.

In any case, let’s look at the details of the experiment, which was quite simple. Anelli et al, (2014) had a total of 48 participants walk with an experimenter (one at a time; not all 48 at once). The pair would walk together for 20 seconds in a straight line, at which point the experimenter would call out a three-digit number, tell the participants to add or subtract from it by 3 aloud for 22 seconds, give them a direction to turn (right or left), and tell them to begin. At that point, the participant would turn and start doing the math. Each participant completed four trials: two congruent (right/addition or left/subtraction) and two incongruent (right/subtraction or left/addition). The researchers hoped to uncover a congruency effect, such that more correct calculations would be performed in the congruent, relative to incongruent, trials.

Now put the data into to the “I’m right” program and it’s ready to publish

Indeed, just such an effect was found: when participants were moving in a congruent direction as their mathematical operations, they performed more correct calculations on average (M = 10.1), relative to when they were traveling in an incongruent direction (M = 9.6). However, when this effect was broken down by direction, it turns out that the effect only exists when participants were doing addition (M = 11.1 when going right, 10.2 when going left); there was no difference for subtraction (M = 9.0 and 9.1, respectively). Why was there no effect for subtraction? Well, the authors postulate a number of possibilities – one of which being that perhaps participants needed to be walking backwards – though none of them include the possibility of the addition finding being a statistical fluke. It’s strange how infrequently this possibility is ever mentioned in published work, especially in the face of inconsistent findings.

Now one obvious criticism of this research is that the participants were never traveling right or left; they were walking straight ahead in all cases. Right or left, unlike East or West, depends on perspective. When I am facing my computer, I feel I am facing ahead; when I turn around to walk to the bathroom, I don’t feel like I’m walking behind me. The current research would thus rely on the effects of a momentary turn affecting participant’s math abilities for about half a minute. Accordingly, participants shouldn’t even have needed to be walking; asking them to turn and stand in place should be expected to have precisely the same effect. If the researchers wanted to measure walking to the right or left, they should have had participants moving to the side by sliding, rather than turning and walking forward.

Other obvious criticisms of the research could include the small sample size, the small effect size, the inconsistency of the effect (works for addition but not subtraction and is inconsistent with other research they cite which was itself inconsistent – people being better at addition when going up in an elevator but not walking up stairs, if I understand correctly), or the complete lack of anything resembling a real theory guiding the research. But let’s say for a moment that my impression of these results as silly is incorrect; let’s assume that these results accurately describe the workings of human mind in some respect. What are the implications of that finding? What, in other words, happens to be at stake here? Why would this research be published, relative to the other submissions received by Frontiers in Psychology? Even if it’s a true effect – which already seems unlikely, given the aforementioned issues – it doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. Should people be turning to the right and left while taking their GREs? Do people need to be doing jumping jacks to improve their multiplication skills so as to make their body look more like the multiplication symbol? If so, how could you manage to do them while you’re supposed to be sitting down quietly while taking your GREs without getting kicked out of the testing site? Perhaps someone more informed on the topic could lend a suggestion, because I’m having trouble seeing the importance of it.

Maybe the insignificance of the results is supposed to make the reader feel more important

Without wanting to make a mountain out of a mole hill, this paper was authored by five researchers and presumably made it passed an editor and several reviewers before it saw publication. At a minimum, that’s probably about 8 to 10 people. That seems like a remarkable feat, given how strange the paper happens to look on its face. I’m not just mindlessly poking fun at the paper, though: I’m bringing attention to it because it seems to highlight a variety of problems in the world of psychological research. There are, of course, many suggestions as to how these problems might be ferreted out, though many of them that I have seen focus more on statistical solutions or combating researcher degrees of freedom. While such measures might reduce the quantity of bad research (like pre-registering studies), they will be unlikely to increase the absolute quality of good work (since one can pre-register silly ideas like this), which I think is an equally valuable goal. For my money, the requirement of some theoretical functional grounding for research would likely be the strongest candidate for improving work in psychology. I imagine many people would find it harder to propose such an idea in the first place if they needed to include some kind of functional considerations as to why turning right makes you better at addition. Even if such a feat was accomplished, it seems those considerations would make the rationale for the paper even easier to pick apart by reviewers and readers.

Instead of asking for silly research to be conducted on larger, more diverse samples, it seems better to ask that silly research not be conducted at all.

References: Anelli, F., Lugli, L., Baroni G., Borghi, A., & Nicoletti, R. (2014). Walking boosts your performance in making additions and subtractions. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01459

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