Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bad Psychology?

I've always wanted to start a collection of "Bad Psychology" along the same lines as Phil Plait's excellent Bad Astronomy homepage. That page gathers popularized accounts of astronomical findings that get the research wrong in key ways and explains/debunks the claims

Our students could do this, I think. Once they learn some important research concepts (e.g. the importance of control groups, operational definitions, correlation not being confused with causation, etc.) they should be able to spot some "bad psychology" out there in popular media. If they do, please post it here (or elsewhere) for the rest of us to see!

My contribution might be a little controversial, but I'll take a shot at it. As far as I can tell, the popularized concept of "learning styles" (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic) don't really measure or predict anything "real" about learning, other than maybe a learning preference. I first heard about this skepticism in a graduate cognitive psych class, and then found a couple other compelling discussions of it:
- Michael Britt interviewed Daniel Willingham about the topic on the Psych files (an excerpt: “It’s worth thinking about not matching the child’s supposed learning style to how they are supposed to learn, but rather think about the content and what is it about this content that I really want students to understand and what’s the best way to convey that.” - Dr. Willingham)
- a great, comprehensive article that summarizes the research well: “Different Strokes for Different Folks?” American Educator (that link is a .pdf of the article)

When I talk about this with other teachers (and students), I get a lot of resistance. People seem darn attached to the idea that these learning styles exist and that they matter in how to most effectively learn/teach. What do you all think?


Anonymous said...

If you want an example of misuse of psychology how about personality testing?
There really aren't any good personality tests ---well, maybe one or two---yet they are in use throughout our culture.

Annie Murphy Paul explores the issue in her book:

Anonymous said...

Another example is the widespread misuse of standardized testing to make conclusions about students and teachers. Howard Gardner pointed out many years ago about the fact that they had reached their point of utility and we needed to move to other instruments (see the Discovering Psychology program, Testing and Intelligence with the excerpt here: http://www.learner.org/discoveringpsychology/16/e16expand.html)

Jon Mueller said...

Good idea (bad psychology site). I have created a sort of "bad science" site in which I have collected headlines of articles that sometimes correctly but often incorrectly confuse correlations with causal relationship at


There are also some assignment ideas on the site.


Anonymous said...

Bad psychology, well the media is just full of it! Off the top of my head the book "The Bell Curve" by those Harvard professors (both in fields unrelated to intelligence) is probably the worst example of psychology, and science at that! Also, most media coverage of animal psychology, especially with regards to teaching animals language is laughable.