Research foul-ups and blunders Essay

Researchers of personality and social psychology have a lot incommon, says psychologist Rae Carlson; both groups have little ofsignificance to say either about persons in society or individualpersonality because they rely on faulty assumptions and inadequateresearch methods.

These defects are apparent in studies filling a major professionaljournal, contends Carlson, herself a personality researcher at Rutgers– The State University in New Brunswick, N.J. Social psychologists largely fail to study people drawn from meaningfully defined socialgroups (such as religious congregations or occupational groups), toconsider socioeconomic variables (such as ethnicity and social class),to study genuine social interaction that is not experimentallymanipulated, to observe social influences on psychological functioningor to ask subjects about social issues. With few exceptions, Carlson,says, personality researchers fail to study other than college students,to use biographical material or personal documents, to tailorexperimental treatments to subjects’ personal characteristics, tostudy persons over time or to analyze individuals rather than groups. Carlson’s conclusions, reported in the December 1984 JOURNALOF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, are based on a content analysis ofarticles published in the same journal during 1982.

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almost nine out of10 social psychology studies failed to meet more than one of the fivecriteria outlined above. The picture was about the same for personalitystudies. The problem, notes Carlson, is that researchers concentrate onisolated variables that say little about the development andorganization of personality and persons in society. The attraction ofthese variables, she says, is that they can easily be quantified in a”clean, scientific” way. Carlson published a similar critiqueof personality research about 14 years ago; several other psychologistsalso called for a revision of personality and social research during the1970s. But not much has changed since then, asserts Carlson.

There isno unifying intellectual force in these fields as there once was, shepoints out. For example, during the 1930s and 1940s, personalityresearchers developed broad theories relating culture to personalitywhich were explored in field experiments. “We have to face up to the intrinsic complexity of personalityresearch,” she told SCIENCE NEWS. “Our field has been farmore anxious to demonstrate the purity of its measures than theexplanatory power of its formulations.”


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