Research foul-ups and blunders Essay

Researchers of personality and social psychology have a lot in
common, says psychologist Rae Carlson; both groups have little of
significance to say either about persons in society or individual
personality because they rely on faulty assumptions and inadequate
research methods.

These defects are apparent in studies filling a major professional
journal, 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 social
groups (such as religious congregations or occupational groups), to
consider socioeconomic variables (such as ethnicity and social class),
to study genuine social interaction that is not experimentally
manipulated, to observe social influences on psychological functioning
or 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 tailor
experimental treatments to subjects’ personal characteristics, to
study persons over time or to analyze individuals rather than groups.

Carlson’s conclusions, reported in the December 1984 JOURNAL
OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, are based on a content analysis of
articles published in the same journal during 1982. almost nine out of
10 social psychology studies failed to meet more than one of the five
criteria outlined above. The picture was about the same for personality

The problem, notes Carlson, is that researchers concentrate on
isolated variables that say little about the development and
organization of personality and persons in society. The attraction of
these variables, she says, is that they can easily be quantified in a
“clean, scientific” way. Carlson published a similar critique
of personality research about 14 years ago; several other psychologists
also called for a revision of personality and social research during the
1970s. But not much has changed since then, asserts Carlson. There is
no unifying intellectual force in these fields as there once was, she
points out. For example, during the 1930s and 1940s, personality
researchers developed broad theories relating culture to personality
which were explored in field experiments.

“We have to face up to the intrinsic complexity of personality
research,” she told SCIENCE NEWS. “Our field has been far
more anxious to demonstrate the purity of its measures than the
explanatory power of its formulations.”


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