A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Psychological Science isn't all bad

When I first started this blog, one of my ideas was to digitize my "most absurd article" and "most incoherent title" awards for articles in Psychological Science. This was a game I played with office mates back in grad school. For example, I just jumped back to May 2003 and found: 

Most Absurd: Good Pitch Memory is Widespread. They found that people could distinguish the correct pitch for familiar tunes (sometimes), but... surprise!... people could not distinguish the correct pitch of tunes they didn't know. The study seemed systematic and I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt that it distinguishes between hypotheses in some sub-discipline... but I don't know what it was doing a flagship journal.

Most Incoherent Title: Perceiving an Object and its Context in Different Cultures: A Cultural Look at New Look. First of, why do you have to tell us that a study of context across different cultures involves "a cultural look". Second, the title gives no hint of what the study actually did or what was found. Third, they definitely did not do what the title seems to imply, which is to take an object, along with its context, to different cultures and examine how it was perceived. Finally, the reference to Bruner's 1950 "New Look" thesis is unnecessary and confusing. (Despite the crappy title, the effect reported is actually pretty cool, and might be of relevance to many psychologists.)

Why, though, haven't I been keeping up with this? A few reasons. First, my APS membership had lapsed... that has been fixed. Second, I've been pretty busy. Third, the articles in Psychological Science don't seem as annoying as they used to. Don't get me wrong, I still don't understand what qualifies most of them as breathtaking advances, and Andrew has been bashing away at their crappy attempts at embodied cognition articles, but I have seen at least a few articles every issue I really liked. For example, it would be hard to rave enough about Karen Adolph and colleague's article in this months Psych Science. From the abstract:
The current study provides the first corpus of natural infant locomotion derived from spontaneous activity during free play. Locomotor experience was immense: Twelve- to 19-month-olds averaged 2,368 steps and 17 falls per hour.... Immense amounts of time-distributed, variable practice constitute the natural practice regimen for learning to walk. 
Heck, even her title is great, as it tells you exactly what you will be getting from the article:
How do you learn to walk? Thousands of steps and dozens of falls per day.
Given that one of the common criticisms of behaviorist approaches is that there is not enough time and experience for such explanations to work. Karen isn't a radical behaviorist, but she is an ecological psychologists (in the Eleanor Gibson tradition) and a developmental psychobiologist. This means she shares many concerns with other attempts to emphasize the importance of past experience and current environment on behavior.

Also, this article is important in demonstrating the value of descriptive work in our field. Knowledge of the natural conditions under which behavior occurs is key to forming sensible hypotheses. There are also important implications regarding the pervasive use of "age" as a proxy for "having had certain types of experience." For example, Karen tells us:
Researchers need to reconsider the long-held tradition of using walking age to represent walking experience. Walking age signifies only the elapsed time since walking onset. Like test age, walking age is a robust predictor of various developmental outcomes, but it is not an explanatory variable. In other areas of developmental research, descriptions of natural activity have informed understanding about learning mechanisms. For example, in language acquisition, the sheer number of utterances and word tokens in mothers’ natural talk to infants when they are 18 months old (estimated from 12 min of mother-infant free play in a laboratory playroom) predicts their rate of vocabulary growth and language processing speed at 24 months of age (Hurtado et al., 2008). In contrast, diversity of language (number of word types) is not predictive....
Although most people would assume that infants walk and fall a lot, few would guess that the average toddler takes 2,368 steps, travels 701 m—the length of 7.7 American football fields—and falls 17 times per hour. Hourly rates provide only a tantalizing window into the amounts of practice that likely accumulate over a day.... Estimates of natural activity are equally enormous for other skills. Middle-class infants hear 2,150 words per hour, more than 30 million words by 3 years (Hart & Risley, 1995). Eleven- to 13-month-olds spend more than 30 min per hour engaged with objects during everyday activity (Karasik, Tamis-LeMonda, & Adolph, 2011). By 2 months of age, infants have executed more than 2.5 million eye movements (Johnson, Amso, & Slemmer, 2003), and by 3.5 months, they have performed 3 to 6 million.
Plenty of people take language learning seriously enough to try to get a handle on the role of such experience (see, for example, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior). That said, I have yet to convince a single infant cognition researchers, who was previously vested in using looking as a dependent variable, that they should take looking seriously as a developed and contextualized behavior. 


So, the old plan is out. The new plan is to mix up criticism and praise. I'm going to try for weekly coverage of a few venues: Psychological Science, Perspectives in Psychological Science, Review of General Psychology (the APA Division 1 journal), History of Psychology, and probably occasional bits from The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the meantime, I will try to do a few posts a week for the next few weeks, catching up on articles that deserve a wider readership... and which I should write about before the new year.


  1. Why is it absurd to publish something showing pitch memory differs across tune frequency? Many people have claimed pitch memory outside a very small temporal window is only relative and not absolute for almost all people. Showing that, actually, many people remain sensitive to absolute pitch over longer periods changes the kinds of theories of audition one can offer and is drastically different to the dominant narrative. Plus it seems like real work - not made up data dredging. I really don't get why this upsets you more than much of the other guff that is in psych science. I support picking on people, but I'm confused about why you chose this as a worthy target.

  2. CM,
    Good points! I wasn't claiming this was bad science necessarily, but I do think it was somewhat absurd to find it in the supposed number 1 journal in our field; a journal that only publishes (we are told) breathtaking and trail blazing results. At any rate... the game from grad school was to do this for every issue of psych science when it arrived in our mailbox... I picked an issue from my grad school years at random, and found the one I felt most deserved the award. If you have a better suggestion from that issue, please nominate! (disagreements were half the fun)

    However, I get the sense you might have wanted a deeper answer. If so:
    I will say that their control condition is a pretty absurd in its own right. Of course I can't correctly identify the pitch of unfamiliar tunes. I also can't match unfamiliar faces to names, identify the proper shading of unfamiliar abstract pictures, match unfamiliar written words to unfamiliar languages, etc.

    On the other hand, you are quite right that it is interesting that people can identify an absolute pitch... and a control group is absolutely not needed to make that point (making their choice of control all the more mysterious). Such a finding might well be a major, major finding in the field of acoustic memory, but I suspect the vast majority of people (including psychologists) have always assumed people have that ability. Given that more than half the submissions to Psych Science are triage per-review for exactly such reasons (narrow topic, unsurprising, etc.)... well... you get the drift.