Which are the most well-evidenced findings/theories in psychology?
March 8, 2011 12:54 AM   Subscribe

Which are the most well-evidenced findings/theories in psychology?
posted by okokok to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is a very broad question..

But I'd put my money on the Theory of Behavioral Psychology. eg. Pavlov et al. Specifically Classical conditioning.
posted by j03 at 1:04 AM on March 8, 2011

The theory of cognitive dissonance.
posted by amyms at 1:28 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The more I think about it, the less sense this question makes to me. Scientific theories are by definition "well-evidenced", if they weren't they'd be called hypotheses. One theory being more "well-evidenced" than another seems more a subjective matter of time and popularity than anything.

Is there an underlying goal to this question? or are you just curious.

I mentioned classical conditioning because it's used anytime anyone trains a dog or any other animal. Every time a trainer gets a dog to sit on command is evidence of classical conditioning and behavioral psychology. It really doesn't get much more "well-evidenced" than that.

But, so what? Knowing why you want to know this or if you can otherwise narrow the question down a bit more might improve the quality of the answers you get. Should this be limited to the total number of scientific studies for a particular theory? Should the quality or breadth of the studies be considered? Or should we count stuff like dog training as evidince?
posted by j03 at 1:49 AM on March 8, 2011

Scientific theories are by definition "well-evidenced", if they weren't they'd be called hypotheses.

j03, I can't speak for the OP, but I think you're over-thinking the question. Keep in mind, the OP is asking about psychology in particular, not about general scientific theory. Psychology as a science is more susceptible to "woo woo" theories and accepted ideas can change radically from one decade to another.

I think the OP is simply asking for examples of psychology theories that have been extensively studied, have stood the test of time, and are widely accepted.
posted by amyms at 2:00 AM on March 8, 2011

I disagree with the notion that a theory/finding per definition is well-evidenced, and even if it is so the adjective "most" should limit the options somewhat. Personally I would consider a theory/finding strong if several independent experiments confirm non-obvious predictions made from a coherent and useful theory. But I leave the criteria for strength of evidence open, because I recognize that different fields of science allow for different levels of scientific rigor. I would for example not expect experiments to be possible within organizational psychology, but I would still be interested in hearing about findings of as high quality as possible within organizational psychology. The overall purpose with the question is to gain an overview over what constitutes "solid" psychology and a list of topics suitable for self-study.
posted by okokok at 2:21 AM on March 8, 2011

Ahh, I see.

I guess when I think of psychological theories I mentally block out the "woo woo" by default.
posted by j03 at 2:22 AM on March 8, 2011

Pick up any social psychology text. My social psych class was more like a comedy routine. There will be a lot of "oh I knew that," but I bet you didn't know the reasons why people do what they do.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 3:10 AM on March 8, 2011

Theory and Hypothesis

I'm using the word theory as it is used in the domain of psychology. The word theory is frequently means different things in different contexts. In the domain of the modern science of psychology a theory is something that has been confirmed through repeated independent experiments.

The overall purpose with the question is to gain an overview over what constitutes "solid" psychology and a list of topics suitable for self-study.

There are two well-evidenced theories of (general) psychology in common practice today. Each has a unique approach to approaching and solving psychological hypothesis.

Behavioral Psychology takes the position that the biology of the brain is unknowable and unobservable and therefore one can only use observation of behavior to answer psychological hypotheses. This limitation turns out to be quite useful, particularly in areas of learning and autisim.

Behavioral psychology was invented before we had MRIs, so this position was understandable.

Cognitive Psychology takes the position that we can observe the brain and understand how it works from a neuro-biological perspective. We have MRIs now, and fancy bio-chemical tools to understand neurotransmitters like seratonin and dopamine and such.

Outside of these two theories everything is pretty much "woo woo." There are many other branches of psychological theory like "Developmental Psychology" and "Social Psychology" but they all tend to draw their fundamental tools and techniques from Behavioral and Cognitive theories.

If your goal is self study I would suggest you pick one branch or the other to focus on. Behavioral has more down-to-earth practical applications while Cognitive tends to be more research based and heavy on neuro-biology.

Choose your poison.
posted by j03 at 3:10 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

That psychotherapy works to help ~80% of people who enter it wanting change. (The effect size is 0.80 across many studies.)

That all types of psychotherapy work about the same to promote that change. (Only ~1%-7% of change is attributable to the modality of psychotherapy used.)

For a marshaling of the evidence for these, see Bruce Wampold's or Michael Lambert's work.
posted by OmieWise at 5:32 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Although I would agree that behavioral and cognitive psychology, broadly considered, are/were the most relentlessly experimental sub-disciplines of psychology and that outside those two you find any number of people willing to just invent a metaphor and run with some story about how/why things link up (I'm looking at you evolutionary psychology) or develop a survey/inventory, use it, and report the results as "data," it's worth noting that cognitive psychology was invented before MRIs too and set out initially to explain its results with computational metaphors that are probably not quite right.

Even the guy who coined the phrase cognitive psychology was saying within ten years (i.e., by the mid-70s) that the information processing metaphors they were using were problematic, and generally speaking, cognitive psychologists recognize that and remain tentative about how they try to put all the data together.

So where the problem with theory-building in behavioral psych was that it was almost non-existent (purely descriptive), the fact remains that theory-building in cognitive psych is not in much better shape than the sub-disciplines where "data" from inventories/assessment tools is considered meaningful just because it's gathered in a consistent manner over time. That is, the explanatory connections in psychology are often such tissue-thin rhetoric that the existence and occasional use of MRIs should not lead you to believe the data cannot be over-turned by re-framing a question and introducing a slight change in the probe--it very often is.

Someone above mentions cognitive dissonance, and it's a great example--while human beings certainly do some kind of rationalization/self-justification without being aware of it, the meaning of any particular study showing it and the way we should explain what's really happening remains debatable.

That said, the experimental set-ups in cognitive psych and its major topics (memory, judgment and decision-making, perception, attention, problem-solving, etc.) are about the best you could hope for.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:19 AM on March 8, 2011

That psychotherapy works to help ~80% of people who enter it wanting change. (The effect size is 0.80 across many studies.)

Effect size and efficacy are not the same thing.
posted by proj at 6:29 AM on March 8, 2011

The fundamental attribution error is right up there.
posted by Sternmeyer at 6:37 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thinking exclusively about findings/theories in social/personality psychologiy that have many papers empirically supporting them:
  • Fundamental attribution error: I think my behavior is due to the environment, but your behavior is due to your disposition)
  • Goal setting theory: Setting difficult specific goals increases performance more than trying to do one's best.
  • Decision heuristics and biases: Rather than rationally making decisions, people use common cognitive shortcuts.
  • Operant Conditioning: Randomly reinforcing a behavior leads people to engage in that behavior longer than if they were predictably reinforced. Punishing behavior by taking something away is relatively ineffective.
  • Experimenter bias/ the Pygmalion effect: People (and animals) tend to do what we expect them to even if we do not verbally express our expectations (really).
  • Basic emotions: People in different cultures can all recognize and express the same emotional facial expressions.
  • Personality has 5-broad dimensions: Personality can be broadly described using 5 dimensions: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. This works in all countries and cultures.
  • Emotions have a circumplex structure in two dimensions: Specific emotions (e.g., happy, joy, anger) exist in a circle within two-dimensional affective space.
There are many others as well. Psychology has really turned into an empirical science over the last 50 years. Still hasn't shaken the reputation Freud gave the field though.
posted by eisenkr at 7:48 AM on March 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

The interference theory of memory (forgetting, really) has a tremendous amount of empirical support. There are probably other sources of forgetting (or more-temporary memory failures), but interference is by far the most-important source.
posted by anaphoric at 8:05 AM on March 8, 2011

Effect size and efficacy are not the same thing.

True. I don't think I implied they were. Indeed, there's also a distinction to be made between efficacy and effectiveness. Regardless, Wampold, in particular, has found therapy to be both highly efficacious and highly effective.
posted by OmieWise at 8:43 AM on March 8, 2011

Emotions have a circumplex structure in two dimensions: Specific emotions (e.g., happy, joy, anger) exist in a circle within two-dimensional affective space.

eisenkr, good post. Can you explain what that last one means?
posted by mono blanco at 12:55 PM on March 8, 2011

The circumplex model of emotions is based on limited and biased evidence. See for instance this article (pdf). I've also published an article in this area that strongly criticises it. The truth is just that 'arousal' and 'valence' are easy to measure- and a vast echo chamber in psychological practise serves to keep us stuck in this crude way to differentiate emotions.

For a well-confirmed phenomenon in psychology, I'd recommend the facial feedback hypothesis. In particular this book by James Laird presents hundreds of examples and experimental confirmations.

The basic emotions view is pretty suspect as well- not that people can't recognise those distinct emotions quite universally- but the more general theory derived from it that all emotions are based on those fundamentals, which function as discrete programmes.
posted by leibniz at 2:44 PM on March 8, 2011

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