There’s a Problem With a Bunch of Psychology Textbooks

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Psychology is mired in a replication crisis: Many famous, established findings that experts had assumed to be robust have, in the light shed by newer and bigger and more sophisticated follow-up studies, been revealed as rather flimsy. But what about the very basic, Psych 101 stuff taught in introductory textbooks? That stuff’s all on safe ground, right?

Maybe not. In a paper published last month in Current Psychology by Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University and Jeffrey Brown and Amanda Torres of Texas A&M, the authors evaluated a bunch of psychology textbooks to see how rigorously they covered a bunch of controversial or frequently misrepresented subjects. The results weren’t great.

In spring of 2012, Ferguson and his colleagues solicited and received 24 popular introductory textbooks, and then got to work evaluating them. Specifically, they evaluated those textbooks’ coverage of seven “controversial ideas in psychology” — ideas where there’s genuine mainstream disagreement among researchers — and also checked for the presence of five well-known scientific urban legends that, as far as the psychological Establishment is concerned, have been debunked.

The seven controversial ideas were a connection between media violence and real-world behavior; stereotype threat (the idea that if you remind someone of their membership in a marginalized group, their performance might suffer at tasks for which that group is negatively stereotyped); the notion of a recent “narcissism epidemic”; a correlation being being spanked and acting in an aggressive manner — or experiencing other negative outcomes — later in life; the theory that everyone has multiple types of intelligence; the theory that evolutionary factors play a meaningful role in our sexual behaviors; and the claim that antidepressants generally “work” to alleviate depressive symptoms. The scientific urban legends were the overblown and false version of the Kitty Genovese “bystander effect” story; an old myth about Korean POVs being fully brainwashed by their captors; the belief that “Broca’s area” in the brain was actually discovered by the researcher Paul Broca; the myth that we “only use” 10 percent of our brains; and the so-called “Mozart Effect,” which holds that kids who are exposed to classical music may benefit in the form of enhanced cognitive abilities.

For each myth or issue, the researchers determined, based on a system they set up, whether a given textbook covered that issue or myth in a “biased,” “partially biased,” or “unbiased” manner, with “unbiased” basically meaning that the textbook communicated the current consensus among researchers.

Here’s what they found:

It’s worth pointing out that Ferguson and his colleagues point out that this isn’t a random, representative sample of subjects, but rather that there was some arbitrariness to what they picked and why. Still, this is a useful first-pass attempt at understanding potential problems with modern psych textbooks, and it’s distressing — just look at the values in the “unbiased” column. Ferguson and his co-authors’ findings suggest that many textbooks are doing a really lackluster job at imparting an appropriate level of nuance and complexity.

Why is there so much questionable material in these textbooks? Ferguson and his colleagues have a couple theories. One is that psychology is a pretty wide-ranging field, and an expert in one area might not know enough in other areas to separate overhyped claims from sturdy ones — imagine being a personality psychologist who, for the purpose of writing an introductory textbook, has to pretend to be an expert on Skinnerian behaviorism. To a certain extent this is a challenge for any introductory textbook writer in any field, of course, but in “hard” sciences like physics or geology, you just won’t find all that much disagreement in the stuff taught at the 101 level.

Another factor, the authors speculate, is that the authors of introductory psychology textbooks might feel an urge to “sell” young students on the discipline, given that reading the textbook might be those students’ first real exposure to academic psychology. As a result, they may be “unconsciously prone to overcompensating by overstating the conclusiveness of psychological research and understating its limitations or theoretical controversies” — especially given that the authors of textbooks themselves tend to “have chosen their field for the love of the material and may experience natural human biases to present it as positively, even unduly so, as possible.”

So it’s complicated, in other words. But whatever the cause, given that psychology is mired in a replication crisis which is calling many of its most established-seeming findings into question, the fact that there are so many lackluster textbooks floating around is not good.

There’s a Problem With a Bunch of Psychology Textbooks