The field of psychology is diverse and large — the American Psychological Association alone has divisions representing more than 54 separate topic areas. Tens of thousands of psychology papers are published every year in peer-reviewed journals. In 2015 alone, there were more than 2,000 meta-analyses papers (research that summarizes and examines other research) published in psychology’s PsycINFO research database.
Here are ten psychology articles published in the past year that I think were important or intriguing, and advanced the field of psychology significantly.
1. The Hoffman Report
While not a traditional psychology article, the Hoffman Report — formally titled the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture — looked into the American Psychological Association’s (APA) efforts to ensure that psychologists could continue to consult in torture interrogations. The independent investigation into the efforts of the APA’s leadership led to the firing of a single staffer, the resignation of another, and the early retirement of two others.
Those named in the report led a vigorous rebuttal effort to tarnish the report’s investigation and findings. This report shed light on the inner machinations of the APA, the world’s largest professional association of psychologists (suffering in recent years from declining membership), and may be the spark that will make the organization more transparent than it has ever been (Hoffman Report, 2015).
2. Comprehensive Versus Usual Community Care for First-Episode Psychosis: 2-Year Outcomes From the NIMH RAISE Early Treatment Program
When most families are confronted with a family member who has a first episode of schizophrenia or psychosis, the usual course of treatment recommended is antipsychotic medication. This important longitudinal study demonstrated that focusing more on psychotherapy and family support results in better patient outcomes (Kane et al., 2015).
3. Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science
The scientists conducting this massive, multi-year project decided to look at whether they could reproduce 100 psychology studies conducted by a random set of researchers in 2008. Their findings were somewhat unexpected. Only 36 percent of the replications had statistically significant results — meaning that the researchers couldn’t find significance in the remaining 64 percent of studies. Only 47 percent had effect sizes in a comparable range, but they were typically 50 percent smaller than the original effect sizes (Open Science Collaboration, 2015).
This would suggest that when psychology studies are replicated by other researchers in the field, most results won’t hold up. They lack “robustness,” in the parlance of scientific research. This paper serves as an important reminder that psychological science rarely produces definitive results. (The Atlantic’s take on the findings.)
4. Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases
We previously wrote about this article, which explains why these 50 psychological and psychiatric terms should be avoided. They are misunderstood, misused, and outright abused – not only by researchers, but by journalists and other mainstream members of the media who attempt to report on psychological science. (Lilienfeld et al., 2015).
5. Comorbidity of intellectual disability confounds ascertainment of autism: implications for genetic diagnosis
Is autism really on the rise and are we in the midst of an autism “epidemic?” An important paper published in 2015 demonstrates how it’s far more likely that the childhood psychiatric diagnosis of autism is simply displacing the use of other terms. As Science reported on the study in July, the “new study argues much of that increase likely came as educators swapped one diagnosis for another. The overall percentage of kids diagnosed with a collection of brain development problems that includes autism remained unchanged, suggesting that children who used to be labeled with conditions such as “intellectual disability” were in fact autistic.”
This is good news for anyone who believes we’re in the midst of some sort of autism epidemic. Our preferences for certain diagnoses are simply changing, and the data reflect those societal trends (Polyak et al., 2015).
6. Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles
Why do we like the music we do? That’s the age-old question that researchers set out to answer in this study of 26 musical genres across five different sample populations comprised of more than 3,000 participants. Their findings? “Those who are type E (bias towards empathizing [react emotionally or physiologically to the music]) preferred music on the Mellow dimension (R&B/soul, adult contemporary, soft rock genres) compared to type S (bias towards systemizing [or analysis of the music they’re listening to]) who preferred music on the Intense dimension (punk, heavy metal, and hard rock).
“[Further analysis] revealed that type E individuals preferred music that featured low arousal (gentle, warm, and sensual attributes), negative valence (depressing and sad), and emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful), while type S preferred music that featured high arousal (strong, tense, and thrilling), and aspects of positive valence (animated) and cerebral depth (complexity)” (Greenberg et al., 2015).
7. Predictors of treatment success: fMRI & Pharmacogenomic testing
There are a number of papers that cover this topic, but one that caught my eye was A systematic review of relations between resting-state functional-MRI and treatment response in major depressive disorder by Dichter et al. (2015) in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
The researchers found that by examining studies that employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans that “treatment response (with antidepressants) is associated with increased connectivity between frontal and limbic brain regions, possibly resulting in greater inhibitory control over neural circuits that process emotions.” In effect, there may be an fMRI scan that, in the future, will help predict what treatment may work best for each unique person.1
Pharmacogenomic testing — testing for specific genetic markers or makeup — is a technique that can help predict a person’s ability to metabolize certain medications. But it is still in its infancy and the data have come from mostly small studies. Two excellent papers on this topic are Steven Hamilton’s (2015) The Promise of Psychiatric Pharmacogenomics in Biological Psychiatry and the more dense Personalized Medicine and Mood Disorders (2015) in Psychiatric Clinics of North America by Alhajji & Nemeroff.
8. Gender Differences and Similarities in Receptivity to Sexual Invitations: Effects of Location and Risk Perception
We’re told over and over again that men want sex more than women. It’s such a common societal belief, it’s been ingrained within our culture, way of thinking, and even psychological research (that has shown just that). But what if that entire belief system is wrong? What if women want sex just as much as men, but simply respond to prompts regarding casual sex very differently?
Women, unlike men, have two very real fears connected to sex — being judged by society (or their friends or family) for engaging in casual sex, and, fear of physical harm from an encounter with a stranger. Men have neither of these worries. So any study of women’s sexual behavior would have to work to take these fears into account.
Baranowksi & Hecht (2015) managed to design a study that did just that, by coming up with an elaborate cover story that helped allay these fears in women participants. Previous studies found most men but no women would take up the opportunity for casual sex with a stranger when approached on a college campus. This study, however, found something more surprising — all of the men and nearly all of the women chose to meet up for a date or sex with at least one partner. With the right set of circumstances, women’s and men’s drives for casual sex look a lot alike.
9. Political diversity will improve social psychological science
While we rely on researchers to be unbiased and objective, unconscious beliefs seep into every researcher’s work. So it was a little disturbing to learn about the lack of diversity in the field when it comes to the topic of politics: “Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years” (Duarte et al., 2015). The paper detailed the current lack of diversity in the field with suggestions on future improvements.
10. Does Product Placement Change Television Viewers’ Social Behavior?
This paper is noteworthy because it conducted a large psychological experiment on an entire population of individuals without their knowledge or consent. Similar to Facebook’s manipulation of its users’ newsfeeds (also without their knowledge or consent), a Spanish-language soap opera inserted eight propaganda messages about health, safety, and community building (e.g., dangers of drunk driving, importance of voting, etc.) to see what real-world effects such messaging might have. The messages were seen by an audience of nearly 1.2 million people per week.
The researchers didn’t find much real-world impact related to the messaging, except for a temporary spike in visitors to one of the organization’s websites mentioned in one of the messages. As investigators continue to push ethical boundaries in psychological research, studies such as this demonstrate that they may not be worth the ethical risk (Paluck et al., 2015).
The American Psychological Association Task Force on Violent Media Technical Report on the Review of the Violent Video Game Literature deserves an honorable mention.2
- A followup study by Dichter found fMRI scans could predict which patients with clinical depression might most likely benefit from a specific kind of psychotherapy. [↩]
- The APA “confirms link between playing violent video games and aggression” but still doesn’t address many of the concerns outlined by more than 230 academics in their Scholar’s Open Letter to the APA Task Force On Violent Media Opposing APA Policy Statements on Violent Media. The Open Letter notes, “During the video game epoch, youth violence in the United States and elsewhere has plummeted to 40-year lows, not risen as would have been expected” if the link suggested by the APA was important.
For me, this is an example of a well-meaning endeavor still reaching meaningless conclusions — ones that have little impact in real-world behavior. [↩]