In which I inadvertently create an outlier...

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongFeb 1, 2011 8:11 PM


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Much as I try to write for a broad audience, I’m pretty sure that none of my readers is a monkey. Or a bacterium. Or a protein. However, I can be very confident that at least some of my readers are human. That presents an interesting dilemma when I write about fields like psychology, because they involve subjects that are capable of reading and learning about experiments and research areas within that field. Take this study I covered last year:

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [a simple writing test] to close the gap between male and female performance. In the university’s physics course, men typically do better than women but Miyake’s study shows that this has nothing to do with innate ability. With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers. The exercise is designed to affirm a person’s values, boosting their sense of self-worth and integrity, and reinforcing their belief in themselves. For people who suffer from negative stereotypes, this can make all the difference between success and failure. … Miyake recruited 283 men and 116 women who were taking part in the university’s 15-week introductory course to physics. He randomly divided them into two groups. One group picked their most important values from a list and wrote about why these mattered to them. The other group – the controls – picked their least important values and wrote about why these might matter to other people. The task worked. During the rest of the semester, the students sat for four exams that made up most of their final grade. Among the control group, who wrote about other people’s values, men outperformed women by an average of ten percentage points. But among the students who affirmed their own values, the gender gap largely disappeared. Their final grades reflected this shrunken divide: if the women took Miyake’s exercise, far more got Bs and far fewer got Cs.

Last night, a reader called Nickolas left the following comment on the post:

Holy Crap!!! I’m going to the University of Colorado at Boulder right now and I had to take this exact same survey! I was wondering why my friend told me that he had to write about why values were important to other people compared to me writing about my values. I’m ruining the results by reading this!!! OMG!@#$^@!#$$111!

This is brilliant or awful, depending on how you look at it. It makes me wonder how prevalent this sort of thing is. How often do people who take part in psychological experiments have an inkling about what they’re letting themselves in for, because they’ve heard about it in the media (especially since most psychological studies are done with university students in developed countries)? And if the coverage of such fields increases, are science writers inadvertently biasing the experiments of the future? I’d love to hear opinions from psychologists and people who have taken part in psychological experiments…

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