A Pet Peeve

No, perhaps more than a pet peeve, which I just saw defined as a “minor irritant.” It is really a major irritant. To wit: Researchers report results without regard to individual differences.

Put simply: Too many researchers ask a simple question, such as “How satisfied are you with the direction your life is taking?”

Then they report the results something like this: “60% of Americans are satisfied with their lives.” They may explain these Pet peeve grrrresults by using demographic information: “Of the satisfied 60%, women outnumbered men two to one,” or perhaps “Of the satisfied 60%, city dwellers were more satisfied than rural citizens,” or maybe “Of the satisfied 60%, Asians and Hispanics lagged behind Caucasians.”

Such so-called demographic differences are important, but there is a far more basic kind of difference that can help clarify the meaning of such research results—personality variables, such as traits, values, and mental abilities.

To say that 60% are satisfied with the direction of their lives is to ignore that persons who score high on Big Five “N” (Need for Stability, or Neuroticism) are by nature dissatisfied with things. They are almost always going to be dissatisfied, and that dissatisfaction is not a reflection on their culture, their family, their employer, or any other environmental factor. For the research to be meaningful, you need to limit your research subjects to those whose satisfaction with life can actually be increased or decreased according to changes in their environment. If you take the 30% who score highest on Big Five N and eliminate them from the study, you would likely find that 90% are satisfied with the direction of their lives.

The same kind of relationships can be found with other research questions and other personality variables. For example, in the original Obedience to Authority research done in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram in New Haven, Connecticut, about ¾ of the subjects in his experiment were found to obey a malevolent authority. However, in a recent replication of that study in Paris, France, subjects who were high in Big Five “A” (Agreeableness, or Accommodation) and also high in Big Five “C” (Conscientiousness, or Consolidation) were far more likely to obey the malevolent authority. This means that it is misleading to say that ¾ of typical people will obey malevolent authorities. The proportion would actually be lower than that, once you eliminate (or otherwise take into account) those high in A and C.

And another just now from today’s “PsyBlog”—researchers reported on the female profile that “males” find more alluring—high heels (the higher the more alluring), blonde hair, tattoos, make-up, revealing dress, figure, and wearing red. With the exception of one attribute (I’ll leave you to guess which one), that is the precise opposite of what I find alluring in women. So, what individual personality differences were these researchers not accounting for? Intelligence? Education level? Values? Particular traits? Please, Dr. Researcher, do find a way to avoid such breezy generalizations. Admittedly, the researchers mention that this allure is short-term in its appeal—the “come hither” look gets lots of hits but doesn’t necessarily win the game in the long term. Limited lust versus lasting love.

The point: When we read about research results, we need to think critically and ask questions about how individual differences could account for the reported results.

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