Revealed: Eight Ways The Media Distorts Psychology

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[Photo by Thomas Hawk]

In a revelation that has shocked the world, PsyBlog reveals mainstream media reporting of psychology studies has been grossly distorted for decades. PsyBlog can now exclusively expose the eight ‘specialist’ techniques journalists use to misrepresent psychology studies.

1. I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate
Practically the first rule of journalism is to sensationalise. Don’t just say here’s another study which adds a tiny little piece to an ever-growing jigsaw puzzle. Boring! People want mind-reading! Now that’s news.

Example: The brain scan that can read people’s intentions (The Guardian)

2. Correlation is not as sexy as causation
All scientists have it drummed into them: an association (correlation) between two factors doesn’t mean one causes the other. But, if you just say ‘there’s a strong connection’, readers assume it means causation. No need to correct this natural assumption because, repeat after me, correlation is not as sexy as causation.

Example: Buying a dog can make you happier (The Independent)

3. Comedy research
Dusty old journal articles filled with technical language? My God! What’s this? A study about comedy? Oh that’s bound to be a laugh, forget the earnest stuff, let’s put this one in.

Example: Scientists find the perfect comedy face: Ricky Gervais (The Independent)

4. Sexy psychology
Sex sells. Don’t you forget it. Psychology of sex? Sexual psychology. Loads of sex advice but not a single sexpert in sight? Commission that article now!

Example: Redheads ‘have more sex than blondes or brunettes’ (The Daily Mail)

5. Sexy psychology…but with real expert opinion buried at the end
All the hallmarks of a sexy psychology article but instead a quote from a recognised expert is buried at the end to give a whiff of credibility. The article below has a quote from PsyBlog’s favourite proper sexpert, Dr Petra Boynton. You’ll notice her caution way down the article. Long after quotes from random people the journo happens to know. Unfortunately, also long after most people have stopped reading.

Example: Why British women go off sex (unlike the French and Germans) (The Independent)

6. The power of tenuous celebrity links
A study about golf and psychology? Great, let’s have a nice picture of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. The psychology can go hang.

Example: A happy home can make you better at golf, say psychologists (The Daily Mail)

7. Put psychology in the title, ignore in the body
Just the word psychology itself is attractive to readers. Perhaps you’ll learn something about the human psyche. Perhaps not. Clever journos put psychology in the title and never mention it again. Oh, and if it’s a bit titillating, all the better.

Example: Psychology of stripping (The Times)

8. Combine above techniques for more power
Exaggerate wildly, imply correlation equals causation, focus on comedy research, preferably about sex, hide the expert comment at the end, find a celebrity tie in and make sure you put psychology in the title and never mention it again.

Use all these and what have you got? The perfect media psychology article, guaranteed science-free.



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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 7 March 2007

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