Sunday, July 17, 2016

Why It Took Social Science Years to Correct a Simple Error About ‘Psychoticism’

In the course of laying out their argument, Verhulst, Hatemi, and Martin noted that their data showed a positive relationship between a trait called psychoticism and conservatism. Ludeke found that Verhulst and Hatemi, working with the behavioral geneticist Lindon J. Eaves, had made a similar claim in a paper they published in the American Journal of Political Science, one of the top journals in that field, in 2012, based on a different set of data.

If you just perked up in your seat a little — Conservatives are psychotic? — that’s part of the problem. “Psychoticism,” an idea introduced by the German psychologist Hans Eysenck, sounds a lot more intense than it is. Basically, Eysenck had a model of personality which included three traits: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism. Psychoticism, the only one relevant for this discussion, is a cluster of concepts related to people’s level of individuality and penchant for falling in line — it’s measured using questions like “Do you prefer to go your own way rather than act by the rules?” Being high in psychoticism means you have less respect for rules and for order in general — it doesn’t mean you are psychotic or otherwise mentally ill. Researchers sometimes call psychoticism P, with italics, to prevent this misunderstanding.

Eysenck’s personality model is no longer in vogue — these days, the favored framework is the so-called Big Five, which in addition to conscientiousness and openness includes extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. But since Verhulst and Hatemi had access to large survey data sets in which respondents answered Eysenckian questions, that was what they used.


However you evaluate the sniping between these two research groups, some things about this episode are pretty clear: It’s clear that on four different occasions, including once in a top journal, research findings were published that don’t make sense in light of decades of research about personality and political preferences, and that these errors got through many reviewers. It’s also clear that when the authors of these papers were informed about what they had likely done wrong, they either ignored the warnings or lacked the expertise to understand them, and that their data weren’t shared.

What should we make of all of this? Partly, of course, this is a story of conflicting personalities, of competitiveness between researchers, of academics acting — let’s be frank — like dicks.

One obvious question, then, is how institutional structures and incentives can be tweaked to account for the universal human potential for dickishness. The simple answer is: openness and transparency. “You should get a gold star when you make your data and the code to analyze that data available,” said Ludeke. That isn’t always possible, he allowed, but “if you do everything right, you should get into a better journal than if you’re not willing to [share] data.”

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