Throughout the first year of studying for a psychology degree, there are so many moments that mould the worldview of the students who take it. Where even the simplest pieces of information can lead to a cataclysmic change in the way a topic is approached. One of these occurred in the very first workshop and served as a wake up call to those who thought psychological thinking consisted only of simply diagnosing their friends with depression after a half an hour conversation.
The students were set an exercise, an intriguing challenge to find reasons behind the findings of a study. The study in question was by Stouffer et al. (1949) and looked at the lives and experiences of the American soldiers of World War Two and was one of the most influential psychological studies in this area. The findings were as follows:
A few minutes followed for discussion, even as a simple icebreaker the task was quite effective as the room was flooded with conversation. Ideas bounced back and forth until the call came to quieten down so students could share their ideas. Each finding from the study had its own set of theories:
• Obviously soldiers were more motivated to return home while fighting was going on because there was a imminent threat of death, no one wanted to be there!
• Higher intelligence soldiers were more likely to develop psychosomatic disorders because they potentially truly understood the horrors of what was happening.
• Those from rural backgrounds were more accustomed to hardship and were more experienced performing manual tasks so they would have higher moral. They also may have come from smaller, friendlier communities they may have found it easier to bond with other soldiers.
• White soldiers had greater officer motivation as there were many more white role models that encouraged them, perhaps a underlying parental push as white fathers were more likely to be in positions of power. Racism from the current officers could have lead to the black soldiers being abused and pushed away from officer positions.
These are all very reasonable explanations to the findings of the study and the professor nodded along with many of these suggestions, adding comments to expand on the students’ original points. Then, as a closing remark, she casually mentioned that every single point on the slide was a complete lie.
The explanations provided were all completely false, none of what she had seemed so happy to agree with, was correct. Not only this, the study referenced and mentioned in the slide had found the exact opposite to those statements: Black soldiers were more highly motivated to become officers, soldiers from urban environments had higher morale and were better adapted, soldiers with lower intelligence had far higher rates of psychosomatic disorders and soldiers were more motivated to go back home after the war had ended, than while it was going on.
This came as quite a shock to the majority of the people in the room, not least the brave few who dared to raise their hand to contribute to the discussion earlier. Everyone was totally wrong about everything they had said, all of the reasonable explanations that had been discussed were simply made up.
But why do this? Surely it would have been more productive to discuss the real findings and spare the blushes of the overconfident few?
The exercise served as a lesson that everything has a reasonable explanation behind it. Even “facts” that are categorically wrong and have been disproved by countless years of research can be believably explained away. In the same way, just because a suggestion has a reasonable explanation behind it does not mean it’s true.
This is such a potent point and was so well timed and well placed given the audience that were listening. In that room, there were over a hundred hopeful psychology students, plenty of whom will have born their interest in the topic by analysing the world around them, providing reasonable explanations to the questions they thought they could answer: “Why does my friend feel sad?”, “Why do I feel anxious all the time?”. All these questions have reasonable explanations, but they can never serve as true answers until they have been proven as such.
That is not to say that thinking deeply and analysing oneself and others is either bad nor inadvisable, it is far better than the alternative, but the answers to life’s problems from the mind of a first year psychology student will rarely have the evidence behind them to be considered as medical advice, and thus should not be treated as such. The exercise was a warning, to not run before you can walk, to not give advice without the necessary knowledge, to not get overconfident, because as the students had just seen, it is so easy to be wildly wrong.