Psychology research is ‘not ready’ for use in pandemic policy

Social scientists should be more open that their policy advice is usually based on small experiments done in university settings, study recommends

May 19, 2020
Police personnel wearing coronavirus-themed helmets ride on horses as they participate in a awareness campaign during a 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus. India
Source: Getty

When a terrible virus threatens the lives of millions, it is understandable that academics from all disciplines want to do their bit to help. But might the eagerness of scholars to apply their expertise to the coronavirus crisis actually do more harm than good?

That could be the case, according to a group of psychology scholars who want researchers in their field to consider whether their “well-intentioned advice” may be putting lives at risk because it relies on evidence which, itself, is on “shaky ground”.

In a paper titled “Psychological science is not yet a crisis-ready discipline”, published on the PsyArXiv preprint site last month, researchers from the US, UK, France and Denmark advise that psychology researchers must be clear about the limitations of their research when making policy recommendations.

“In life-or-death situations, applying psychological sciences without seriously weighing evidence quality can be dangerous,” says the paper, which observes that much of the psychological research produced over the past decade “lacks both replicability and generalisability” as it is often based on small-sample experiments conducted on students in a university setting.

The paper highlights how more than 75 manuscripts focused on the psychological dimensions of Covid-19 have been posted on the field’s main preprint, PsyArXiv.

Research has included reflections on how public health advice on disease prevention could be made more effective by drawing on psychological experiments, how politicians might avoid Covid-19 becoming a partisan issue and how governments might seek to stop the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news around coronavirus.

But researchers should “take extreme caution translating preliminary psychological findings and insights into practice and policy”, the paper advises.

Hans IJzerman, associate professor in social psychology at Grenoble Alpes University and one of the paper’s lead co-authors, told Times Higher Education that psychology research could play a role in public policy, but researchers should be open about its reliability and limitations.

“It’s not realistic for large amounts of relevant research to be ready overnight, so researchers should be able to say: ‘We don’t know for certain, but we have this idea and are testing it’,” said Dr IJzerman, who added that policymakers should be made aware of the uncertainty around different theories and whether they were applicable to different countries and cultures – something not always made clear by Covid-19 studies.

“Attitudes in France are very different to those in the US, but these distinctions are not always made clear,” said Dr IJzerman.

The paper draws attention to the system for assessing the value of information used by the US space organisation Nasa, which gives rigorously tested “flight proven” data a level 9 rating. The untested reporting of basic principles is rated at level 1 – a level that most psychological research struggles to reach, the paper says.

We simply don’t know whether our ‘technology’ is ready to go from the lab to crisis situations like Covid-19,” states the paper, which recommends that international projects such as the Psychological Science Accelerator − a large, standing network with experts facilitating study selection, data management, ethics and translation − are supported to provide robust transnational testing of theories.

“Rather than appealing to policymakers to recognise our value, we should focus on earning the credibility that legitimates a seat at the policy table,” it says, adding that “psychologists should carefully consider whether well-intentioned advice does more harm than good”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Good research recognises and states its shortcomings, limitations and the remit of its applicability. It is heartening to learn that this paper acknowledges the limitations of psychology with respect to addressing needs that are in the realm of basic science and medicine. Not every discipline can provide solutions to every problem and a discipline that is not equipped to deal with a given issue, can only cause harm. I applaud the authors for this work.
What do they mean by : Psychology research is ‘not ready’ for use in pandemic policy ? This makes little sense 1- Clearly invoking problems with replicability and generalisability is completely... bonkers, it's proper to all science and there are ways to work around these issues (internally replicate your work, do it again, as in physics... or psychology) 2- Also, comparing Psych Science to Engineering-heavy NASA Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) is also irrelevant, the timeline is completely different, the risks are of a different magnitude This would have been my (peer) review to explain why I would recommend rejection to the editor. Note that the paper in question is a preprint, which has not gone through any form of peer review (while dozen of high-quality journals offer rapid peer review process during the current pandemic). The paper in question is no more than a rather mediocre piece of opinion, exactly what the unfolding pandemic doesn't need. THE have been flying blind
What do they mean by : Psychology research is ‘not ready’ for use in pandemic policy ? This makes little sense 1- Clearly invoking problems with replicability and generalisability is completely... bonkers, it's proper to all science and there are ways to work around these issues (internally replicate your work, do it again, as in physics... or psychology) 2- Also, comparing Psych Science to Engineering-heavy NASA Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) is also irrelevant, the timeline is completely different, the risks are of a different magnitude This would have been my (peer) review to explain why I would recommend rejection to the editor. Note that the paper in question is a preprint, which has not gone through any form of peer review (while dozen of high-quality journals offer rapid peer review process during the current pandemic). The paper in question is no more than a rather mediocre piece of opinion, exactly what the unfolding pandemic doesn't need. THE have been flying blind

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