Research + PR = a very depressing equation

January 20, 2006

Cheer up! The saddest day of the year is nearly behind us. According to a formula popularised by Cliff Arnall, a health psychologist affiliated to Cardiff University, January 23 will be the unhappiest day of 2006.

Or will it? His equation - which considers factors such as weather, seasonal debts, broken New Year resolutions and the like - was this week dismissed as pseudoscientific nonsense touted by public relations companies to promote products they represent.

Petra Boynton, a psychologist and lecturer in health services research at University College London, said such surveys devalue serious academic work.

"Really good pieces of research do not get into newspapers because of these surveys. I have done them in the past, but I stopped because they have become unethical."

Academics are often asked to endorse PR surveys to lend them an air of scientific rigour. They used to be paid to design, conduct and analyse surveys, but now academics are presented with a complete package to "sign off". Payments range from £100 to £500, but well-known psychologists can get £2,500 or more.

PR companies approach Gary Wood, a social psychologist at Birmingham University, about 40 times a year. He was offered the "unhappiest day of the year" survey. "They worked out the formula, but there was no psychological evidence - so I said no. It damages psychology."

Mr Arnall believes that the study was valid and that it made a difference.

"I'm aware of the criticism... but (the survey) gets people talking about depression when the people who run psychology aren't getting the message across.

"Peer-reviewed papers do not do what psychology ought to do - help people talk about their feelings and get the most out of life."

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