Why people think psychology is just common sense: children’s misperceptions

There is a widespread misconception that psychology is easy and mere common sense. This occasionally frustrates the hell out of psychologists! Now some research from Yale University indicates that this misconception has its roots in childhood.

It’s all to do with the naive biases that children hold with regards to what makes a subject area challenging.

Prof. Frank Keil and colleagues at the Cognition and Development Lab asked children aged between 5 and 13, and adults, to rate the difficulty of questions from physics , chemistry, biology, psychology and economics. The questions had been carefully chosen from earlier pilot work in which they’d all been rated as equally difficult by adults.

For example:

  • How does a spinning top stay upright? (physics)
  • Why is it hard to understand two people talking at once? (psychology)

Consistent with the pilot work, the adults in the study proper rated the questions from the different disciplines as equally difficult. However, children from age 7 to 13 rated psychology as easier than the natural sciences – physics, chemistry and biology, which they rated as equally difficult.

Young children can’t possibly have the depth of understanding to know which scientific questions are more difficult. Instead they must resort to some kind of mental short-cut to make their verdict. Keil’s team think that children’s feelings of control over their own psychological faculties — memories, emotions and so forth — and the superficial familiarity of those kinds of concepts, likely lead them to believe psychological concepts are easier to understand.

The logic seems to go like this:

  • The things that happen in my experience are obvious to me.
  • The reasons why I do things are obvious to me.
  • Therefore all psychological phenomena and their causes are self-evident and need no special explanation.

Natural phenomena may have complicated explanations which may be difficult to understand, it seems, but psychological phenomena are obvious and straightforward and therefore easy to understand.

A second study provided this account with some support. This time children and adults rated the difficulty of questions from within the various branches of psychology. Similar to the first study, the children, but not the adults, rated questions related to social psychology, personality and emotions as progressively easier, compared with questions related to cognition, perception and biological psychology, which they rated as progressively more difficult.

So, when do these childish misconceptions leak through into adult judgements?

For a third study, another batch of children and adults were again presented with the same questions from the different scientific disciplines, but this time they were asked to say whether they would be able to solve each question on their own (versus requiring expert help), and to estimate what proportion of the adult population would know the answers.

This time the adults as well as the children tended to say they could solve more psychology questions on their own, compared with questions in the other sciences. In addition, both kids and adults estimated that more people would know the answers to the psychology questions.

Remember these were psychology questions that adults had already rated as just as difficult and complex as questions in the other sciences. But with a slight alteration of the task, the bias to perceive psychological problems as easier to solve reappears. Perhaps adults believe that they should be able to answer psychology-related questions unaided. Psychology is just common sense, right?

Keil’s team say that their findings have real-life implications, for example in the court-room:

If psychological phenomena are seen as usually quite easy to understand and largely self-evident and if such judgments are inaccurate and underestimate the need for experts, cases might well be decided in ways that unfairly exclude valuable expert insights.

In fact, the researchers pointed out that such situations have already occurred. In the US trial of former Presidential Assistant I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, for example, the judge disallowed the use of psychology experts on memory on the basis that the jury could rely on their common sense understanding of memory. This is particularly ironic given that prior psychology research has shown that jurors and judges alike have a woefully poor understanding of how memory actually works.



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