Should psychology be written for the layman?

Psychology covers a many areas of human behaviour and social interaction, both of which can be hugely complex and can be difficult to understand. I’m going to discuss some of the arguments into whether psychology, in particularly psychological research papers, should be written for the average layman to understand.

If psychology were to be written in layman’s terms, it would certainly reach out to more people; having a journal simplified would allow a greater amount of people the opportunity to gain knowledge into the areas psychology. I know from experience that if i read an article i didn’t understand i would put it down; purely because my interest was captured by it.

However, the problem with trying to simplify research journals/articles is that prior knowledge is sometimes needed, perhaps not into the subject area, but into the methods of investigation, the statistical procedures, the ability to understand the statistical output. Without such knowledge, some people may find it difficult to understand large aspects of the paper. Take for example the paper on the well-being of mothers of children with disabilities by Marji Erickson Warfield. This paper, like many psychological papers, has statistical output, and states that the mean score for the sample was 122.7 (SD 􏰅 24.2), with the Cronbach’s alpha reliability co- efficient being .94. To a scientist/psychologist, they can draw understanding from this sentence. A non-scientist may struggle to comprehend the relevancy of that sentence.

On the other hand, you could say that maybe this argument is irrelevant and that to understand the statistical output is not important. And i would agree. The paper by Marji Erickson Warfield discusses how children with intellectual and developmental disabilities can have an adverse effect on a mothers well-being. A basic understanding of this subject area can be extracted from the abstract, introduction, discussion and conclusion sections of the paper. The results offer an in-depth analysis of the investigation but an understanding of the research paper can be achieved quite easily without having to delve into the somewhat mind-numbing monotony of statistical output.

I would further argue that if the harder sciences: biology, chemistry and physics can be simplified so that even young children are able to grasp an understanding, is it not reasonable to assume that the same can be done for psychology? After all, the basic principles behind Freud, Bandura and Skinner’s work is not overly complex. Yes their work if taught at undergraduate level but we are required to fully analyse, critique and discuss their work until our arms fall off, not something children would be required to do to obtain an understanding.

Then again, you could argue that the reason for this is that, comparatively, psychology is a lot less scientific that than the big three, although lets not go down that road.

Psychology is complex, but so is mathematics, bio-chemistry and anatomy and yet these subjects have been broken down into layman’s terms, so that someone of below average intelligence or even school children can gain a basic understanding. However, i do not believe psychology should be written exclusively for the layman, merely that simplified papers/articles/journals into the area of psychology should be provided.


5 responses to this post.

  1. I agree with you that many psychology studies are easy to understand and turn into layman terms such as Aaron C. Kay, David A. Moscovitch, and Kristin Laurin’s (2010) research. This study can easily be described as increased randomness increases an individual’s belief in god. However, more complex studies such as Bruce H. Friedman (2003) study on emotion and space cannot be explained with a simple sentence. This is due to the nature of the results, which demonstrate many main effects and interactions with the separate variables. I believe that journals which show just qualitative data such as many of Freud’s studies e.g. Little Hans (1980) are easier to understand. Therefore, these studies would not necessarily need to be changed into layman terminology. Additionally there are many sources of psychological studies which have been changed from journals into layman. Examples of this are the Holah website which is used by A level students and Magazines such as the New scientist. However, I cannot find any record of a study being written in layman and then being changed into a scientific journal. I believe this is the most fundamental problem with writing in layman and so we should keep writing science in a scientific way until a better solution is found…… possibly.


  2. This blog was very interesting to read, and contained a number of very good points of discussion. I was particularly interested by the fact that my argument was very similar to yours, which could only mean that we must be onto a winner!
    I fully agree that there are barriers stopping the ‘layman’ from reading scientific papers, and I firmly believe that more often than not, the main barrier is the use of overly elaborate wording.
    The ‘lay’ population may be put off by the statistical terms used in the results sections of research reports, but they should not fear as the results are fully explained in the discussion without the inclusion of the intimidating statistical terms.
    In sum, my concern is that when researchers are faced with two means of wording something, they should opt for the most parsimonious option, whereas currently I believe that researchers are opting for the most complicated means in order to show off their intellect. Research by Blumer (1987) suggests that “given two explanations of the data, with all else being equal, the simple explanation is preferable”, reiterating my point.
    Subsequently, ‘laypeople’ reading journal entries affected by over-complicated wording, are being put off as they cannot comprehend what is being written, because the meaning has been lost due to the elaborate wording. As first years, Occam’s razor was brought to our attention, and its principle of writing parsimoniously, cutting away all of the unnecessary embellishments.
    Domingos (1999) corroborates the point made in both of our blogs, as he considers Occam’s razor to be one of the fundamental tenets of modern science, because when it is applied it makes experimental research easier for everyone to understand and use. If utilised, Occam’s razor will knock down the barriers that stop they layperson from reading scientific literature, something that I believe to be vitally important.


  3. yes psychology should be written in articles, journals and its interpretations should be basic knowledge for a layman,but these publications should meet standards of awareness of public interpretations. recuitment for reseach ,could be enhanced by sharing information to the layman.knowledge of self diagnosis by questionnaires also.


  4. Very good blog and i agree on your point that psychology shouldnt be written in laymans terms. I think its very important especially because there is a debate whether psychology is really a Science. If it wants to be treated as a science i think it needs to act like one and therefore be as professional as possible with how it presents itself. That means writing in scientific terms and not writing in laymans terms just so everyone can understand it. The other sciences aren’t simplifying everything just so people find the stuff easier and therefore psychology shouldnt either. The problem i have is the fact that if everyone can therefore understand psychology what is the point in studying it? Doesn’t it devalue the subject? Before i came to uni i would have seen some parts of psychology and not had a clue what was going on. However because ive studied it i have a greater understanding of what is happening. Therefore people are more likely to study the subject, otherwise they will understand it anyway.
    This point leads to psychologists themselves, those who it is their job. The less people understand it the more they will be paid and valued as they are select people who know what it means. This is important if you want people to have careers in the subject.
    There is obviously the other side, that everyone has the right to undertand something. There are probably alot of people who would see a paper and not understand the words and therefore not try and understand it and just leave it. By writing in laymans terms it would open alot of people to what is going on psychology and make it more accesible to people.
    Statisics are a big part of psychology these days and even after studying it for 2 years i still struggle with alot of it. Therefore if you are writing in laymans terms what do you do with stats. You can’t remove it as its so important for experiments and trying to prove/disprove arguments. Therefore even if you write the rest in laymans terms people will still not understand the statistics part of the papers.
    Maybe like you said you could have the scientific version and then have a laymans part for others to read, but i definitly dont think that psychology should be written in laymans terms.


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