Looking beyond the .05 – What statistics mean for psychology

Here’s a neat trick: Say the words “SPSS” or “Factorial ANOVA” to a psychology student, and chances are you’ll get to see their faces twitch and convulse as they struggle to suppress the horror that you’ve just conjured within them.

Few go into psychology “ecstatic” about learning statistics, which is perfectly understandable. You just narrowly escaped the demonic clutches of calculus and trigonometry (*shivers*) from high school, only to encounter mathematics in another, more sinister form. You attempt to reconcile your hatred for anything math-related, but the endless tables of numbers hit you like an ex-lover’s slap to the face. You take a few baby steps navigating the wonder that is SPSS and promptly decide you would rather eat cardboard. And here in psychology, we value your linguistic education as well, so be prepared to memorize words like sphericity, multicollinearity and heteroskedasticity (I had to google all their spelling).

So why on Earth is a psychology student mandated to learn statistics? The short answer is, you’ll need it for your thesis. You need to collect data, use the Force SPSS to analyze it and produce a logical conclusion. Therefore, the majority of psychology undergraduates hold a tenuous alliance with statistics before completely severing ties upon graduation, which again is perfectly understandable. Yet for all the importance of statistics, perhaps we are not giving it enough credit, nor are we appreciating it for what it truly represents.

For example, for all its loathsome technicalities, you can’t deny there’s something magical about SPSS and other statistical software. You put some numbers here and there, press a few buttons and voila! You can now tell the world that national GDP is correlated with penis size (You thought I was joking didn’t you?). Bizarre correlations aside, statistics allows for the breaking down of complex human phenomena into raw data, and then condenses that data into meaningful packets of information that elucidate patterns of human thoughts and behaviors that we may never have expected before. Just think about it, the esoteric, mathematical formulae that you’ve scorned in the past have now become a gateway to the immense cosmos that is the human mind. The techniques born from statistical theories provide creative ways of resolving complicated questions that revolve around a particular human phenomenon, and to predict how these phenomena unfold under varying circumstances.

With that in mind, it is not so difficult to recognize that a lot of the psychological theories that is taught in classes could not exist without the role of statistics. There are of course exceptions, but I’m a-FREUD (Haha I’m so funny somebody give me an award) that the majority of theories nowadays owes their existence to statistics. There is first a budding idea, then data is collected and processed through statistical analysis, and a theory is thus born. The actual process is much more complicated than that, but you get what I mean. Without statistics, we would not be able to obtain the scientific proof that is necessary to corroborate a theory, and we would continue to flounder in murky ignorance.

Of course, being the astute reader that you are, you must be thinking, “but you can’t just reduce the human experience into numbers,” or “statistics can’t always get it right. And you would be correct on both accounts. Statistics is limited in various aspects, and there are things that numbers cannot fully capture. Yet I would contend that limitations do not equate to obsoleteness. Recognizing what statistics can and cannot do for us helps us to put our knowledge of statistics to proper use. While we wouldn’t rely on statistics to shed light on the individual experiences of falling in love, we could very well use statistics to uncover the factors that contribute to a successful marriage, or the variables that predispose an individual towards ethical behavior. The thing to take note though, is that the tables and rows of numbers still require human interpretation, and that’s the beauty of statistics, in that the composition of numbers and figures can play out very different melodies, depending on how you read it. We are often taught to never shun non-significant p-values right away, for they may contain hidden notes of information that a skilled researcher can pick up; in other words, it all comes down to interpretation. Statistics can guide us through the logical harmony of numbers and formulae, but the conductor’s baton remains in the hands of the steadfast researcher, who wields the responsibility of interpreting those numbers.

Now, I do not mean that every one of you should rush to apply for statistics classes (though that would be awesome), but perhaps we can begin to really appreciate the role that statistics play in the field of psychology. Once we do, perhaps the experience of learning the subject may thus involve less feelings of dread and instead elicit a sense of wonder at the potential truths about human beings that statistics can unlock. Just remember how to spell heteroskedasticity.

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A trueborn kid at heart with a penchant for lame jokes of every kind, Tim enjoys lazy afternoons with coffee in one hand and a good fantasy book in the other. Having hailed from an imaginary world, he believes in mankind’s inherent duality, and has thus embarked on a quest to uncover the hidden truths of the human mind, armed with the regalia of psychology, philosophy and uncommon sense. Has a soft spot for plushies and baby animals.

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