How to Become an Informed Consumer of Psychology Research

Some tips for making sense of psychology research in the news

Reading psychology studies
Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

Whether you realize it or not, you have probably been a consumer of psychology research at some point. Nearly every day, new reports about the findings of the latest psychology studies are broadcast on television, printed in newspapers, shared on social media, or sensationalized on talk shows. Just pick up any popular magazine to see any number of self-help articles that synthesize current psychology research.

How can you determine if these reports are credible or not? In order to become a wise consumer of psychology research, you need to learn how to evaluate the various research reports you come into contact with each day. By understanding how to identify trustworthy information, you can become an informed psychology consumer.

People tend to believe they could easily spot a "fake news" story, but research suggests they're surprisingly bad at it.

Learning more about how to identify good sources can help you better separate authoritative and accurate sources from the false and sensationalized.

1. Consider the Source

Whenever you read the results of psychology research in popular media sources, you should always consider the original source of the information.

Some things to consider:

  • Studies published in professional psychology journals have gone through a rigorous examination process, starting with the original study conducted by a reputable researcher and generally backed by an educational institution, hospital, or other organization. These journals are also peer-reviewed, which means that other psychologists skilled in research methods and statistics have investigated the research prior to publication.
  • Another reason to look at the original source is that many popular reports misinterpret or fail to explain key elements of the findings. Writers and journalists who have little or no experience in research methods may not fully understand how the study was conducted and all of the possible implications of the research. By looking at the study yourself, you can gain a fuller and richer understanding of what the findings mean.

2. Be Skeptical of Sensational or Shocking Claims

When evaluating any type of scientific information, skepticism should always be the rule. Some important things to remember as you encounter scientific claims in the media:

  • Remember that the goals of these popular media reports are to garner attention, sell issues, increase ratings, and garner page views.
  • Reporters may focus on particular elements of a study while ignoring other important information that is essential for understanding the results.
  • Statements made by researchers may be used out of context in a way that dramatically overstates the original results of the study.

When reviewing a study, be especially wary of claims or findings that seem sensational or unrealistic.

3. Evaluate the Research Methods

In order to be a wise consumer of psychology, it is important to understand some of the basics of psychology research. Elements such as operational definitions, random sampling, and research design are important for understanding the final results of a study.

For example, a particular study may only look at specific individuals within a population or it may consider only a narrow definition of a particular topic. Both of these factors can play a role in what the findings mean to the general population and how the results can be applied to understanding psychological phenomena.

4. Remember That Anecdotes Do Not Equal Data

Be wary of stories or reports that rely solely on anecdotal stories to back up their claims. Just because a small group of individuals has arrived at a similar conclusion does not mean that the population at large shares this view.

Scientific research utilizes random sampling and other research methods to help ensure that the results of a study can be generalized to the rest of the population. Any report that relies on a “This is true for me, so it must be true for everyone else” justification should be viewed with skepticism.

5. Consider Who Funded the Research

In evaluating psychological research, it is also important to consider the financial backers who supported the study. Funding can come from a variety of sources including government agencies, non-profit groups, and large corporations.

Be cautious when the results of a study seem to support the agenda of an organization whose goal is to sell products or convince people to share their viewpoint. While such funding sources do not necessarily invalidate the results of a study, you should always be on the lookout for potential conflicts of interest.

6. Realize That Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

Many popular reports of scientific research jump to conclusions and imply causal relationships between variables. A relationship between two variables, however, does not necessarily imply that changes in one cause changes in another.

Some helpful tips:

  • Never assume that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two factors.
  • Look for key phrases such as "researchers have found a connection", "research indicates a relationship between" and "there appears to be a link" to help identify correlational research.

A Word From Verywell

Newspapers, magazines, books, and online sources are full of information about the latest psychological research. In order to determine how trustworthy these reports are, it is important to know how to evaluate the stories you read.

While looking up the original study is the best way to assess the information, you can also apply some basic scientific common sense. Be wary of sensationalized claims, watch out for false implications of causation, and remember that skepticism is the rule when evaluating any scientific report.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.