How to Think Straight about Psychology by K.E. Stanovich – A Summary

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Keith E. Stanovich, PhD., Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, has authored a classic titled, How to Think Straight About Psychology (1986). Introductory courses in psychology, critical thinking, statistics, and research methodology often use this text, currently in its tenth edition (How to Think Straight, n.d.). According to Stanovich, and perhaps the primary reason for writing the text is the fact that, the public’s understanding of psychology is quite different from psychology as a modern science that explains the underlying functions that shape human attitudes and behavior. That is to say, to many people, the field of psychology is not a real science, but a pseudo-science instead. To think straight about psychology, then, is to understand that the field is, indeed, based on the scientific method, as are other sciences. Thus, this text describes people’s many misconceptions and reservations about the field of psychology and it offers its readers a true representation of the field as a modern and scientific psychology and it explains how this science functions.

How to Think Straight about Psychology (2010) opens chapter one with a discussion of what Stanovich named The Freud Problem, which is a general perception that psychology primarily consists of Freudian-style psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) based his approach to psychology primarily on theories that he developed by examining case studies that did not involve scientific empirical evaluation. Stanovich’s response to this public misconception about psychology in general, was to document the great diversity that exists in the field of psychology. The field of psychology includes more than fifty-four different divisions, where psychoanalysis is perhaps only about ten percent of the whole (Stanovich, 2010, p 3.). Additionally, he discussed how the scientific method, which uses systematic empiricism, publicly verifiable knowledge, and testable theories, describes the majority of the psychological studies that occur today. In this way, Stanovich made clear that the relatively new science of psychology is, in fact, a legitimate and true science and he provided much detail throughout the remaining chapters in order to convey this fact to his readers.

Stanovich first discussed how scientific psychological research uses the falisifiability criterion when formulating a scientific hypothesis. The falsifiability criterion establishes that “scientific theories must always be stated in such a way that the predictions derived from them could potentially be shown to be false” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 20.). This notion, perhaps, sounds counterintuitive at first, if one is thinking that an experiment ought to prove something true. In reality though, because the body of knowledge increases and changes over time, it is better to understand that the scientific method works to eliminate what is false in order to bring psychological knowledge “closer to the truth” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 34.). Therefore, a good hypothesis is a based on a testable theory, and it poses specific predictions of outcomes. Predictions that are more specific result in stronger support of the theory. False confirmations lead to new theories and new hypotheses, and in this way, they too, add to the body of scientific knowledge. A good hypothesis also interconnects with other scientific knowledge. In contrast to scientific falsifiable research methods that include specific predictions, Freud’s theories were case studies where theories were established after the observed behavior. The lack of scientific evidence is the reason that Freudian methods have generally fallen out of favor. Thus, an important aspect of scientific psychological research concerns the principle of falsifiability, which does not always result in finding the truth, but instead allows psychological analysis to get closer to the truth.

For that reason, a scientific psychological theory is not the same as essentialism, which requires finding an ultimate explanation of phenomena. Instead, “science advances,” according to Stanovich (2010), “by developing operational definitions” (p. 35.). Developing operational definitions is another concept that may be easily misunderstood. Scientists who are developing operational definitions are not coming to an agreement on the definition of words. Instead, an operational definition links concepts to observable and measurable events. This allows for replicability in experimentation that is also publicly verifiable. Operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated, facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge.

There are some obstacles that interfere with people’s ability to understand the importance of a scientific psychological explanation of human behavior, though. One is the prevalence of the general population’s faith in personal testimonies and case studies as providing valid explanations. Yet, both personal testimonies and case studies have limited usefulness in scientific psychological studies. This is because there may be biases present in personal testimonies, such as the vividness effect, where the vividness of information makes select information more accessible from memory (Stanovich, 2010, p. 59.). Furthermore, the placebo effect may negatively affect and invalidate case studies and testimonials. For these reasons, testimonials and case studies are not scientific psychological studies. Therefore, testimonials and case studies may be useful in the development of theories and hypothesis, but because of their limitations, any evidence, regardless of how vivid and convincing it may be, might be invalid, and therefore such evidence calls for further scientific testing.

Another often-misunderstood concept concerning what shapes human behavior is the difference between correlation and causation. That is, the relationship between two variables is a correlation and there may or may not be a causal relationship between the two. It could be that there is no causation. Or else there may be a spurious correlation, where there exists a third variable, which is the causation (Stanovich, 2010, p. 76.). Additionally, correlations do not account for biases, such as a selection bias. Neither do correlations indicate the direction of causation, if such causation exists. Fortunately though, scientific experimentation, in which researchers manipulate variables, can determine whether a causal relationship exists in addition to detecting the direction of causation while at the same time ruling out selection bias when concluding the causes of human behavior.

Thus, scientists create experiments in which they manipulate variables to investigate correlations in order to discover causation. To elaborate, in an experiment, a scientist manipulates only one variable and holds the others constant while observing for effect. This eliminates the possibility of a third variable. To illustrate this, Stanovich (2010) told an interesting story about Clever Hans, which was a case where experimental control proved to be especially valuable in explaining a curious animal behavior (pp. 96-99.). Clever Hans was a horse who seemed to have superior intelligence in the area of mathematics. That is, clever in math only until observation revealed that Clever Hans was only as accurate as was the person testing him. Further scientific testing revealed that what Clever Hans was especially good at was reading human body language, and for this reason, he responded to subtle cues when tapping out ‘results to mathematical problems’. This story explains why scientific testing can reveal information about behavior where human intuition falls short. Experimentation, then, is essential in psychological research, yet, the necessary method of manipulating variables in order to reveal causation of behavior is sometimes difficult to perform in a natural setting, therefore scientists find creative solutions.

This is the reason that scientists create special conditions for the purpose of experimentation. The purpose of most psychological experiments is to test for “the underlying mechanisms that influence human behavior” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 120.). In this type of theory-driven research, it is not necessary to test in a real life situation, but rather with basic research of this sort, artificial situations prove beneficial. Less stringent random samples and representative situations (e.g. using college sophomores or even mice as the subjects of research) can be adequate. In contrast, direct application research requires more rigorous research samples and other methods such as cross-cultural research. Thus, the purpose of the psychological experiment determines its design such that theory-driven research requires less stringent samples and methods, than does direct-application psychological research.

It is also good to know that scientific psychological research has a different sort of framework than do other types of science. That is to say, an Einstein-like “breakthrough model of scientific progress” is not the best model for describing causes of human behavior (Stanovich, 2010, p.123.). This is because psychological research uses a framework that can be described as a “gradual-synthesis model,” which adheres to the connectivity principle and expresses converging evidence. Gradual synthesis describes the notion that science is “a cumulative endeavor” . . . “that is characterized by the participation of many individuals, whose contributions are judged by the extent to which they further our understanding of nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 126.). Thus, in scientific psychological research, instead of producing ‘breakthroughs’, each experiment, although it may not be a definitive explanation, connects with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rules out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth.

Another important aspect that needs consideration with regard to scientific psychological research is that determinants of human behavior are never singular in cause. Stanovich cautions his readers to remember that human behaviors are “multiply determined” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 145.). Thus, because of the complexity involved in human interactions, studying human behaviors in isolation could result in misleading outcomes. Therefore, it is important to remember that human behaviors do not have only one single cause, but instead the determinants of human behaviors consist of complex interactions, and for this reason, a scientific theory and explanation will recognize that behaviors have multiple causes.

Sometimes, thinking about psychological analysis of human behavior poses difficulty in that the reasoning involved in scientific conclusions is, at times, difficult to understand. This is because the probabilistic conclusions of scientific psychological research are generalizations about human behavior, and therefore do not apply in all cases. Additionally, when thinking about probabilistic information, it is critical to take into consideration sample size when analyzing the information (Stanovich, 2010, p. 161.). It is important to remember that a larger sample size provides greater accuracy. Furthermore, when thinking about probabilities, some people tend to see correlations where none exists, such as what takes place in gambling (Stanovich, 2010, p. 163-164.). Vivid testimonials can seem more compelling than statistical information, too. Even with the challenges in understanding scientific probabilistic information, the generalized information about human behavior that it provides is nevertheless useful in that it can predict group trends, even when such does not apply to individual cases.

A final obstacle that sometimes impedes the correct interpretation of scientific psychological predictions of human behavior is the probability of chance. The role of chance in psychology is often misunderstood. A degree of chance and coincidence play a role in the accuracy of predictions, and for this reason, individual predictions about human behavior are therefore impossible. Therefore it should be strongly affirmed that, “[c]linical prediction doesn’t work” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 180.). Thus, it is necessary to know that scientific psychological predictions are not accurate for individual cases, but instead, such predictions express aggregate group statistical trends, known as actuarial predictions.

With all of these misconceptions concerning the field of psychology and the nature of the science it employs for its research, it is not surprising then, that the discipline suffers from a negative image. Popular culture, for example, shapes negative stereotypes concerning the field of psychology, e.g., the prevalence of parapsychology and self-help literature presented as psychology in mass media outlets – “pseudoscience masquerading as psychology” as Stanovich named it (Stanovich, 2010, p. 186.). So too, does the fact that many psychological studies are interdisciplinary in nature, and when critical new knowledge is shared with the public, it is sometimes presented as being the findings of a more ‘respectable’ science. The evidence of the effect of television violence on children’s behavior presented by the American Medical Association is one such example (Stanovich, 2010, p. 192.). Not only that, sometimes psychologists, themselves, engage in behaviors that give the discipline a negative image, too. Stanovich (2010) noted, “psychology has a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality” where “[e]xtremely rigorous science exists right alongside pseudoscientific and anti-scientific attitudes” (p. 199.). Psychologists, then, need to actively work to improve this negative image of the discipline of psychology.

Other areas of society have established a means to improve psychology’s image. Stanovich (2010) wrote that the Supreme Court has led the way in the effort to improve psychology’s image when it established, in Daubert vs. Merrell Dow, that four factors must considered when deliberating to allow expert testimony; paraphrased, they are:

  • The ‘testability’ of the theoretical basis for the opinion (falsifiability)
  • The error rates associated with the approach (probabilistic prediction)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach concerning the opinion has been based on peer review (public knowledge)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach is generally accepted by the scientific community (principle of converging evidence) (p. 204.).

In this way, “unscientific and unfounded claims concerning human behavior, such as introspection, personal experience, and testimonials are all considered inadequate tests of claims about human nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p, 204.). This court ruling helps to ensure that when people visit a psychotherapist, or when a school counselor tests a learning-disabled child, for example, they are not engaging with unsubstantiated pseudo-scientific treatments, but they are engaging with therapies based on scientific evidence, instead.

Thus, although the discipline of psychology is often misunderstood and currently carries a negative image, it is in fact, a true science that provides valuable benefits to society. Scientific psychological research investigates solvable problems by the use of empirical methods to falsify what is untrue in order to get closer to the truth concerning the determinants of human behavior. To do this, the scientists develop operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated; and by this, they facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge. Science is different from testimonials or case studies in that it uses experimentation, in which variables are manipulated in order to test theories and hypotheses, which can determine whether a causal relationship exists in correlations. Scientific psychological research integrates the results of each experiment with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rule out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth. Scientific theories and explanations developed by psychologists will recognize that determinants of human behaviors are complex and that they have multiple causes and their findings will recognize this. That is why their findings are represented as generalizations and probabilities that are useful in the prediction of group trends only. Understanding how to think about psychology can help each of us to better evaluate psychological claims that we encounter in popular culture, so that we may distinguish between true scientific psychological research and that of unfounded pseudo-scientific claims. In this way, the scientific discipline of psychology can help all of us to better understand the underlying causes of human behavior in addition to the world events that take place around us.


How To Think Straight About Psychology. (n.d.). Psych Retrieved September 22, 2014, from

Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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