Psychology Students: Improve Your Relationship With Statistics


You are a psychology student. You signed up to understand some of the below: what motivates humans, how our brains work, what are mental illnesses, why people like and hate each other, effective ways to help others, and different stages of our growth. You happily move from one fascinating topic to another, taking down notes, and engaging in interesting discussions about the human condition. You also hear about this grand noble concept called ‘research’, which is supposedly the main task of psychologists.

Except this research thing somehow involves numbers, like a lot of it. Your first research class had mean, median, and mode, types of data, sampling, and a mountain called ‘normal distribution’. Then there are tests and hypotheses which somehow has one or two tails, . You start to hope that this statistics thing is going to be a temporary sidetrack, like another of those compulsory papers unrelated to your career. You didn’t know t-tests, ANOVAs (and its endless mutations), and Pearson’s Product Moment Correlations are waiting later, which you are expected to get a firm grasp on if you would like to be a researcher. Interested in learning how all those psychological tests and measurements are born? That too requires you to explore further domains of statistics.

If you are lost in all of this, you are not the only one. I am sure your instructors have mentioned repeatedly that statistics is important to learn because psychology is a science, and numbers is the language of science. But still, you did not sign up for this anyway. You are here to learn psychology, not coefficients, box-plots, and data cleaning! An interview with Andy Field (hero of many psychology students around the world for making statistics accessible) brought up this interesting point, that it is unfair psychology students are expected to be high level data analysts on top of having to be an expert in a given theoretical area. Most other sciences do not expect their students to analyze their own research data, and simply seek help from an expert statistician. Somehow, psychologists are expected to be experts in everything: theory, literature, method, and analysis.

So we find ourselves being forced into a relationship with an entity that is very much out of our depth. However, this doesn’t mean that we have to face it miserably. After all, statistics’s main function is to give psychological concepts a concrete form that can be tested and have the results communicated to others. It exists to help us make sense of things, not there to make us look dumb. In fact, imagine doing psychology without the statistics! Our knowledge would be thrown into disarray. We would have no tools to test our claims, leaving everything to conjecture and rhetoric.

#1. Actually….you might just like statistics.

I am not kidding. Real life is chaotic, and statistics is one of the most relevant concepts to help us to find some order in our day-to-day life. If you are a student and want an ‘A’, paying attention to how well your other classmates are doing in tests gives you an idea about your placement in class with regards to a bell curve. If you want to argue for better starting wages, tracking down past statistics can help make the point that ‘living costs increased but starting salaries have not’. If you are applying for a prestigious program with fifteen placements, naturally you would want to know your odds by knowing how many applicants are there this intake. Even as I am writing this now, countless citizens (your average non-scientist) over the world are paying attention to statistics surrounding COVID-19 and trying to make sense of its patterns. At a very basic level, statistics is not only relevant, but intuitive enough that we might pay attention to it without realizing. Tap into that inquisitive side of yourself!

#2. Focus on the purpose and rationale behind the techniques.

Every statistical technique exist not to be difficult, but for a purpose. Some demonstrate elegance and simplicity, others are complex and powerful. Some help you find patterns even in smaller samples, others help you build models with large samples. Some helps with finding differences between groups, others help with recognizing patterns in a population. Some explore ideas, others confirm them. The moment you are able to recognize a purpose for the techniques, you are basically ‘good to go’ when it comes to quantitative research.

#3. Get help from mentors.

If you are not having a great experience with your learning, it is much better to get help from someone experienced. Every one has their own personal ‘cheat sheet’ when it comes to navigating the world of statistics as an outsider. Also, research and statistics should never be a lone venture, because at the end of the day each of us can only be an expert in so little areas. Good mentors will be able to help you learn the ropes, recognize the essentials, and help you develop a competency from research, in a way cramming statistical concepts for class won’t.

#4. Read scientific articles from topics you are actually interested in.

This is more than a ‘just read more and educate yourself’ advice. Quite a number of scientific papers that are published are actually very readable if you are interested in that area: from the theory, to how they conduct it, how they made sense of the findings, and the conclusions they draw from it. To feel confident as a scholar, there is no better practice than actually reading papers you feel interested about. For example, if you are specifically interested to know if criminals have lower empathy than others, research papers on other areas (eg. counselling effect studies, parenting, or gambling addiction) are guaranteed to be a struggle to stay through. Sticking with your own area, it is easier to learn the common methods of analysis in a way you can understand.

#5. Have fellow comrades in research.

All the above advice are easier if you have company while doing research. Having friends that are passionate about research makes learning statistics more bearable, as you have company to cross-check your understanding of the concepts (preferably non-judgmentally). If you are still studying, be on a lookout for quality company: those who are motivated to do more than meeting the passing standard, willing to share what they know with you, and willing to hear about what you know.

In a nutshell, there is nothing wrong with you if you struggle with statistics because you likely did not come for this. Still it is very possible to have a good experience with statistics. Try to treat it as a tool, think about its purpose, learn from others, read within your expertise, and don’t be alone in your struggle with it.

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