Mar 05 2010
Null results are important. “We tried to find something, and it twerent’ there.” But “nothing there” results rarely get reported, which is a shame. I can certainly see how positive results are more exciting — we gave group x a natural supplement consisting of purified essence of apple seeds (a cyanide compound), than they all died! Contrast that with a recent study into the use of Gingko Biloba and memory preservation in old age that produced this — we found nothing, no measurable response to the herbal supplement. Finding nothing just doesn’t capture our imaginations.
But in terms of science and becoming better informed, these “nothing” findings are important. An analogy might be the master car mechanic talking to the shop apprentice busy attempting to fix a difficult, persistent problem. The very first thing the master mechanic will ask is, “Well, what have you tried so far?” He wants to know what has thus far produced null results. For it is important information.
The following are two illustrations of the importance of frequently un-reported null results from the field of psychology.
1. In, Choosing a university degree is not linked to personality we learn that . . . well, the title told it but it’s worth re-telling.
The results indicate that personality does not have an influence when choosing a professional career.
Why is this discovered non-relationship important, if it stands up to analysis and replication? For one, many colleges and universities use personality measures to help guide students to their ideal career.
Admittedly, I was somewhat surprised by this finding, for I had assumed — assumed — that the trait of introversion/extroversion would likely influence what type of career a person pursued. I can picture introverts working in a science lab more than I can extroverts. And I can picture extroverts being more drawn to teaching. But it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Of course, the finding is about the choice of a degree, not the success an individual later experiences.
Another noteworthy null result was this:
The data obtained reconfirmed that “the sex of the individual is not an important variable in the connection between personality traits and general preference for topics studied at university”.
This “no connection” tells us something important about gender behavior today. It seems that on college campuses, in the least, men aren’t from planet medicine and women from planet English lit.
Thanks to that bit of null result I can sharpen the lense of my view of the world. Null results help trim away distortions in our thinking. Or, at least, they can shake the confidence with which we hold presuppositions.
2. Here’s another title that tells it all: IU study finds no consensus in definitions of ‘had sex’
A new study from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found that no uniform consensus existed when a representative sample of 18- to 96-year-olds was asked what the term meant to them.
How is this important? In the least, when formally questioning individuals about their sex lives, you’ve got to get more specific in how you word the questions. You can’t assume that your concept of “had sex” is the same as another person’s. For instance, does oral sex count? Anal sex? Are those “having sex?” It depends who you ask.
In the area of gender, another null finding was produced.
Responses did not differ significantly overall for men and women.
Good to know. Certainly there are some average differences between the sexes. But being informed about when none are discovered plays an important role in honing our understanding.
Reporting and heeding null results is good science.