I have just spent two days looking at statistics and research methods at uni. And yes I was pretty surprised to learn that stats are an important topic of an Applied Positive Psychology degree.

In psychology, there is an enormous amount of data that needs to be understood. And stats allow psychologists to measure the relationship between one variable and another, and the strength and impact of variables on each other.

In everyday life, we are constantly interpreting pieces of information which we make sense of because of statistics, and subconsciously we probably don’t even realise it.

Yet sometimes, we can’t always follow the advice or research that we read or hear. Magazines, newspapers and self-help books can exaggerate or misinterpret psychology research in order to sell more copies. The same can be said for news stories in order to make them worthy of headlines. And occasionally even researchers intentionally manipulate their data to come up with the results or conclusions that they want to see.

For example, if you believed everything you read (without a good understanding of stats) you may be led to think that:

• The number of people who will drown by falling into a pool will increase according to the number of films that Nicholas Cage appears in

• Or that as the per capita consumption rate of cheese goes up, so too will the number of people who die by becoming tangled in their bedsheets

• And that if the people of Maine want to slow down their divorce rates they need to stop consuming margarine

These impressive graphs could imply that the above statements are true. But they are not.

These charts only show a random and spurious correlation between these variables and nothing else (and you can find other amusing examples here).

So what is my intent with this post?

My hope is that as you come across new information you don’t jump to an instant conclusion but ask some of the following questions:

  • How many people were involved in the research?
  • Who was involved?
  • What was the duration of the study?
  • How was the data collected?

Hopefully by understanding a little bit more about research, you will be able to become a better consumer of information and more able to make better judgements or decisions based on the data you encounter.

And remember, you have the right to ask where information presented to you has come from and what research backs it up from anyone that provides it.