Some Tips on how to Better Interpret Articles about Psychology Studies

Some Tips on how to Better Interpret Articles about Psychology Studies
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It seems like every few months a new study on Video Games and, in some cases MMOs specifically, makes its way into the news. Recently a study on the aggressive nature of Player Versus Player (or PvP for short) participants in City of Heroes has made the rounds. Be they positive or negative it’s important to understand what these studies say for a variety of reasons including the perception of gamers through an academic lens as well as a hint at what kinds of things game players should be aware of. In this guide I will examine some of the basics of reading articles about Psychology and Sociology studies by taking a look at two such reports.

PvP in City of Heroes

Take a second to look at this article about the study on PvP in City of Heroes. Think about it and form an opinion regarding what the study might be talking about. Here’a a list of some thing you might run into:

  • What City of Heroes is and its Player Versus Player content
  • A few examples of what Mr. Meyers (Twixt) deems “the area’s stated purpose”
  • The way players acted that didn’t live up to that function
  • Some of the reactions Mr. Meyers encountered, including the death threat he received
  • Some of the strategies Twixt used to defeat his enemies and some of the methods said enemies used to try and defeat him.

The Bias

Think about the article in a different way. What is it trying to say? With the above list in mind my guess is that Mr. Meyers is examining the reaction of PvP participants in City of Heroes when faced with a combatant who does not listen to the established social norms. In the end he faces a great deal of aggression and negative responses that include at least one death threat.

How does the article goes about stating this:

  • Does it give statistical data?
  • Does it give direct examples from the study that suggest an average reaction?
  • Does it remain objective?

What Does the Article Say?

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About half of the article talks about Mr. Meyers directly and speaks of him in a decidedly positive tone that, potentially, makes him seem the victim of abuse. It is true that he received death threats, which is a bit extreme, but it never discusses the context of the threats, Mr. Meyers’ direct reaction, or any subsequent interactions with the person who gave the threat (if there were any). All it says is that threats were made at Mr. Meyers’ expense, before transitioning into something of an advertisement for Mr. Meyers’ upcoming book on the experience, which is only related to the study at hand in that they talk about the same subject. In fact, this source article doesn’t even link to the study directly (if you want to read the actual study you can click here).

A Second Perspective

Here’s another example of a study on gaming. Like Mr. Meyers’ this one examines aggressive behavior alongside playing video games. In this case the study looks at one player games like Wolfenstein 3D and Mist rather than the more social MMO, though for our purposes that difference can be ignored.

I ask the same three basic questions regarding this study that I did of Mr. Meyers’:

  • What might the study talk about?
  • What is the article trying to say?
  • And does it remain objective?

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Generally speaking this study will try to make an association between the aggressive tendencies of the participants compared to their historical video game use (experiment 1) and try to associate violent video game use to increased aggression (experiment 2) through the use of two specific games, Wolfenstein 3D (a decidedly violent game) and Myst (a non-violent game). The article states that the experiment does come to conclusion (that there is an association), it also suggests that there is statistical data that backs this claim (the number of participants in the study), and takes it a step further to suggest that there is a real world need to understand and be aware of this association. Finally, and possibly most importantly, it remains objective by keeping its commentary limited to what the scientists say. There is no stated opinion of the study, the scientists who ran the study, or the findings.

Objectivity Breeds Objectivity

Objectivity does not mean the avoidance of opinions, but rather that the opinions are clearly supported by the contents of the source study, not just the author. When it comes to Psychology papers specifically I have found that the more biased the article discussing the study is, the more biased the actually study is likely to be. In this way an objective article, or an article that clearly does not have an agenda, most likely reflects an unbiased, or trustworthy, study. It is also beneficial to note if the study is peer reviewed. Though not every article you read or hear about will explicitly state one way or the other, the articles that are about peer reviewed studies are likely to be reporting on accurate data.

Correlation Vs. Causality

One important aspect of interpreting articles about Psychology and Sociology papers is being able to differentiate between the ideas of causal relationships and correlational ones. As the name suggests, a causal relationship is based on the principles of cause and effect. If you do something specific, a different specific outcome would occur. For example, rushing water causes stone to wear away. Alternatively, a correlational relationship is one where there is no proof of cause and effect. However, these two activities do commonly occur together and are highly associated.

The Correlational Relationship

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Correlational relationships are strange and hard to interpret without the ability to look at the situation from different perspectives. For example, say you have a dog who begins to bark incessantly whenever you start your car in the morning. You might think that the dog dislikes the noise of the car engine, which would be a cause and effect relationship. However, what if your dog doesn’t bark when you get home? If that’s the case then maybe he doesn’t like it when you leave, another potential cause and effect relationship.

Many times a study will simply claim a correlation and, in the discussion section of the paper, will try and determine possible ways to come to a cause and effect outcome. However, since we’re looking at articles, where these discussion topics are unnecessary, this difference might be harder to identify. Instead, let’s look at a quote and try to determine if the study tries to prove a correlational or causal relationship based on the way its description is worded in the article.

An Example

“We also found that amount of time spent playing video games in the past was associated with lower academic grades in college.” (Dill, 2000)

If this were a causal relationship it would read ‘time spent playing video games in the past causes lower academic grades in college,’ which is almost exactly what it is says in the article. Certainly it is phrased in a similar manner. In fact, It is so close that it almost encourages confusion. However, what it actually says is that this was a correlational relationship. The important word in the above quote, then, is “associated,” which makes no claim that video games are the direct reason for lower grades.

Different Perspectives

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Say we add a third variable to the above example. Maybe it’s “the amount of time spent playing video games while attending college.” On paper this theory makes some sense. If a child plays video games for four hours a night they are likely to continue playing for four hours a night while attending college, which arguably requires more study time. There is also a good chance they will increase their play time with the added freedom of college life. What worked in high school no longer allows for sufficient study time, which may take the student a while to realize. In this way playing video games in the past might cause someone to play more and study less while in college, which might cause lower grades (this theory, of course, is not scientific).

Bu Why Is This Important?

Think of the implications of a scientist stating that, without a doubt, playing video games as a child causes lower grades in college. Traumatized? Knowing the difference between the two types of relationships makes it easier to know if you are at risk of the negative outcomes or on the right track for positive ones.


Articles will generally only touch on the statistics. You might as well read the actual work if statistics are that important to you. However, sometimes you will get brief glimpses. The second article gives two such examples, each part of the study involved over 200 college students. For a study that is supposed to regard the entire population of potential video game players, are 200+ college students enough to universally describe the effects of video games?

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Yes and no. A study with 200+ people is theoretically sufficient, but the fact that only college students were used can be misleading. College students, after all, are hand picked by their school and are required to fit a minimum expectation. In this particular case this limited sample is enough to come to an accurate result, but certainly it can be expanded on in future studies for better accuracy.


Take another look at the article on Mr. Meyers. What does it make you feel about Mr. Meyers’ experience? It seemed to make Mr. Meyers the victim of intended abuse. I’ve discussed the ideas of the bias already, that objective articles can be a good indication of objective studies. However, it can go a step beyond the simple bias; the article can encourage a reader to think in a specific way.

Priming is when a writer tries to direct your attention towards a specific emotional response. Mr. Vargas, the article author, highlights the most negative reactions Mr. Meyers received to try and encourage a kind of sympathy, which will more likely lead to a reader’s agreement (regardless of the study’s accuracy). Instead of putting this extreme reaction into perspective by giving more normal interactions, he lets the reader think that death threats were common. By simply stating the facts in a limited fashion, authors can encourage a reader to agree with them before they’ve even stated an opinion.

The Self Serving Bias

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I bet there are a few of you wondering why I chose two articles that focus on video games and violence, negative studies regarding our beloved past time. I chose them because they paint a negative picture.

You as the reader need to work too. It’s very easy to see an article which suggests that our favorite things might be bad influences and simply dismiss them. Or, alternatively, read something that sounds good and agree with it because it supports our world view. That isn’t the reason these studies come about; the idea is to make you more aware of some of the outcomes a certain action might afford. If there are any significant outcomes it is unlikely that the study will actually suggest a specific action for the general public. Instead they are more likely to simply help make you aware of the possibility of the given result.

What It All Comes Down To

Remember, no study takes everything into account. They can only explain the results of the specific methods they’ve used. Those methods might mean something important, and you should certainly be aware of the results. At the very least, don’t discard the study simply because you don’t agree with what i has to say. Instead, base your assessment on what the article says, any potential bias, and if the results of the study seem to indicate a direct cause and effect relationship or one that is simply highly correlational.