Setting an example of research excellence: Humility
Updated: Jul 25
As a chartered psychologist and academic, I am sometimes asked to comment on various aspects of the mind and behavior. In order to do so in the most helpful – and ideally unbiased – way, I rely greatly on research. I read widely, I consider opposing views, I also collate and analyse my own primary data when I can in general, and certainly for writing papers.
Before making claims I tend to use the prefix “Research suggests...”, and when writing my own “methodology section” for a paper, will always attribute word count to a discussion of reliability, validity and generalizability. In my cases (which are often indeed cases) the qualitative data is rich and interesting, but it comes from limited sources.
That’s research all over though – it’s only as powerful as its level of inclusion. Then it depends on personal variables; and also on the analytical ability of the researcher. Even the largest study can be biased by people dropping out (whereby their data is removed), their performance/answers being a measure of that day and with the best will in the world you’d still never get every single person in the world to participate. Modifications to findings are made as we learn more – for example, although the measurement of BMI has been used for decades the question “Are you of Asian descent” is now added because the standard scale has been found to no longer be generalizable across populations (cf: http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/bmi_asia_strategies.pdf)
Of course, with the intention of benefitting those who read it (and although I suspect the longer, detailed, prestigious publications in high rated academic journals are probably dusted off less often than my contribution to the Waitrose Magazine – hopefully coming soon), we still need to make some claims. It’s helpful to know that deep breathing encourages calm (cf: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/well/move/what-chill-mice-can-teach-us-about-keeping-calm.html_); and that the average person checks their phone at least once an hour (cf: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/average-briton-check-phone-10000-times-year-uk-study-iphone-samsung-smartphone-a8086631.html). With the World Wide Web – originally a platform for academics – giving rise to the social media bubble, soundbites from the library tomes are making their way into general knowledge far more often, and if there are concerns with generalisability of findings when one can devote a paragraph to the topic, what hope is there for 146 characters?
Therefore, we – academics, lecturers, and writers – must be mindful.
Even when being asked for a comment, quote or “buzzword” (yes – I keep an ear out to make sure I retain the original meaning if happen to use one in my vocabulary), we must consider that there will always be other options/choices/behaviours. Just because something has been researched as the “norm”, it doesn’t necessarily make it right, nor the “best”, nor indeed the "norm” (it’s the norm of those researched.)
So what? ...you may say.
I was asked to comment on sleep for an article about a young man who thrives on 3 hours: Jay Mullings @writtenmirror (twitter). For my part I responded to the questions asked with substantiation from research – the recommended amount is 7-9 hours; would 3 hours mean that the quality of the work remains of the highest standard?; and sleep deprivation can lead to rather negative outcomes (please see the National Sleep Foundation for more on sleep research). However, of course, Churchill and Edison were known to engage in polyphasic sleep (sleeping for one sleep cycle of 3 – 4 hours, dependent on the individual, and taking what we now call 30 minute “power naps” in breaks of 2 hours through the day. The article I commented on may be accessed here: https://www.shortlist.com/news/sleeping-night-happiness-health-jay-mullings-churchill/373968
Twitter soon brought Jay and I together, and in the interests of demonstrating that we were not engaging in opposing ideas, but more involved in opposing practices Jay challenged me to sleep for 3 hours, while he would try for 8.
Finding a day where this was possible (I wasn’t driving, I didn’t have to deliver a class and so on) I took up the challenge. My vlogs are charted on my twitter page starting here: https://twitter.com/DrAudreyT/status/1053060915791155200
I found it a struggle – and ended up going to bed at midnight the next day, 1-hour short of the 21 that Jay uses in a day. However I also found my reflections to be fascinating, as did Jay; especially as his, when he had slept for 8 hours, were similar:
a. Lack of sleep is often cited as making your body stressed and in some cases cause you to crave higher carb foods. This happened to us both – me on 3 hours, him on 8. (I also found it harder to resist unhealthy treats...apparently my frontal lobe - helping decision making and willpower may have been distressed). But, perhaps the stress was just because of the change from our normal routine, rather than because sleeping too little or too much per se was to blame?
b. Lack of sleep is further cited as causing a deterioration of concentration. For me my 3 hours meant I could not focus; but for Jay his 8 meant thoughts kept tumbling around his head.
c. Having more hours in the day offers productivity v a 'good' night’s sleep (ie 7 – 9 hours) offers more productivity. The former was true for me for anything that didn’t need a huge focus. I was able to get a massive administrative task completed which meant I went out that evening guilt free, although in my case I wasn’t “with it” at all that evening and didn’t enjoy myself as much, and Jay was groggy most of the day.
But – and I certainly don’t believe my (hugely limited) findings are generalizable in any way – I learned something about myself (and so did Jay - please see his reflections here) – it can be done, even if it’s not my norm. I’m far less adverse to setting my alarm a couple of hours earlier just to do a little more one day, and I'm sure Jay would be able to “sleep though” to retain his productivity following a time-zone change should he choose to.
Three of my key conclusions were (and you can see the vlog here: https://twitter.com/DrAudreyT/status/1053418461240520704 :
1. It’s not necessarily about sleep but about how you use your time. While I could utilise the extra hours, a lot of my lifestyle focuses around the social “9-5”. I’d got a lot done before 8am, but I then wasted a couple of hours waiting around trying to do some “daily tasks” which were beholden to someone else's timetable. Furthermore, I always like to use “free time” to engage in leisure rather than work – but my leisure pursuits are singing (can’t be done between 4am – 8am) and running on the home treadmill (also less easy because my husband is asleep), or writing...and I wasn't focused. Plus, I really felt I’d missed out on spending “quiet time” with my husband and dog.
2. It’s very much about finding what works for you - whatever in life that may be. Things rotate in and out of academic fashion as fast as on the catwalk...remind me, should we be drinking more or less red wine at the moment? In this case, perhaps someone struggling to sleep will worry less (and thus be able to sleep better) if they know that it’s “ok” to have 3 hours and maybe catch a nap/take a “power nap” later in the day (assuming that is possible). I would think that someone engaging in physical labour may not be able to cope on reduced sleep, but then again, fitness instructors do a grand job starting their classes at 6am. My caveat about the lifestyle choice of 3 hours would be that we do not know if there will be long term risks associated ie. Will we suddenly have a number of people having early onset diabetes, or cardiac arrest, even though the lifestyle works for them…or is that because we’re all just trying to do too much anyway if it were to happen? The main thing is though, it’s possible – for humans most things can be…and we can learn to do it too!
3. The more options we are aware of, the more choice we have. Therefore, academics must remain humble. This is especially true when the “research norm” is what they do too. Remember, it doesn’t mean that’s the only, nor the best, option. It is, as I said in point 2) – the thing that works for you as the individual. If we do not remain open minded, how can we expect others to? If we do not entertain the possibility of change - why should we demand it of readers/clients/students? ...and when we let our words become so diluted by our ego they lose all rigour, what example is that setting for anyone else?
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt