Matt: Do you remember how last week we were talking about how psychology studies are suggesting that having the right sort of happy feelings can have real effects on gene expression which, in turn, has a knock on effect on the immune system?
Charlie: Sure. If I recall, we were also going to write a note about some of the methods that those psychologists used?
Matt: Yeah. The reality is that asking people to report how they feel is a constant challenge for psychologists.
Charlie: How so?
Matt: Well, with the positivity example that we were discussing, the researchers wanted to know whether participants in their study felt as if their lives had meaning to them. If a participant in the study badly wanted their life to have meaning they could have reported feeling that their life did have meaning when they didn’t really feel this way. Nobody does this intentionally, but this sort of stuff can badly mess up results.
Charlie: I guess you can’t test something like that by drawing blood.
Matt: Definitely not! What you could do is extensively interview patients to get a sense of whether they feel their life has meaning by asking indirect questions on the matter. That might be a bit better than self reporting in some ways but it also has problems.
Charlie: You mean that if one of the participants detects what the indirect questions are about then you are suddenly in a situation that is no better than directly asking the question “do you feel your life has meaning?”
Matt: Yes, and there is also the factor that asking indirect questions introduces more places for things to go wrong since answers to indirect questions have the potential to be misunderstood by those asking them.
Charlie: That makes sense. Is there no way around these problems?
Matt: The best that psychologists can do is work with large numbers of participants and to use statistics to study their responses for consistency and reliability.
Charlie: They can repeat their experiments over and over again too. Right?
Matt: That is the hallmark of good science. In fact, this is a good point because while the research by Barbara Fredrickson (which we discussed during the last podcast) was rather controversial when it first published a few years ago, it has now been replicated several times and the results have come up the same. While such replications are not ironclad proof that her findings are real, they strongly suggest it and will lead to more and more replications that will eventually lead psychologists to widely accept that certain positive emotions do have immune effects.