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4 Things You Should Know About How to Read a Psychology Study

If you have ADHD, or any mental health condition for that matter, you can end up not knowing what to believe. Between books, blogs, the media and so on, it’s easy to find people giving contradictory takes on what ADHD is and how it should be treated.

intuitionSometimes, the best way to deal with the complex mix of information and misinformation out there about mental health is to go to the source and read the scientific studies yourself. The more you read what the research actually says about ADHD or any other disorder, the more you’ll get a sense of what information is accurate and who is worth listening to.

That’s why I think everyone with ADHD owes it to themselves to develop some basic literacy in terms of how to read a psychology study. Knowledge is power.

There are so many narratives about what ADHD is out there, ranging from true to half-true to totally false, that you want to be able to make up your own mind. Here are 4 things you should know about how to read an article about a psychology study in a scientific journal.

1. Psychology Journal Articles Are Peer Reviewed

The reason scientific journals are the place to go when you aren’t sure what to believe is that articles published in these journals go through peer review. That means when a team of researchers submits an article to a journal, a bunch of other researchers review that article.

If they see that the study was conducted in a sloppy way or that the authors of the article are making unfounded claims, they reject the article.

That doesn’t mean articles in psychology journals never contain errors or biases. But it means that unlike other sources of information, journal articles aren’t just written by scientists but have been vetted by other scientists for accuracy.

2. Psychology Studies Are Divided Into Sections

Articles in psychology journals are divided into a few main sections, each of which has a different purpose:

  • Abstract: Psychology articles begin with a short blurb summarizing the basics of the study, including what the main findings are. If you want to get the gist of what a study is about, you don’t even have to read the full article – you can just read this paragraph and you’ll have the essentials.
  • Introduction: Pretty much what you’d expect. Lays out the premise of the study, possibly including the motivation for doing the study in the first place and a summary of previous studies that have looked at related topics.
  • Method: This section includes details about how the study was conducted. Some things you might want to look at are who the study was done on in terms of age range, country, gender, etc. and how many people participated in the study.
  • Results: The findings of the study. Note that psychologists are careful about the language they use to report their results, and they try to avoid making any assumptions. So if you are reading a study looking at whether people who have ADHD are more likely to smoke, the article won’t just say “People with ADHD smoke more.” It’ll say something along the lines of “ADHD was associated with smoking” or “there was a correlation between ADHD symptoms and cigarette consumption.” By phrasing things this way, researchers are being careful not to make any unfounded claims about why ADHD and smoking seem to be linked – for all they know, it could be that having ADHD makes people want to smoke or that smoking gives people ADHD. Likewise, they’re just saying they found a pattern in the group of people they surveyed, and they aren’t implying that this pattern is necessarily true for all people with ADHD.
  • Discussion: If the Results section is strictly about what the study found, the Discussion section is about what those findings might mean. This is where the authors interpret the study and try to put things in context.

3. Psychology Studies Often Use Statistics to Look for Patterns in Large Groups of People

Let’s stick with the example of a fictional psychological study looking at the question of whether there’s a connection between ADHD and smoking. A typical way researchers might conduct this experiment would be to get a bunch of people with ADHD and a bunch of people without ADHD, then see if the people with ADHD smoke more than the people without ADHD.

But there are some tricky things about this kind of study to be aware of.

Let’s say we start our study by recruiting 1000 people with ADHD and 1000 people without ADHD. We survey all these people, and we find that 400 of the people with ADHD are smokers but only 200 of the people without ADHD are smokers.

That’s a pretty clear correlation. We don’t really know why so many more of the ADHDers are smoking, but there’s obviously something going on here. So we could write an article saying something like “we found a correlation between ADHD and smoking in a study of 2000 people.”

But here’s another scenario: let’s say 200 of the people without ADHD are smokers and 201 of the people with ADHD are smokers. Well, technically more of the people with ADHD are smokers. The difference is so small, though, that it’s probably just coincidence.

And now let’s say 200 of the non-ADHDers smoke and 220 of the ADHDers smoke. Is that coincidence?

Psychology researchers use a bunch of statistical tools to try to define what’s just coincidence and what’s a real pattern. So you’ll often see studies say that something is “statistically significant,” meaning it’s probably not coincidence according to the way the researchers have defined “not coincidence.”

One other thing about this approach is that the results only apply to large groups of people, not individuals. In the example where 400 of the people with ADHD smoke, yes, people with ADHD are more likely to smoke than people without ADHD, but that doesn’t mean everyone who has ADHD smokes – in fact, 600 of the ADHDers still don’t smoke!

4. It’s Easy to Find Psychology Studies

If you’re wondering where to find all these psychology studies anyway, just head over to Google Scholar, which is basically Google for scientific articles. You can search for any topic you’re interested in, and you can filter your search results based on things like year published if you’re interested in more recent studies, for example.

When you click on an article, you might be asked to pay to access the full article, but you’ll usually still be able to read the Abstract (the summary) without paying. If you’re interested in reading the rest of the article, you might be able to access it through your local library or through your college if you’re in school.

For example, try this: I keep talking about a hypothetical study looking at the relationship between ADHD and smoking, and I’ve made the unsupported suggestion that there might be a link between the two. Go to Google Scholar and search for something like “adhd smoking.” Look through some of the studies, and see if there really is evidence for this connection, or if I’m just BSing!

Image: Freeman-Woolpert

4 Things You Should Know About How to Read a Psychology Study

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). 4 Things You Should Know About How to Read a Psychology Study. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from


Last updated: 27 Aug 2016
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