Dead physiological science zombified by psychological research

This 2017 Massachusetts human review described one example of psychological research continuing to misinterpret measurements for hypotheses that have been rejected for physiological research:

“The current paper is a case study examining what happens to psychological research when its foundational biological context is invalidated or superseded. The example we use is heart rate variability (HRV) as a purported measure of cardiac sympathetic outflow.

The hypotheses in question are of direct relevance to fields including biological psychology, psychophysiology, and social neuroscience that use physiological measurements to answer applied questions with broader social scientific relevance. A broad base of further evidence was amassed within human cardiac, circulatory, and autonomic physiology such that the hypotheses do not work as described.

These were important and popular metrics, they attracted appropriate scrutiny, and were subsequently discarded. The above reflects well on the scientific process within basic research. The present ensuing period of ‘life after death’ within applied research does not.

It has been widely used as a dependent variable in studies of emotion, panic, stress, attentional state, health status in psychological science.

If the criteria for publishing a scientific article is simply that the measured results resolve to be statistically significant, an unstable measurement of an unstable phenomenon is an excellent vehicle for engineering differences between groups, especially considering the substantial flexibility in modern publication practices.”

Factors facilitating the misinterpretation of heart rate variability include:

  • A 30-year chain of citations similar to what Using citations to develop beliefs instead of evidence found.
  • Measurements are convenient and inexpensive (like salivary cortisol):

    “HRV measurement lacks barriers to collection – measurement is possible during movement and activities of daily living, is easily capable of taking multiple sequential measurements without participant fatigue, and is suitable for long-term recordings. It is also inexpensive, due to multiple commercially available hardware platforms and free software analysis programs.”

  • The experimental concept is easily explained to sponsors. “Dead Science in Live Psychology: A Case Study from Heart Rate Variability (HRV)”


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