noted elsewhere, false or misleading stories about scientific research
are pretty common. There are several reasons for
this. In some cases, the problem is that writers fail to read the studies that they are reporting on.
In other cases, writers have dutifully read the original research, but
lack the training to understand it.
Then there is an even more
fundamental problem: Sometimes, writers repeat claims about research
without even checking to see if the research exists. For example, consider a story circulating in the popular media in 2010.
One version, published by Foxnews.com, begins with a headline suggesting that a surprising new study has been published ("Study: Adolescence Doesn't End Until Age 28"). Then it proceeds with a warning from a psychologist. If parents are "wondering how long their children will act like teenagers," they "can expect it to last up to the age of 28..."
quite a dramatic claim, and one that sounds dubious to many people.
Where is the evidence?
As it turns out, the story doesn't
provide details about a new study. On the contrary, the only
reference to research comes in a single sentence, apparently derived
from a comment by Darryl Cross, a clinical psychologist based in Australia whose website describes him as a "leadership and careers coach." The sentence seems to allude to research conducted by someone other than Dr. Cross himself:
Cross said U.K. research found in many cases adolescence started at the
younger age of eight and extended to 28, instead of the previously
believed age range of 12 to 21."
What is this research, and
what does this statement mean by the term "adolescence"? Is it meant to
refer to a hormonal state? A condition of psychological immaturity?
Economic dependence? A heightened tendency to engage in crime? No such
information is provided, and I can find no studies where
researchers have made the claim that "adolescence doesn't end until age
Misleading headlines and poor fact-checking undermine public confidence
Does any of this matter? I think so. If the story had
attempted to address any of these questions, it would have seemed much
For instance, perhaps the statement about "U.K.
research" was intended as a reference to brain development. It's
well-established that the brain continues to grow and change after
the teen years (Sowell et al 2003). But scientists haven't yet shown
that brain development after age 21 causes people to behave in ways that
are more or less mature. The connection between adult brain development
and cognitive maturation is still being pieced together (Luna et al
Alternatively, the statement might refer to the fact that adults display less aggression as they get older
(Birditt and Fingerman 2005). Or maybe Dr. Cross simply meant that there
are different cultural markers of the transition to adulthood, and that some
criteria--like financial independence--aren't being met by many young
adults today (Arnett 2001).
But as it stands, the story leaves the
impression that researchers are proposing something rather outlandish
-- that we should expect people to "act like teenagers" until their late
twenties. And that, I think, undermines public confidence in the work that responsible researchers
do. It makes anti-intellectuals roll their eyes and
complain that--yet again--investigators are wasting money and time on
Not every study is well-designed or
well-executed. But there are
plenty of developmental psychologists who do sober, useful,
groundbreaking--work. So to everyone engaged in popularizing research,
let's take care. If we are going to refer to research, we need to cite
our sources. We need to question the evidence, present the reasoning
behind a given claim, and note a study's limitations. And to everyone
who reads popular accounts of research, let's demand high standards from our sources of news.
Arnett JJ. 2001. Conceptions of the transition to adulthood:
Perspectives from adolescence through middle life. Journal of Adult
Development 8(2): 133-143.
Birditt KS and Fingerman KL. 2005. Do
we get better at picking our battles? Age group differences in
descriptions of behavioral reactions to interpersonal tensions. J
Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 60(3):P121-8.
Luna B, Garver KE, Urban TA, Lazar NA, and Sweeney JA. 2004. Maturation of cognitive processes from late childhood to adulthood. Child Dev. 75(5):1357-72.
Sowell ER, Peterson
BS, Thompson PM, Welcome SE, Henkenius AL, and Toga AW. 2003. Mapping
cortical change across the human life span.Nat Neurosci. 6(3):309-15.