A few weeks ago, I said about getting to explore scicomm on YouTube in a uni assignment. Now that I’ve got it finished, marked, and out of the way, here’s the story.
The assignment was a content analysis- which means an attempt to interpret media such as writing, speech or video into quantifiable data to analyse it. I decided to try using YouTube videos as my medium, rather than newspapers, and my topic was how YouTube creators represented psychology in videos. Thanks to undergrad, and previous videos I’d seen, I had some ideas of what to expect, so those ideas were the start of my research questions. Also, there’s so little research yet in this kind of area that I could end up finding anything- that unexpectedness made this topic appealing.
From what I’ve read and watched before, I expected:
- Videos using “psychology of …” to just mean general knowledge about a topic, not actual psychology knowledge.
- People assuming psychology was all about studying mental health and illness.
- People treating psychology negatively, and assuming it is pseudoscience/non- science.
- People treating psychology as being about self-help/self-improvement/productivity, especially as that’s really popular on writing and blogging sites at the moment.
To find my videos, I decided to go by popularity (i.e. view count), so my final videos were taken from the highest-viewed videos tagged “psychology”, “psychological” or “psychologist”.
When I started searching, I started with the 50 most popular for each tag. At first, I thought this was going to be far too many, and that I’d have found all my videos by halfway down the list. I was wrong- in fact, only 52 videos were eligible. Part of this was because videos tagged “psychologist” were mostly comedy sketches (which I expected) and ASMR and creepypastas (which I really didn’t expect). A lot of the “psychological” videos were film trailers and music uploads, so these all had to be ruled out too.
Another problem was Crash Course, who were so popular they broke my research question. I was going to study both educational videos and individual videos, but the Crash Course psychology series were the only popular educational videos, and they would have taken up half of the final list. So I needed to change the research question to focus on videos uploaded by individual people.
Once I found the videos, it was analysis-time. Looking at the 4 things I expected to find:
- 5 videos used the “psychology of…” idea- using psychology to just mean understanding or knowledge of something.
- No videos treated psychology as being just about mental health and illness.
- Only one video was negative about psychology, and none called it a pseudoscience.
- The lifestyle development/self-help part…. that’s where things got interesting.
Videos by lifestyle presenters were dramatically different to the rest. There were 11 videos in this lifestyle category, and these had the most pseudoscience, and misconceptions about psychology, by far.
One thing I noticed was that most of the lifestyle presenters were using their YouTube videos to drive traffic to and market their products- e.g. personal development resources or life-coaching sessions. So you could argue there’s a financial element to this difference. However, one video in the lifestyle category made up for the rest by having some scientific content, despite its channel having a commercial interest.
Another thing I noticed in one case was people potentially making themselves sound more qualified than they are: the most popular lifestyle presenter called themselves a psychologist, and included this title in their videos, even though the information they gave on their website shows they aren’t qualified to do that. Most people aren’t going to know that- the only reason I noticed it was because of learning about accreditation and professional requirements in my psychology degree. So it would be easy for people to read the title “psychologist”and do the white-coat thing of questioning statements less.
So overall I found that psychology videos on YouTube can be anywhere on the spectrum from incredibly scientific to incredibly pseudoscientific. YouTube presenters are positive about the idea and science status of psychology, whether they are presenting evidence-based research or pseudoscience.This creates an odd gap between framing and content. I find this really interesting, as I have no idea what effect that could have on people watching those videos. From a negative perspective,it seems like that framing could risk spreading mixed messages about what ideas are generally accepted from psychology, and what ideas are not accepted. However, I don’t think there’s any research yet which can back that idea up for sure.
If you want to read the full details what I did, and what videos I studied, here it is: