Telling the Story Numbers Can't

In psychology, numbers are useful, but words often tell the real story.

Posted Nov 07, 2019

Contemporary psychological research is characterized by increasing methodological and analytical sophistication, employing powerful statistical analysis techniques and elaborate computerized models. In an important sense, this represents progress. Taking advantage of new technologies to improve the prediction and understanding of human psychological phenomena is well advised, as added rigor tends to beget more reliable and valid findings—more truth, as it were.

It also helps the field fend off the whiff of scientific ‘soft headedness’ that has traditionally surrounded it. Psychology aspires to be a ‘real’ science–it wants to be astronomy, not astrology. Using the tools of hard science—the quantifying, the measuring, the modeling, the number crunching, the predicting—is one way to assure that the field maintains a solid empirical grounding, and reputation, and does not descend, as it easily could, into the shoddy realm of pseudoscience and psychobabble.

At the same time, the increasing reliance on all that shining quantitative hardware—the technologies of statistical analysis—comes at a price. Quantitative analytic tools typically rely on aggregate results; they crunch numbers from many people to derive predictions about individual behavior. Those aggregate data, however, rarely characterize actual living individuals. It is a curiosity (some would say irony) of the field that a science of the person relies on impersonal data.

This approach means that our analyses produce mere abstractions, a face derived from the combined features of many other faces. The person emerging from such data, therefore, is not one that exists in the world. By way of analogy, quantitive analysis informs us that the average American mother has 1.9 children, but you won’t find any mother in existence who has 1.9 children.

At the end of the day, too, quantitative signs—group means, medians, and modes, etc.—are not real, in the sense that they don’t exist in the world. They only exist inside the language of science; they’re constructs, symbols used to characterize real-world phenomena. Individual people, on the other hand, are real. They exist in the world. And they are what is important to know. The language of numbers is often less than up to the task of describing human life. We experience our lives as rich narratives, as stories, not as a compilation of statistics. Would you accept a summary of a person’s life—an obituary, say—solely in the form of a summary of their life stats?

There is a remedy for this problem within the realm of legitimate psychological science. It is called qualitative research. Qualitative research in psychology eschews numbers in favor of words, of personal narratives, to describe the phenomena or persons under study. It asks ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions of the kind that numbers alone often fail to address. It looks to study people in their context and seeks a deep understanding of their complex lives as experienced by them. Whereas quantitative research talks about people, qualitative research lets people talk about themselves. Qualitative research refrains from ‘manipulating variables,’ or imposing the researchers’ definitions and terms on the participants. It lets the meaning emerge from the participants’ own words. To that end, it seeks firsthand experience, actual conversations, and eyewitness testimonies.

Collecting qualitative reports along with quantitative data—adding individuals’ words to the aggregate numbers—serves to improve our understanding of people and their actual lives. A science of the person cannot advance far by omitting, ignoring, or devaluing the voices of actual persons.

A recent qualitative study may serve here as a case in point. The study, "Sexual functioning in 4,418 postmenopausal women participating in UKCTOCS: a qualitative free-text analysis," conducted by a team of British researchers, sought to explore sexual activity, functioning, and satisfaction in a sample of postmenopausal women.

The researchers noted that while a large body of data exists about postmenopausal women’s sexual health—from both biological and sociopsychological perspectives—little has been done to afford postmenopausal women to express in their own words, and from their own perspective, what is on their minds in this regard.

Ian MacKenzie
Source: Ian MacKenzie

To that end, the study deployed a classic qualitative research strategy known as ‘thematic analysis’ to evaluate the free-text responses of female participants who completed the Fallow field Sexual Activity Questionnaire (FSAQ) at baseline before an annual screening. Of the total 24,305 women who completed the baseline FSAQ, 4,525 (19%) provided free-text data, of which 4,418 comments were deemed eligible for analysis. The Median age was 64 years; 65% had a partner and 22.5% were sexually active. Four themes (concerns) were derived from participants’ texts: 1) partner availability, 2) physical and sexual health, 3) mental well-being, and 4) interpersonal relationships.

The primary reason these women gave for the absence of sexual activity was the lack of a partner, mainly due to widowhood. A characteristic text belonging in this category: “I have been a widow for 17 years. My husband was my childhood sweetheart, there will never be anyone else’’ (by a 72 years old woman; sexually inactive). Some women were satisfied with their status (‘‘I have been on my own for 18 years, therefore without sex. I don’t miss sex, I don’t think about it, and I am quite content leading a single life’’). Others were not: ‘‘I have found it very difficult to meet a man since I have been divorced. This does make me sad as I would love a good friend’’.

Another factor described by many of the women (27%) was their partners’ medical conditions. Sample sentiment: ‘‘My husband has Parkinson’s disease and TB of the vertebrae. At the age of 77, he also has dementia and is in hospital at this present time due to a fall’’ (73 years old; sexually inactive). Many women also mentioned their own health issues as disruptive: ‘‘Since the menopause, an extremely important part of my life, intercourse, is ruined. This is because of vaginal dryness and spasm, reduction in physical desire, and change and a huge reduction in gaining orgasm and in the intensity of orgasm’’ (55 years old; inactive). Partner mental health issues were also in play: “He drinks approximately 1 to 1.5 bottles of whiskey a day. Sex is once or twice a year” (56 years old; inactive). 

Partner sexual dysfunction was also mentioned quite commonly (13.5%) as an obstacle to a satisfying sex life. This predominantly involved a partner’s erectile dysfunction, which often related to chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity or diabetes. Yet psychological factors were also reported to interfere with sex: ‘‘my husband has a very stressful job and when we make love he has a problem with keeping his erection long enough to satisfy us both’’ (57 years old; inactive).

Other factors the women mentioned included menopause-related symptoms (“Several symptoms of the menopause have affected my desire for sex which I find disappointing because I wish I had the same desire as I had in recent years”); relationship problems (“over the last few years things have not been so good. Having been married to a 19th-century type husband and having ‘thought of England’ for 35 years, I decided to draw a line under the whole unsatisfying occupation. His infidelity from year one didn’t help"); logistics (“My husband works shifts and I teach…sex is usually confined to breaks in our routine at work”); and perceptions of aging (“Both of us too old. Me 72, hubby 75. I enjoyed it in my younger days”). 

The women’s words here help give a real human voice to the data. They illuminate the depth of real lives in a way that numbers can’t. The women speak for themselves.

The researchers concluded that, from the perspective of postmenopausal women, having an intimate partner and good physical health are key factors for the continuation of sexual activity and satisfaction into the latter years. These data, they say, “not only show that sexual activity in older women is multifactorial, but also that sexual difficulties are often underreported, underrecognized and undertreated.”

Hear, hear.