November 9th, 2015
Is social psychology in a crisis? Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman sparked an online (and laboratory) dustup last fall when he accused certain social psychologists of undermining the credibility of their field. At issue is whether certain experiments can be replicated. Kahneman says they should be. Other scientists have reported that certain popular results can’t. And that’s a problem.
What is the problem, exactly?
Psychologists who focus on something called “social priming,” which postulates that we can react swiftly and unconsciously when presented with a situation we’d been cued into previously. Examples would be getting a higher score on a test by thinking about the professor beforehand, or, as in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” police officers shooting a black man to death in New York because of previous training on reacting to high-stress situations. The problem arose when scientists reported that they could not replicate a number of key “priming” studies. The scientists being probed say the replicators weren’t doing it right. Others suspect sloppy experimenting on part of the original scientists, or worse.
So, that’s just limited to social priming
Kahneman, in an open email and a letter in Nature, expanded the controversy by citing “recent exposure of fraudulent researchers, general concerns with replicability that affect many disciplines, multiple reported failures to replicate salient results in the priming literature, and the growing belief in the existence of a pervasive file drawer problem” as issues that could bring down an entire field (a file drawer problem, by the way, means that negative studies get shelved and not published).
Is this new?
No. In a 1976 paper in American Psychologist, Alan Elms warned that “social psychologists’ early enthusiasm has been replaced by serious doubts about the future of their field.” Elms cited problems in conducting this type of research, expectations that were too high, and pressure from funders and administrators led to what he called “a sense of crisis”.
What’s the solution?
Fortunately, something good psychologists know a lot about: good research. Many keystone studies have been replicated, and insistence by journals and others on robust scientific protocols should go a long way to separating the wheat from the chaff. In addition, more journals are opening their pages to papers that replicate others’ results—something that’s been too rare for too long. By turning research on itself, the field can grow out of criticism of everything from outright fraud to hopeless clinging to a notion that it something is statistically likely, it must be true.
Sources: Nature, The New Yorker
Elms, A. (1975). The crisis of confidence in social psychology. American Psychologist, 30 (10), 967-976 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.30.10.967
Shanks DR, Newell BR, Lee EH, Balakrishnan D, Ekelund L, Cenac Z, Kavvadia F, & Moore C (2013). Priming intelligent behavior: an elusive phenomenon. PloS one, 8 (4) PMID: 23637732
social primer, group of social primers