Psychologists behaving badly

The rise of an (un)exact science that can fake like the pros

The field of psychology has been struggling for a long time to be recognized as an "exact science". It had to work hard to divest itself of an unholy entanglement with the Freudian heresy; its progress has been characterized by an embarrassing series of "theories", which, in retrospect, far too often proved to be volatile fads and were forgotten for lack of explanatory power. Psychology has no periodic table of unquestioned ‘facts’ to support its science; it never managed to envisage a comprehensive and enduring blueprint of the human mind, and its acceptance has always been hampered by the fact that everybody is equipped with a naive folk psychology that easily competes with the professional research.

Lately, the discipline has acquired a degree of respectability by the closing of ranks with some more accredited associates, like with brain research in the field of cognitive neuroscience, or with economics in the burgeoning domain of behavioral economics. But in the last years, in an ironic twist of fate, psychology has really made a name for itself by demonstrating that it masters the art of fraud, scientific misconduct and harvesting retractions just as well as the "big players" in the scientific community; in this regard, the field has become a "hard science".

In the last years, the whole scientific enterprise has been haunted by a substantial increase in the number of papers that had to be retracted, more and more frequently on the basis of fraud and scientific misconduct. And the field of psychology is no stranger to the trend, concedes Jürgen Margraf, professor of psychology at the University of Bochum and former President of the German Society for Psychology. "To be sure, psychology doesn't occupy a top spot, but it is also no longer located in a negligible range."  Biomedical research is accountable for the bulk of retractions; it contributes about 40 percent of all publications but chalks up slightly over 50 percents of all retractions. The social sciences as a whole throw in about 10 percent of all publications, but are responsible for less than 5 percent of the retractions.

At the end of the day, that comparatively lower rate suffices to buy psychology a solid spot in the midpoint of the hit list of scientific retractions. As figure A makes clear, the field is now located as equal among equals right besides molecular biology (a little more retractions) and economics (slightly less). In other circumstances, psychologists would love to be placed in that neighborhood! And the trend is increasing, as shown by an analysis of all psychological publications and retractions from 1989 through to 2013 (figure B). "We do not only see a sharp increase of publications - up to 190.00 in 2013, about three times more than in 1989 - but also a growth of the rate of retractions,  which quadrupled from 0.01 percent to over 0.04 percent," says Margraf. "Even if the most spectacular case of Diederik Stapel (49 retractions between 2012 and 2013) is deducted, the upswing of retractions, particularly in recent years, is alarming." One esteemed psychology journal, "The Journal of Personality & Social Psychology", even hits the Top 15 of scientific journals with the highest rates of retractions.

The case of the Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, the "king of cheats" of psychology, is illuminating. It now appears that his whole scientific "oeuvre" was based on fabricated data (he was ousted in 2011). For one, his subdiscipline is not only the most glamorous and well received division of psychology, constantly  making the headlines; it also seems to bear the brunt of all cases of fraud and misconduct. Other psychologists who were exposed to have faked data and lost their jobs also originate from this field, like Dirk Smeesters and Lawrence Sanna. German social psychologist Jens Förster, who had one paper retracted, is still under investigation for data manipulation. Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, who was exposed of having committed eight instances of scientific misconduct and resigned from his position, did research in the border area of ethology and social psychology.

After his demise as a scientist, Diederik Stapel still managed to turn himself into a media personality, constantly scoring bizarre public appearances - and stumbling into some great gaffes. He  has also published his memoires, “Faking Science: A True Story of Academic Fraud”, which he gratuitously offers in English as a free eBook.

However, cases of outright fraud and forgery are most likely only the proverbial visible tip of the iceberg of scientific misconduct in psychology, Margraf notes. Much larger, even not as visible, is the scope of the combined effects of so-called "Questionable Research Practices "(QRP), including selective reporting, selective research, P-hacking, concentration on fashion topics and neglect other issues.

Questionable Research Practices may well be one of the prime reasons for the sad fact that the field is right now also undergoing a so-called "reproducibility crisis": A whole series of psychological studies - mainly on the subject of "social priming" - failed a systematical test of replication. The "priming hype" started  in the early 1990s when Yale psychologist John Bargh discovered that research subjects "primed" with words pertaining to old age walked slower exiting the laboratory than subjects stimulated with a random set of words. This approach to the power of incidental stimuli made Bargh an academic celebrity, kindling a new field of research that has found priming effects in just about everything we do. 

But then, tragically, the landmark study by Bargh - and several other studies in this tradition -  have been taken to task due to the failure of a number of labs to reproduce published effects.  According to Nobel  Laureate  Daniel  Kahneman, social  psychology is now seen as “the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research” and that there will be a “train wreck looming” unless psychologists take immediate steps to clean up their act. 

Some authors of the non-replicated priming studies countered that, basically, the exact basic conditions of the original research had not been reinstated in the replication endeavors. Behind these excuses, says psychologist Stanley Klein from the University of California in Santa Barbara, lurks a deeper and more troubling problem:  the failure of much of psychological theory to attain the standards characterizing theory in the non-social sciences. "A well-formulated scientific theory makes explicit the conditions for its own empirical evaluation. " If the predictive accuracy of a psychological theory depends completely on the exact (or nearly exact) reproduction of task details, then the effect is only a task specific outcome, rather than a theory based prediction. How can psychological results be applied to the world outside when they aren't even applicable to a lab that tries to exactly recreate the original experimental conditions?

But even worse, the main problem with social priming is that there exists no valid theory why people should behave in that way in the first place. It presumes that we are built by evolution in a way that makes us susceptible to random environmental influences beyond our control and not useful in an adaptive way. (Actually, priming effects could easily be disastrous for survival and biological fitness. Think of the aging stereotype threat, which was recently shown to even impair hearing: If true, that would make your susceptible to having an accident or be run down by a car.) But if it existed – if analogous behaviors were triggered unconsciously by respective stimuli in the outside world – there would be such an excess of subtle triggers in real life that they would cancel each other out.

The idea of priming implies that the slightest, most unobtrusive stimuli in any situation can trigger disproportionate behavioral responses. But even tightly controlled experimental environments per definition always contain marginal stimuli, which would cause innumerable, unforeseeable priming effects. But not only the stimulus side, the response side too is hopelessly and unsalvageable contaminated. A recent priming study seemed to prove that sitting on a shaky chair caused subjects to judge their romantic relationships as more unstable. Why only relationships? Why not the economy, the climate, or the future of psychology? A theory that allows for innumerable outcomes actually doesn't predict a single one. Jens Förster's paper that had to be retracted because of data manipulation tellingly ranked among the priming tradition - and could not be replicated, for good measure. Priming is a disgrace to the field.

Thinking about it, that kind of arbitrary guesswork is Sigmund Freud by the back door. Dear Primeatologists, remember: Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar!

But not all insiders are welcoming the new, self-critical momentum in the field: James Coan from the University of Virginia in an influential blog post denounced the whole movement as "negative psychology". And Daniel Gilbert, social psychologist from Harvard University and a titan of the field, even called the leaders of the replication effort bad names in a twitter post - which he later informally "retracted".

A word to the wise, by Swiss economist Mathias Binswanger:

"In social sciences, however, empirical research has often reached a degree of irrelevance, where it does not matter anymore, whether results are faked or whether they are the “true outcome” of an experiment or a survey. They are irrelevant in one way or the other."

Jürgen Margraf: Zur Lage der Psychologie.
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