Psychological Science is Self-Correcting

It is easy to say that science is self-correcting.  The notion of a self-correcting science is based on the naive model of science as an objective process that incorporates new information and updates beliefs about the world depending on the available evidence.  When new information suggests that old beliefs are false, the old beliefs are replaced by new beliefs.   

It has been a while since I read Kuhn’s book on paradigm shifts, but I do remember that a main point of the book was that science doesn’t work this way for a number of reasons.  

Thus, self-correction cannot be taken for granted. Rather, it is an attribute that needs to be demonstrated for a discipline to be an actual science. If psychological science wants to be a science, there should be empirical evidence that it is self-correcting. 

One piece of evidence for self-correction is that theories that are in doubt receive fewer citations.  Fortunately, modern software like the database WebofScience makes it very easy to count citations by year of publication.

Social Priming

In the past years, research on social priming has come under attack. Several replication studies failed to replicate key findings in this literature. In 2012, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter to John A. Bargh calling social priming “the poster child of doubts about doubts about the integrity of psychological research.” (cf. Train Wreck blog post). I have demonstrated with statistical methods that many of the published results in this literature were obtained with questionable research methods that inflate the risk of false positive results (Before You Know It).

If science is self-correcting, we should see a decrease in citations of social priming articles.

John A. Bargh

The graph below shows the citations of John A. Bargh’s articles by year. 2019 does not count because it just started. 2018 citation are still added but at a very low rate. So, the 2018 data can be interpreted.

The graph shows that John A. Bargh’s citation counts still increased after 2012, when Kahneman published the open letter. However, publishing is a slow process and many articles published in 2013 and 2014 had been written before 2012. Starting with 2015, we see a decrease in citations and this decrease continues to 2018. The decrease seems to be accelerating with a drop by 200 citations from 2017 to 2018.

In conclusion, there is some evidence of self-correction in psychology. However, Bargh may be an exception because an open letter by a Nobel Laureate is a rare and powerful impetus for self-correction.

Ap Dijksterhuis

Dijksterhuis is also known for work on unconscious processes and social priming. Importantly, a large replication study failed to replicate his professor-priming results in 2018 (Registered Replication Report).

The increase in citation counts stalled in 2011, even before the citation counts of John A. Bargh started to decrease. However, there was no clear decrease in the years from 2012 to 2017, while citation counts decreased by over 100 citations in 2018. Thus, there are some signs of self-correction here as well.

Fritz Strack

The work by Fritz Strack was also featured in Kahneman’s book. There have been two registered replication reports of work by Fritz Strack and both failed to replicate the original results (facial feedback, item-order effects).

Strack’s citation counts increased dramatically after 2012. However in 2018 they decreased by 150 counts. We need the 2019 data to see whether this is a blip or the beginning of a downward trend.

Susan T. Fiske

To make sure that the trends for social priming researchers are not just general trends we need a control condition. I picked Susan T. Fiske because she is an eminent social psychologist, but her work is different from social priming experiments. Here work is also more replicable than work by social priming researchers (social psychologists’ replicability rankings).

Fiske’s graph shows no decrease in 2018. Thus, the decreases seen for social priming researchers do not reflect a general trend in social psychology.

Conclusion

This blog post shows how citation counts can be used to examine whether psychological science is self-correcting, which is an essential feature of a science. There are some positive signs that the recent replication crisis in social psychology has triggered a process of self-correction. I suggest that further investigation of changes in citation counts are a fruitful area of research for meta-psychologists.

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