In 2008, the world was wondering whether there is a financial crisis. In an editorial Richard S. Fuld Jr concluded that there was no crisis. This is not really what happened. Richard S. Fuld is actually known as the CEO of Lehman Brothers, a bank that declared bankruptcy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when it became apparent that banks had taken on a lot of bad debt that wasn’t worth the servers it was stored on.
A few years later, there were concerns that a crisis was looming in social psychology. Although this crisis was mostly harmless because the outcome of lab experiments with undergraduate students have very little to do with real world events, it was still disconcerting that the top journal of social psychology published false evidence that extraverts have the ability to foresee the location of erotic stimuli (but not a financial crisis) (Bem, 2011).
Although Bem’s fake claims have been debunked by means of statistical investigation of his data and by means of failed replications, the article created healthy skepticism about other findings published by social psychologists. An attempt to replicate findings in social psychology could only reproduce 25% of significant results and the percentage was even lower for between-subject experiments.
Eight years later, two prominent social psychologists, Wendy Wood and Timothy D. Wilson, take stock of the status of experimental social psychology. Given the well-established finding in social psychology that humans have a strong self-serving bias and that positive illusions are good for people, they come to the conclusion that “there is no crisis” (Wood & Wilson, 2018).
Timothy Wilson fails to mention that he has a conflict of interest because he is the writer of a textbook that would be less valuable if the content in the textbook were based on studies that cannot be replicated. Wendy Wood also is the author of a popular book in which she observes that ” we spend a shocking 43 percent of our day doing things without thinking about them” I am not sure she was thinking about the research social psychologists do, which also often appears to be a frantic activism rather than planned testing of theories.
So, what evidence do Wood and Wilson marshal for their claim that there is no crisis in social psychology?
To be clear, Wood and Wilson’s article is based on their involvement in an interdisciplinary committee across scientific disciplines. “No crisis” may be a reasonable verdict for all sciences. After all, the natural sciences are making tremendous progress and the only question is whether their advances will destroy or save the planet, but there is no doubt that advances in the natural sciences have made humans de facto rulers of this planets.
But we cannot generalize from the natural science to the social science or social psychology more specifically. So, the real question for social psychologists is whether there is a crisis in social psychology. Wood and Wilson do not have much to say about this issue, but they make the trivial and misleading observation that “the goal of science is not, and ought not to be, for all results to be replicable” (p. 28).
Why is this true and trivial? After all, all scientists acknowledge that we only do studies to test hypotheses that are not already known to be true. This means, we will sometimes test a false hypothesis (e.g., Extraverts can guess above chance which underwear I am going to pick for my first day of classes.) Sometimes, our data will give us the wrong answer, which is called a false positive or a type-I error. The whole point of statistical significance testing, which social psychologists routinely do in their journals, is to keep the rate of such false discoveries at an acceptable minimum.
However, social psychologists convinced themselves that doing proper science that keeps the false positive rate at a low rate is not interesting. Their cheerleader Bem told them “Let’s err on the side of discovery.” The more discoveries, the merrier social psychologists will be. Who cares whether they are true or not as long as they make for good stories in social psychology textbooks. And so they went on a rampage and erred on the side of discovery (social priming, ego-depletion, unconscious racism, stereotype-threat, terror-management, etc. etc.) and now their textbooks are filled with findings that cannot be replicated.
So how did Wood and Wilson mislead readers? They were right that the goal of science is not to replicate ALL results, but they fail to point out that a good science is build on findings that do replicate and that a good science aims to have a high percentage of findings that replicate. 25 percent or less is a failing grade and nowhere near the goal of a good science.
So, Wood and Wilson’s quote is a distraction. They state a trivial truth to imply that there is no crisis because failures are ok, but they avoid talking about the embarrassing frequency of replication failures in social psychology.
And the political nature of their article is clear when the authors conclude with their personal beliefs” “We were more convinced than ever in the fundamental soundness of our field” without pointing to a shred of evidence that would make this more than wishful thinking.
Their self-serving statement totally disregards the evidence that has accumulated over the past eight years that social psychologists were some of the most outrageous users of questionable research practices to produce significant results that do not replicate (search this blog for numerous demonstrations, but here is one (Social Psychology Audit), including an audit of Wilson’s work.
Social psychologists would be the first to warn you about the credibility of a messenger who wants you to buy something. I would say, don’t buy what social psychologists tell you about the credibility of social psychology.
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