The Diminishing Utility of Replication Studies In Social Psychology

Dorthy Bishop writes on her blog.

“As was evident from my questions after the talk, I was less enthused by the idea of doing a large, replication of Darryl Bem’s studies on extra-sensory perception. Zoltán Kekecs and his team have put in a huge amount of work to ensure that this study meets the highest standards of rigour, and it is a model of collaborative planning, ensuring input into the research questions and design from those with very different prior beliefs. I just wondered what the point was. If you want to put in all that time, money and effort, wouldn’t it be better to investigate a hypothesis about something that doesn’t contradict the laws of physics?”


I think she makes a valid and important point. Bem’s (2011) article highlighted everything that was wrong with the research practices in social psychology. Other articles in JPSP are equally incredible, but this was ignored because naive readers found the claims more plausible (e.g., blood glucose is the energy for will power). We know now that none of these published results provide empirical evidence because the results were obtained with questionable research practices (Schimmack, 2014; Schimmack, 2018). It is also clear that these were not isolated incidents, but that hiding results that do not support a theory was (and still is) a common practice in social psychology (John et al., 2012; Schimmack, 2019).

A large attempt at estimating the replicability of social psychology revealed that only 25% of published significant results could be replicated (OSC). The rate for between-subject experiments was even lower. Thus, the a-priori probability (base rate) that a randomly drawn study from social psychology will produce a significant result in a replication attempt is well below 50%. In other words, a replication failure is the more likely outcome.

The low success rate of these replication studies was a shock. However, it is sometimes falsely implied that the low replicability of results in social psychology was not recognized earlier because nobody conducted replication studies. This is simply wrong. In fact, social psychology is one of the disciplines in psychology that required researchers to conduct multiple studies that showed the same effect to ensure that a result was not a false positive result. Bem had to present 9 studies with significant results to publish his crazy claims about extrasensory perception (Schimmack, 2012). Most of the studies that failed to replicate in the OSC replication project were taken from multiple-study articles that reported several successful demonstrations of an effect. Thus, the problem in social psychology was not that nobody conducted replication studies. The problem was that social psychologists only reported replication studies that were successful.

The proper analyses of the problem also suggests a different solution to the problem. If we pretend that nobody did replication studies, it may seem useful to starting doing replication studies. However, if social psychologists conducted replication studies, but did not report replication failures, the solution is simply to demand that social psychologists report all of their results honestly. This demand is so obvious that undergraduate students are surprised when I tell them that this is not the way social psychologists conduct their research.

In sum, it has become apparent that questionable research practices undermine the credibility of the empirical results in social psychology journals, and that the majority of published results cannot be replicated. Thus, social psychology lacks a solid empirical foundation.

What Next?

It is implied by information theory that little information is gained by conducting actual replication studies in social psychology because a failure to replicate the original result is likely and uninformative. In fact, social psychologists have responded to replication failures by claiming that these studies were poorly conducted and do not invalidate the original claims. Thus, replication studies are both costly and have not advanced theory development in social psychology. More replication studies are unlikely to change this.

A better solution to the replication crisis in social psychology is to characterize research in social psychology from Festinger’s classic small-sample, between-subject study in 1957 to research in 2017 as exploratory and hypotheses generating research. As Bem suggested to his colleagues, this was a period of adventure and exploration where it was ok to “err on the side of discovery” (i.e., publish false positive results, like Bem’s precognition for erotica). Lot’s of interesting discoveries were made during this period; it is just not clear which of these findings can be replicated and what they tell us about social behavior.

Thus, new studies in social psychology should not try to replicate old studies. For example, nobody should try to replicate Devine’s subliminal priming study with racial primes with computers and software from the 1980s (Devine, 1989). Instead, prominent theoretical predictions should be tested with the best research methods that are currently available. Thus, the way forward is not to do more replication studies, but rather to use open science (a.k.a. honest science) that uses experiments to subject theories to empirical tests that may also falsify a theory (e.g., subliminal racial stimuli have no influence on behavior). The main shift that is required is to get away from research that can only confirm theories and to allow for empirical data to falsify theories.

This was exactly the intent of Danny Kahneman’s letter, when he challenged social priming researchers to respond to criticism of their work by going into their labs and to demonstrate that these effects can be replicated across many labs.

Kahneman makes it clear that the onus of replication is on the original researchers who want others to believe their claims. The response to this letter speaks volumes. Not only did social psychologists fail to provide new and credible evidence that their results can be replicated, they also demonstrated defiant denial in the face of replication failures by others. The defiant denial by prominent social psychologists (e.g., Baumeister, 2019) make it clear that they will not be convinced by empirical evidence, while others who can look at the evidence objectively do not need more evidence to realize that the social psychological literature is a train-wreck (Schimmack, 2017; Kahneman, 2017). Thus, I suggest that young social psychologists search the train wreck for survivors, but do not waste their time and resources on replication studies that are likely to fail.

A simple guide through the wreckage of social psychology is to distrust any significant result with a p-value greater than .01 (Schimmack, 2019). Prediction markets also suggest that readers are able to distinguish credible and incredible results (Atlantic). Thus, I recommend to build on studies that are credible and to stay clear of sexy findings that are unlikely to replicate. As Danny Kahneman pointed out, young social psychologists who work in questionable areas face a dilemma. Either they have to replicate the questionable methods that were used to get the original results, which is increasingly considered unethical, or they end up with results that are not very informative. On the positive side, the replication crisis implies that there are many important topics in social psychology that need to be studied properly with the scientific method. Addressing these important questions may be the best way to rescue social psychology.

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