Lies, Damn Lies, and Experiments on Attitude Ratings

Ten years ago, social psychology had a life-time opportunity to realize that most of their research is bullshit. Their esteemed colleague Daryl Bem published a hoax article about extrasensory perception in their esteemed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The editors felt compelled to write a soul searching editorial about research practices in their field that could produce such nonsense results. However, 10 years later social psychologists continue to use the same questionable practices to publish bullshit results in JPSP. Moreover, they are willfully ignorant of any criticism of their field that is producing mostly pseudo-scientific garbage. Just now, Wegener and Petty, two social psychologists at Ohio State University wrote an article that downplays the importance of replication failures in social psychology. At the same time, they publish a JPSP article that shows they haven’t learned anything from 10 years of discussion about research practices in psychology. I treat the first author as an innocent victim who is being trained in the dark art of research practices that have given us social priming, ego-depletion, and time-reversed sexual arousal.

The authors report seven studies. We don’t know how many other studies were run. The seven studies are standard experiments with one or two (2 x 2) experimental manipulations between subjects. The studies are quick online studies with Mturk samples. The main goal was to show that some experimental manipulations influence some ratings that are supposed to measure attitudes. Any causal effect on these measures is interpreted as a change in attitudes.

The problem for the author is that their experimental manipulations have small effects on the attitude measures. So, individually studies 1-6 would not show any effects. At no point did they consider this a problem and increase sample sizes. However, they were able to fix the problem by combining studies that were similar enough into one dataset. his was also done by Bem to produce significant results for time-reversed causality. It is not a good practice, but that doesn’t bother editors and reviewers at the top journal of social psychology. After all, they all do not know how to do science.

So, let’s forget about the questionable studies 1-6 and focus on the preregistered replication study with 555 Mturk workers (Study 7). The authors analyze their data with a mediation model and find statistically significant indirect effects. The problem with this approach is that mediation no longer has the internal validity of an experiment. Spurious relationships between mediators and the DV can inflate these indirect effects. So, it is also important to demonstrate that there is an effect by showing that the manipulation changed the DV (Baron & Kenny, 1986). The authors do not report this analysis. The authors also do not provide information about standardized effect sizes to evaluate the practical significance of their manipulation. However, the authors did provide covariance matrices in a supplement and I was able to run the analyses to get this information.

Here are the results.

The main effect for the bias manipulation is d = -.04, p = .38, 95%CI = -.12, .05

The main effect for the untrustworthiness manipulation is d = .01, p = .75, 95%CI = -.07, .10.

Both effects are not significant. Moreover, the effect size is so small and thanks to the large sample size the confidence intervals are so narrow that we can reject the hypothesis that the manipulations have at least a small effect, d = .2.

So, here we see the total failure of social psychology to understand what they are doing and their inability to make a real contribution to the understanding of attitudes and attitude change. This didn’t stop Rich Petty from co-authoring an article about psychology’s contribution to addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, it would be unfair to blame 150,000 deaths on social psychology, but it is a fact that 40 years of trivial experiments have done little to help us change attitudes like attitudes towards wearing masks in the real world.

I can only warn young, idealistic students to consider social psychology as a career path. I speak form experience. I was a young idealistic student eager to learn about social psychology in the 1990s. If I could go back in time, I would have done something else with my life. In 2010, I thought social psychology might actually change for the better, but in 2020 it is clear that most psychologists want to continue with their trivial experiments that tell us nothing about social behaviour. If you just can’t help it and want to study social phenomena I recommend personality psychology or other social sciences.

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