Social psychologists have failed to clean up their act and their literature. Here I show unusually high effect sizes in non-retracted articles by Sanna, who retracted several articles. I point out that non-retraction does not equal credibility and I show that co-authors like Norbert Schwarz lack any motivation to correct the published record. The inability of social psychologists to acknowledge and correct their mistakes renders social psychology a para-science that lacks credibility. Even meta-analyses cannot be trusted because they do not correct properly for the use of questionable research practices.
When I grew up, a popular German Schlager was the song “Aber bitte mit Sahne.” The song is about Germans love of deserts with whipped cream. So, when I saw articles by Sanna, I had to think about whipped cream, which is delicious. Unfortunately, articles by Sanna are the exact opposite. In the early 2010s, it became apparent that Sanna had fabricated data. However, unlike the thorough investigation of a similar case in the Netherlands, the extent of Sanna’s fraud remains unclear (Retraction Watch, 2012). The latest count of Sanna’s retracted articles was 8 (Retraction Watch, 2013).
WebOfScience shows 5 retraction notices for 67 articles, which means 62 articles have not been retracted. The question is whether these article can be trusted to provide valid scientific information? The answer to this question matters because Sanna’s articles are still being cited at a rate of over 100 citations per year.
Meta-Analysis of Ease of Retrieval
The data are also being used in meta-analyses (Weingarten & Hutchinson, 2018). Fraudulent data are particularly problematic for meta-analysis because fraud can produce large effect size estimates that may inflate effect size estimates. Here I report the results of my own investigation that focusses on the ease-of-retrieval paradigm that was developed by Norbert Schwarz and colleagues (Schwarz et al., 1991).
The meta-analysis included 7 studies from 6 articles. Two studies produced independent effect size estimates for 2 conditions for a total of 9 effect sizes.
Sanna, L. J., Schwarz, N., & Small, E. M. (2002). Accessibility experiences and the hindsight bias: I knew it all along versus it could never have happened. Memory & Cognition, 30(8), 1288–1296. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03213410 [Study 1a, 1b]
Sanna, L. J., Schwarz, N., & Stocker, S. L. (2002). When debiasing backfires: Accessible content and accessibility experiences in debiasing hindsight. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28(3), 497–502. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7318.104.22.1687
[Study 1 & 2]
Sanna, L. J., & Schwarz, N. (2003). Debiasing the hindsight bias: The role of accessibility experiences and (mis)attributions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(3), 287–295. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-1031(02)00528-0 [Study 1]
Sanna, L. J., Chang, E. C., & Carter, S. E. (2004). All Our Troubles Seem So Far Away: Temporal Pattern to Accessible Alternatives and Retrospective Team Appraisals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(10), 1359–1371. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167204263784
Sanna, L. J., Parks, C. D., Chang, E. C., & Carter, S. E. (2005). The Hourglass Is Half Full or Half Empty: Temporal Framing and the Group Planning Fallacy. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 9(3), 173–188. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2622.214.171.124 [Study 3a, 3b]
Carter, S. E., & Sanna, L. J. (2008). It’s not just what you say but when you say it: Self-presentation and temporal construal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(5), 1339–1345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2008.03.017 [Study 2]
When I examined Sanna’s results, I found that all 9 of these 9 effect sizes were extremely large with effect size estimates being larger than one standard deviation. A logistic regression analysis that predicted authorship (With Sanna vs. Without Sanna) showed that the large effect sizes in Sanna’s articles were unlikely to be due to sampling error alone, b = 4.6, se = 1.1, t(184) = 4.1, p = .00004 (1 / 24,642).
These results show that Sanna’s effect sizes are not typical for the ease-of-retrieval literature. As one of his retracted articles used the ease-of retrieval paradigm, it is possible that these articles are equally untrustworthy. As many other studies have investigated ease-of-retrieval effects, it seems prudent to exclude articles by Sanna from future meta-analysis.
These articles should also not be cited as evidence for specific claims about ease-of-retrieval effects for the specific conditions that were used in these studies. As the meta-analysis shows, there have been no credible replications of these studies and it remains unknown how much ease of retrieval may play a role under the specified conditions in Sanna’s articles.
The blog post is also a warning for young scientists and students of social psychology that they cannot trust researchers who became famous with the help of questionable research practices that produced too many significant results. As the reference list shows, several articles by Sanna were co-authored by Norbert Schwarz, the inventor of the ease-of-retrieval paradigm. It is most likely that he was unaware of Sanna’s fraudulent practices. However, he seemed to lack any concerns that the results might be too good to be true. After all, he encountered replicaiton failures in his own lab.
“of course, we had studies that remained unpublished. Early on we experimented with different manipulations. The main lesson was: if you make the task too blatantly difficult, people correctly conclude the task is too difficult and draw no inference about themselves. We also had a couple of studies with unexpected gender differences” (Schwarz, email communication, 5/18,21).
So, why was he not suspicious when Sanna only produced successful results? I was wondering whether Schwarz had some doubts about these studies with the help of hindsight bias. After all, a decade or more later, we know that he committed fraud for some articles on this topic, we know about replication failures in larger samples (Yeager et al., 2019), and we know that the true effect sizes are much smaller than Sanna’s reported effect sizes (Weingarten & Hutchinson, 2018).
thank you for your response. I am doing my own meta-analysis of the literature as I have some issues with the published one by Evan. More about that later. For now, I have a question about some articles that I came across, specifically Sanna, Schwarz, and Small (2002). The results in this study are very strong (d ~ 1). Do you think a replication study powered for 95% power with d = .4 (based on meta-analysis) would produce a significant result? Or do you have concerns about this particular paradigm and do not predict a replication failure?
Best, Uli (email
His response shows that he is unwilling or unable to even consider the possibility that Sanna used fraud to produce the results in this article that he co-authored.
Uli, that paper has 2 experiments, one with a few vs many manipulation and one with a facial manipulation. I have no reason to assume that the patterns won’t replicate. They are consistent with numerous earlier few vs many studies and other facial manipulation studies (introduced by Stepper & Strack, JPSP, 1993). The effect sizes always depend on idiosyncracies of topic, population, and context, which influence accessible content and accessibility experience. The theory does not make point predictions and the belief that effect sizes should be identical across decades and populations is silly — we’re dealing with judgments based on accessible content, not with immutable objects.
This response is symptomatic of social psychologists response to decades of research that has produced questionable results that often fail to replicate (see Schimmack, 2020, for a review). Even when there is clear evidence of questionable practices, journals are reluctant to retract articles that make false claims based on invalid data (Kitayama, 2020). And social psychologist Daryl Bem wants rather be remembered as loony para-psychologists than as real scientists (Bem, 2021).
The problem with these social psychologists is not that they made mistakes in the way they conducted their studies. The problem is their inability to acknowledge and correct their mistakes. While they are clinging to their CVs and H-Indices to protect their self-esteem, they are further eroding trust in psychology as a science and force junior scientists who want to improve things out of academia (Hilgard, 2021). After all, the key feature of science that distinguishes it from ideologies is the ability to correct itself. A science that shows no signs of self-correction is a para-science and not a real science. Thus, social psychology is currently para-science (i.e., “Parascience is a broad category of academic disciplines, that are outside the scope of scientific study, Wikipedia).
The only hope for social psychology is that young researchers are unwilling to play by the old rules and start a credibility revolution. However, the incentives still favor conformists who suck up to the old guard. Thus, it is unclear if social psychology will ever become a real science. A first sign of improvement would be to retract articles that make false claims based on results that were produced with questionable research practices. Instead, social psychologists continue to write review articles that ignore the replication crisis (Schwarz & Strack, 2016) as if repression can bend reality.
Nobody should believe them.