Over the past two decades, social psychological research on prejudice has been dominated by the implicit cognition paradigm (Meissner, Grigutsch, Koranyi, Müller, & Rothermund, 2019). This paradigm is based on the assumption that many individuals of the majority group (e.g., White US Americans) have an automatic tendency to discriminate against members of a stigmatized minority group (e.g., African Americans). It is assumed that this tendency is difficult to control because many people are unaware of their prejudices.
The implicit cognition paradigm also assumes that biases vary across individuals of the majority group. The most widely used measure of individual differences in implicit biases is the race Implicit Association Test (rIAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). Like any other measure of individual differences, the race IAT has to meet psychometric criteria to be a useful measure of implicit bias. Unfortunately, the race IAT has been used in hundreds of studies before its psychometric properties were properly evaluated in a program of validation research (Schimmack, 2021a, 2021b).
Meta-analytic reviews of the literature suggest that the race IAT is not as useful for the study of prejudice as it was promised to be (Greenwald et al., 1998). For example, Meissner et al. (2019) concluded that “the predictive value for behavioral criteria is weak and their incremental validity over and above self-report measures is negligible” (p. 1).
In response to criticism of the race IAT, Greenwald, Banaji, and Nosek (2015) argued that “statistically small effects of the implicit association test can have societally large effects” (p. 553). At the same time, Greenwald (1975) warned psychologists that they may be prejudiced against the null-hypothesis. To avoid this bias, he proposed that researchers should define a priori a range of effect sizes that are close enough to zero to decide in favor of the null-hypothesis. Unfortunately, Greenwald did not follow his own advice and a clear criterion for a small, but practically significant amount of predictive validity is lacking. This is a problem because estimates have decreased over time from r = .39 (McConnell & Leibold, 2001), to r = .24 in 2009 ( Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, and Banaji, 2009), to r = .148 in 2013 (Oswald, Mitchell, Blanton, Jaccard, & Tetlock (2013), and r = .097 in 2019 (Greenwald & Lai, 2020; Kurdi et al., 2019). Without a clear criterion value, it is not clear how this new estimate of predictive validity should be interpreted. Does it still provide evidence for a small, but practically significant effect, or does it provide evidence for the null-hypothesis (Greenwald, 1975)?
Measures are not Causes
To justify the interpretation of a correlation of r = .1 as small but important, it is important to revisit Greenwald et al.’s (2015) arguments for this claim. Greenwald et al. (2015) interpret this correlation as evidence for an effect of the race IAT on behavior. For example, they write “small effects can produce substantial discriminatory impact also by cumulating over repeated occurrences to the same person” (p. 558). The problem with this causal interpretation of a correlation between two measures is that scores on the race IAT have no influence on individuals’ behavior. This simple fact is illustrated in Figure 1. Figure 1 is a causal model that assumes the race IAT reflects valid variance in prejudice and prejudice influences actual behaviors (e.g., not voting for a Black political candidate). The model makes it clear that the correlation between scores on the race IAT (i.e., the iat box) and scores on a behavioral measures (i.e., the crit box) do not have a causal link (i.e., no path leads from the iat box to the crit box). Rather, the two measured variables are correlated because they both reflect the effect of a third variable. That is, prejudice influences race IAT scores and prejudice influences the variance in the criterion variable.
There is general consensus among social scientists that prejudice is a problem and that individual differences in prejudice have important consequences for individuals and society. The effect size of prejudice on a single behavior has not been clearly examined, but to the extent that race IAT scores are not perfectly valid measures of prejudice, the simple correlation of r = .1 is a lower limit of the effect size. Schimmack (2021) estimated that no more than 20% of the variance in race IAT scores is valid variance. With this validity coefficient, a correlation of r = .1 implies an effect of prejudice on actual behaviors of .1 / sqrt(.2) = .22.
Greenwald et al. (2015) correctly point out that effect sizes of this magnitude, r ~ .2, can have practical, real-world implications. The real question, however, is whether predictive validity of .1 justifies the use of the race IAT as a measure of prejudice. This question has to be evaluated in a comparison of predictive validity for the race IAT with other measures of prejudice. Thus, the real question is whether the race IAT has sufficient incremental predictive validity over other measures of prejudice. However, this question has been largely ignored in the debate about the utility of the race IAT (Greenwald & Lai, 2020; Greenwald et al., 2015; Oswald et al., 2013).
Kurdi et al. (2019) discuss incremental predictive validity, but this discussion is not limited to the race IAT and makes the mistake to correct for random measurement error. As a result, the incremental predictive validity for IATs of b = .14 is a hypothetical estimate for IATs that are perfectly reliable. However, it is well-known that IATs are far from perfectly reliable. Thus, this estimate overestimates the incremental predictive validity. Using Kurdi et al.’s data and limiting the analysis to studies with the race IAT, I estimated incremental predictive validity to be b = .08, 95%CI = .04 to .12. It is difficult to argue that this a practically significant amount of incremental predictive validity. At the very least, it does not justify the reliance on the race IAT as the only measure of prejudice or the claim that the race IAT is a superior measure of prejudice (Greenwald et al., 2009).
The meta-analytic estimate of b = .1 has to be interpreted in the context of evidence of substantial heterogeneity across studies (Kurdi et al., 2019). Kurdi et al. (2019) suggest that “it may be more appropriate to ask under what conditions the two [race IAT scores and criterion variables] are more or less highly correlated” (p. 575). However, little progress has been made in uncovering moderators of predictive validity. One possible explanation for this is that previous meta-analysis may have overlooked one important source of variation in effect sizes, namely publication bias. Traditional meta-analyses may be unable to reveal publication bias because they include many articles and outcome measures that did not focus on predictive validity. For example, Kurdi’s meta-analysis included a study by Luo, Li, Ma, Zhang, Rao, and Han (2015). The main focus of this study was to examine the potential moderating influence of oxytocin on neurological responses to pain expressions of Asian and White faces. Like many neurological studies, the sample size was small (N = 32), but the study reported 16 brain measures. For the meta-analysis, correlations were computed across N = 16 participants separately for two experimental conditions. Thus, this study provided as many effect sizes as it had participants. Evidently, power to obtain a significant result with N = 16 and r = .1 is extremely low, and adding these 32 effect sizes to the meta-analysis merely introduced noise. This may undermine the validity of meta-analytic results ((Sharpe, 1997). To address this concern, I conducted a new meta-analysis that differs from the traditional meta-analyses. Rather than coding as many effects from as many studies as possible, I only include focal hypothesis tests from studies that aimed to investigate predictive validity. I call this a focused meta-analysis.
Focused Meta-Analysis of Predictive Validity
Coding of Studies
I relied on Kurdi et al.’s meta-analysis to find articles. I selected only published articles that used the race IAT (k = 96). The main purpose of including unpublished studies is often to correct for publication bias (Kurdi et al., 2019). However, it is unlikely that only 14 (8%) studies that were conducted remained unpublished. Thus, the unpublished studies are not representative and may distort effect size estimates.
Coding of articles in terms of outcome measures that reflect discrimination yielded 60 studies in 45 articles. I examined whether this selection of studies influenced the results by limiting a meta-analysis with Kurdi et al.’s coding of studies to these 60 articles. The weighted average effect size was larger than the reported effect size, a = .167, se = .022, 95%CI = .121 to .212. Thus, Kurdi et al.’s inclusion of a wide range of studies with questionable criterion variables diluted the effect size estimate. However, there remained substantial variability around this effect size estimate using Kurdi et al.’s data, I2 = 55.43%.
The focused coding produced one effect-size per study. It is therefore not necessary to model a nested structure of effect sizes and I used the widely used metafor package to analyze the data (Viechtbauer, 2010). The intercept-only model produced a similar estimate to the results for Kurdi et al.’s coding scheme, a = .201, se = .020, 95%CI = .171 to .249. Thus, focal coding does seem to produce the same effect size estimate as traditional coding. There was also a similar amount of heterogeneity in the effect sizes, I2 = 50.80%.
However, results for publication bias differed. Whereas Kurdi et al.’s coding shows no evidence of publication bias, focused coding produced a significant relationship emerged, b = 1.83, se = .41, z = 4.54, 95%CI = 1.03 to 2.64. The intercept was no longer significant, a = .014, se = .0462, z = 0.31, 95%CI = -.077 to 95%CI = .105. This would imply that the race IAT has no incremental predictive validity. Adding sampling error as a predictor reduced heterogeneity from I2 = 50.80% to 37.71%. Thus, some portion of the heterogeneity is explained by publication bias.
Stanley (2017) recommends to accept the null-hypothesis when the intercept in the previous model is not significant. However, a better criterion is to compare this model to other models. The most widely used alternative model regresses effect sizes on the squared sampling error (Stanley, 2017). This model explained more of the heterogeneity in effect sizes as reflected in a reduction of unexplained heterogeneity from 50.80% to 23.86%. The intercept for this model was significant, a = .113, se = .0232, z = 4.86, 95%CI = .067 to .158.
Figure 2 shows the effect sizes as a function of sampling error and the regression lines for the three models.
Inspection of Figure 1 provides further evidence that the squared-SE model. The red line (squared sampling error) fits the data better than the blue line (sampling error) model. In particular for large samples, PET underestimates effect sizes.
The significant relationship between sample size (sampling error) and effect sizes implies that large effects in small studies cannot be interpreted at face value. For example, the most highly cited study of predictive validity had only a sample size of N = 42 participants (McConnell & Leibold, 2001). The squared-sampling-error model predicts an effect size estimate of r = .30, which is close to the observed correlation of r = .39 in that study.
In sum, a focal meta-analysis replicates Kurdi et al.’s (2019) main finding that the average predictive validity of the race IAT is small, r ~ .1. However, the focal meta-analysis also produced a new finding. Whereas the initial meta-analysis suggested that effect sizes are highly variable, the new meta-analysis suggests that a large portion of this variability is explained by publication bias.
I explored several potential moderator variables, namely (a) number of citations, (b) year of publication, (c) whether IAT effects were direct or moderator effects, (d) whether the correlation coefficient was reported or computed based on test statistics, and (e) whether the criterion was an actual behavior or an attitude measure. The only statistically significant result was a weaker correlation in studies that predicted a moderating effect of the race IAT, b = -.11, se = .05, z = 2.28, p = .032. However, the effect would not be significant after correction for multiple comparison and heterogeneity remained virtually unchanged, I2 = 27.15%.
During the coding of the studies, the article “Ironic effects of racial bias during interracial interactions” stood out because it reported a counter-intuitive result. in this study, Black confederates rated White participants with higher (pro-White) race IAT scores as friendlier. However, other studies find the opposite effect (e.g., McConnell & Leibold, 2001). If the ironic result was reported because it was statistically significant, it would be a selection effect that is not captured by the regression models and it would produce unexplained heterogeneity. I therefore also tested a model that excluded all negative effect. As bias is introduced by this selection, the model is not a test of publication bias, but it may be better able to correct for publication bias. The effect size estimate was very similar, a = .133, se = .017, 95%CI = .010 to .166. However, heterogeneity was reduced to 0%, suggesting that selection for significance fully explains heterogeneity in effect sizes.
In conclusion, moderator analysis did not find any meaningful moderators and heterogeneity was fully explained by publication bias, including publishing counterintuitive findings that suggest less discrimination by individuals with more prejudice. The finding that publication bias explains most of the variance is extremely important because Kurdi et al. (2019) suggested that heterogeneity is large and meaningful, which would suggest that higher predictive validity could be found in future studies. In contrast, the current results suggest that correlations greater than .2 in previous studies were largely due to selection for significance with small samples, which also explains unrealistically high correlations in neuroscience studies with the race IAT (cf. Schimmack, 2021b).
Predictive Validity of Self-Ratings
The predictive validity of self-ratings is important for several reasons. First, it provides a comparison standard for the predictive validity of the race IAT. For example, Greenwald et al. (2009) emphasized that predictive validity for the race IAT was higher than for self-reports. However, Kurdi et al.’s (2019) meta-analysis found the opposite. Another reason to examine the predictive validity of explicit measures is that implicit and explicit measures of racial attitudes are correlated with each other. Thus, it is important to establish the predictive validity of self-ratings to estimate the incremental predictive validity of the race IAT.
Figure 2 shows the results. The sampling-error model shows a non-zero effect size, but sampling error is large, and the confidence interval includes zero, a = .121, se = .117, 95%CI = -.107 to .350. Effect sizes are also extremely heterogeneous, I2 = 62.37%. The intercept for the squared-sampling-error model is significant, a = .176, se = .071, 95%CI = .036 to .316, but the model does not explain more of the heterogeneity in effect sizes than the squared-sampling-error model, I2 = 63.33%. To remain comparability, I use the squared-sampling error estimate. This confirms Kurdi et al.’s finding that self-ratings have slightly higher predictive validity, but the confidence intervals overlap. For any practical purposes, predictive validity of the race IAT and self-reports is similar. Repeating the moderator analyses that were conducted with the race IAT revealed no notable moderators.
Only 21 of the 60 studies reported information about the correlation between the race IAT and self-report measures. There was no indication of publication bias, and the effect size estimates of the three models converge on an estimate of r ~ .2 (Figure 3). Fortunately, this result can be compared with estimates from large internet studies (Axt, 2017) and a meta-analysis of implicit-explicit correlations (Hofmann et al., 2005). These estimates are a bit higher, r ~ .25. Thus, using an estimate of r = .2 is conservative for a test of the incremental predictive validity of the race IAT.
Incremental Predictive Validity
It is straightforward to estimate the incremental predictive validity of the race IAT and self-reports on the basis of the correlations between race IAT, self-ratings, and criterion variables. However, it is a bit more difficult to provide confidence intervals around these estimates. I used a simulated dataset with missing values to reproduce the correlations and sampling error of the meta-analysis. I then regressed, the criterion on the implicit and explicit variable. The incremental predictive validity for the race IAT was b = .07, se = .02, 95%CI = .03 to .12. This finding implies that the race IAT on average explains less than 1% unique variance in prejudice behavior. The incremental predictive validity of the explicit measure was b = .165, se = .03, 95%CI = .11 to .23. This finding suggests that explicit measures explain between 1 and 4 percent of the variance in prejudice behaviors.
Assuming that there is no shared method variance between implicit and explicit measures and criterion variables and that implicit and explicit measures reflect a common construct, prejudice, it is possible to fit a latent variable model to the correlations among the three indicators of prejudice (Schimmack, 2021). Figure 4 shows the model and the parameter estimates.
According to this model, prejudice has a moderate effect on behavior, b = .307, se = .043. This is consistent with general findings about effects of personality traits on behavior (Epstein, 1973; Funder & Ozer, 1983). The loading of the explicit variable on the prejudice factor implies that .582^2 = 34% of the variance in self-ratings of prejudice is valid variance. The loading of the implicit variable on the prejudice factor implies that .353^2 = 12% of the variance in race IAT scores is valid variance. Notably, similar estimates were obtained with structural equation models of data that are not included in this meta-analysis (Schimmack, 2021). Using data from Cunningham et al., (2001) I estimated .43^2 = 18% valid variance. Using Bar-Anan and Vianello (2018), I estimated .44^2 = 19% valid variance. Using data from Axt, I found .44^2 = 19% valid variance, but 8% of the variance could be attributed to group differences between African American and White participants. Thus, the present meta-analytic results are consistent with the conclusion that no more than 20% of the variance in race IAT scores reflects actual prejudice that can influence behavior.
In sum, incremental predictive validity of the race IAT is low for two reasons. First, prejudice has only modest effects on actual behavior in a specific situation. Second, only a small portion of the variance in race IAT scores is valid.
In the 1990s, social psychologists embraced the idea that behavior is often influenced by processes that occur without conscious awareness. This assumption triggered the implicit revolution (Greenwald & Banaji, 2017). The implicit paradigm provided a simple explanation for low correlations between self-ratings of prejudice and implicit measures of prejudice, r ~ .2. Accordingly, many people are not aware how prejudice their unconscious is. The Implicit Association Test seemed to support this view because participants showed more prejudice on the IAT than on self-report measures. First studies of predictive validity also seemed to support this new model of prejudice (McConnell & Leibold, 2001), and the first meta-analysis suggested that implicit bias has a stronger influence on behavior than self-reported attitudes (Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, & Banaji, 2009, p. 17).
However, the following decade produced many findings that require a reevaluation of the evidence. Greenwald et al. (2009) published the largest test (N = 1057) of predictive validity. This study examined the ability of the race IAT to predict racial bias in the 2008 US presidential election. Although the race IAT was correlated with voting for McCain versus Obama, incremental predictive validity was close to zero and no longer significant when explicit measures were included in the regression model. Then subsequent meta-analyses produced lower estimates of predictive validity and it is no longer clear that predictive validity, especially incremental predictive validity, is high enough to reject the null-hypothesis. Although incremental predictive validity may vary across conditions, no conditions have been identified that show practically significant incremental predictive validity. Unfortunately, IAT proponents continue to make misleading statements based on single studies with small samples. For example, Kurdi et al. claimed that “effect sizes tend to be relatively large in studies on physician–patient interactions” (p. 583). However, this claim was based on a study with just 15 physicians, which makes it impossible to obtain precise effect size estimates about implicit bias effects for physicians.
Beyond Nil-Hypothesis Testing
Just like psychology in general, meta-analyses also suffer from the confusion of nil-hypothesis testing and null-hypothesis testing. The nil-hypothesis is the hypothesis that an effect size is exactly zero. Many methodologists have pointed out that it is rather silly to take the nil-hypothesis at face value because the true effect size is rarely zero (Cohen, 1994). The more important question is whether an effect size is sufficiently different from zero to be theoretically and practically meaningful. As pointed out by Greenwald (1975), effect size estimation has to be complemented with theoretical predictions about effect sizes. However, research on predictive validity of the race IAT lacks clear criteria to evaluate effect size estimates.
As noted in the introduction, there is agreement about the practical importance of statistically small effects for the prediction of discrimination and other prejudiced behaviors. The contentious question is whether the race IAT is a useful measure of dispositions to act prejudiced. Viewed from this perspective, focus on the race IAT is myopic. The real challenge is to develop and validate measures of prejudice. IAT proponents have often dismissed self-reports as invalid, but the actual evidence shows that self-reports have some validity that is at least equal to the validity of the race IAT. Moreover, even distinct self-report measures like the feeling thermometer and the symbolic racism have incremental predictive validity. Thus, prejudice researchers should use a multi-method approach. At present it is not clear that the race IAT can improve the measurement of prejudice (Greenwald et al., 2009; Schimmack, 2021a).
This article introduced a new type of meta-analysis. Rather than trying to find as many vaguely related studies and to code as many outcomes as possible, focused meta-analysis is limited to the main test of the key hypothesis. This approach has several advantages. First, the classic approach creates a large amount of heterogeneity that is unique to a few studies. This noise makes it harder to find real moderators. Second, the inclusion of vaguely related studies may dilute effect sizes. Third, the inclusion of non-focal studies may mask evidence of publication bias that is virtually present in all literatures. Finally, focal meta-analysis are much easier to do and can produce results much faster than the laborious meta-analyses that psychologists are used to. Even when classic meta-analysis exist, they often ignore publication bias. Thus, an important task for the future is to complement existing meta-analysis with focal meta-analysis to ensure that published effect sizes estimates are not diluted by irrelevant studies and not inflated by publication bias.
Enthusiasm about implicit biases has led to interventions that aim to reduce implicit biases. This focus on implicit biases in the real world needs to be reevaluated. First, there is no evidence that prejudice typically operates outside of awareness (Schimmack, 2021a). Second, individual differences in prejudice have only a modest impact on actual behaviors and are difficult to change. Not surprisingly, interventions that focus on implicit bias are not very infective. Rather than focusing on changing individuals’ dispositions, interventions may be more effective by changing situations. In this regard, the focus on internal factors is rather different from the general focus in social psychology on situational factors (Funder & Ozer, 1983). In recent years, it has become apparent that prejudice is often systemic. For example, police training may have a much stronger influence on racial disparities in fatal use of force than individual differences in prejudice of individual officers (Andersen, Di Nota, Boychuk, Schimmack, & Collins, 2021).
The present meta-analysis of the race IAT provides further support for Meissner et al.’s (2019) conclusion that IATs “predictive value for behavioral criteria is weak and their incremental validity over and above self-report measures is negligible” (p. 1). The present meta-analysis provides a quantitative estimate of b = .07. Although researchers can disagree about the importance of small effect sizes, I agree with Meissner that the gains from adding a race IAT to the measurement of prejudice is negligible. Rather than looking for specific contexts in which the race IAT has higher predictive validity, researchers should use a multi-method approach to measure prejudice. The race IAT may be included to further explore its validity, but there is no reason to rely on the race IAT as the single most important measure of individual differences in prejudice.
Funder, D.C., & Ozer, D.J. (1983). Behavior as a function of the situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 107–112.
Kurdi, B., Seitchik, A. E., Axt, J. R., Carroll, T. J., Karapetyan, A., Kaushik, N., et al. (2019). Relationship between the implicit association test and intergroup behavior: a meta-analysis. American Psychologist. 74, 569–586. doi: 10.1037/amp0000364
After I posted this post, I learned about a published meta-analysis and new studies of incidental anchoring by David Shanks and colleagues that came to the same conclusion (Shanks et al., 2020).
“The most expensive car in the world costs $5 million. How much does a new BMW 530i cost?”
According to anchoring theory, information about the most expensive car can lead to higher estimates for the cost of a BMW. Anchoring effects have been demonstrated in many credible studies since the 1970s (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973).
A more controversial claim is that anchoring effects even occur when the numbers are unrelated to the question and presented incidentally (Criticher & Gilovich, 2008). In one study, participants saw a picture of a football player and were asked to guess how likely it is that the player will sack the football player in the next game. The player’s number on jersey was manipulated to be 54 or 94. The study produced a statistically significant result suggesting that a higher number makes people give higher likelihood judgments. This study started a small literature on incidental anchoring effects. A variation on this them are studies that presented numbers so briefly on a computer screen that most participants did not actually see the numbers. This is called subliminal priming. Allegedly, subliminal priming also produced anchoring effects (Mussweiler & Englich (2005).
Since 2011, many psychologists are skeptical whether statistically significant results in published articles can be trusted. The reason is that researchers only published results that supported their theoretical claims even when the claims were outlandish. For example, significant results also suggested that extraverts can foresee where pornographic images are displayed on a computer screen even before the computer randomly selected the location (Bem, 2011). No psychologist, except Bem, believes these findings. More problematic is that many other findings are equally incredible. A replication project found that only 25% of results in social psychology could be replicated (Open Science Collaboration, 2005). So, the question is whether incidental and subliminal anchoring are more like classic anchoring or more like extrasensory perception.
There are two ways to assess the credibility of published results when publication bias is present. One approach is to conduct credible replication studies that are published independent of the outcome of a study. The other approach is to conduct a meta-analysis of the published literature that corrects for publication bias. A recent article used both methods to examine whether incidental anchoring is a credible effect (Kvarven et al., 2020). In this article, the two approaches produced inconsistent results. The replication study produced a non-significant result with a tiny effect size, d = .04 (Klein et al., 2014). However, even with bias-correction, the meta-analysis suggested a significant, small to moderate effect size, d = .40.
The data for the meta-analysis were obtained from an unpublished thesis (Henriksson, 2015). I suspected that the meta-analysis might have coded some studies incorrectly. Therefore, I conducted a new meta-analysis, using the same studies and one new study. The main difference between the two meta-analysis is that I coded studies based on the focal hypothesis test that was used to claim evidence for incidental anchoring. The p-values were then transformed into fisher-z transformed correlations and and sampling error, 1/sqrt(N – 3), based on the sample sizes of the studies.
Whereas the old meta-analysis suggested that there is no publication bias, the new meta-analysis showed a clear relationship between sampling error and effect sizes, b = 1.68, se = .56, z = 2.99, p = .003. Correcting for publication bias produced a non-significant intercept, b = .039, se = .058, z = 0.672, p = .502, suggesting that the real effect size is close to zero.
Figure 1 shows the regression line for this model in blue and the results from the replication study in green. We see that the blue and green lines intersect when sampling error is close to zero. As sampling error increases because sample sizes are smaller, the blue and green line diverge more and more. This shows that effect sizes in small samples are inflated by selection for significance.
However, there is some statistically significant variability in the effect sizes, I2 = 36.60%, p = .035. To further examine this heterogeneity, I conducted a z-curve analysis (Bartos & Schimmack, 2021; Brunner & Schimmack, 2020). A z-curve analysis converts p-values into z-statistics. The histogram of these z-statistics shows publication bias, when z-statistics cluster just above the significance criterion, z = 1.96.
Figure 2 shows a big pile of just significant results. As a result, the z-curve model predicts a large number of non-significant results that are absent. While the published articles have a 73% success rate, the observed discovery rate, the model estimates that the expected discovery rate is only 6%. That is, for every 100 tests of incidental anchoring, only 6 studies are expected to produce a significant result. To put this estimate in context, with alpha = .05, 5 studies are expected to be significant based on chance alone. The 95% confidence interval around this estimate includes 5% and is limited at 26% at the upper end. Thus, researchers who reported significant results did so based on studies with very low power and they needed luck or questionable research practices to get significant results.
A low discovery rate implies a high false positive risk. With an expected discovery rate of 6%, the false discovery risk is 76%. This is unacceptable. To reduce the false discovery risk, it is possible to lower the alpha criterion for significance. In this case, lowering alpha to .005 produces a false discovery risk of 5%. This leaves 5 studies that are significant.
One notable study with strong evidence, z = 3.70, examined anchoring effects for actual car sales. The data came from an actual auction of classic cars. The incidental anchors were the prices of the previous bid for a different vintage car. Based on sales data of 1,477 cars, the authors found a significant effect, b = .15, se = .04 that translates into a standardized effect size of d = .2 (fz = .087). Thus, while this study provides some evidence for incidental anchoring effects in one context, the effect size estimate is also consistent with the broader meta-analysis that effect sizes of incidental anchors are fairly small. Moreover, the incidental anchor in this study is still in the focus of attention and in some way related to the actual bid. Thus, weaker effects can be expected for anchors that are not related to the question at all (a player’s number) or anchors presented outside of awareness.
There is clear evidence that evidence for incidental anchoring cannot be trusted at face value. Consistent with research practices in general, studies on incidental and subliminal anchoring suffer from publication bias that undermines the credibility of the published results. Unbiased replication studies and meta-analysis suggest that incidental anchoring effects are either very small or zero. Thus, there exists currently no empirical support for the notion that irrelevant numeric information can bias numeric judgments. More research on anchoring effects that corrects for publication bias is needed.
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/10.1037/0278-73184.108.40.2067 [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 [Study 3a]
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/10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.11 [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).
Hi Norbert, 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.
After trying several traditional journals that are falsely considered to be prestigious because they have high impact factors, we are proud to announce that our manuscript “Z-curve 2.0: : Estimating Replication Rates and Discovery Rates” has been accepted for publication in Meta-Psychology. We received the most critical and constructive comments of our manuscript during the review process at Meta-Psychology and are grateful for many helpful suggestions that improved the clarity of the final version. Moreover, the entire review process is open and transparent and can be followed when the article is published. Moreover, the article is freely available to anybody interested in Z-Curve.2.0, including users of the zcurve package (https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/zcurve/index.html).
Although the article will be freely available on the Meta-Psychology website, the latest version of the manuscript is posted here is a blog post. Supplementary materials can be found on OSF (https://osf.io/r6ewt/)
Z-curve 2.0: Estimating Replication and Discovery Rates
František Bartoš1,2,*, Ulrich Schimmack3 1 University of Amsterdam 2 Faculty of Arts, Charles University 3 University of Toronto, Mississauga
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: František Bartoš, University of Amsterdam, Department of Psychological Methods, Nieuwe Achtergracht 129-B, 1018 VZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands, email@example.com
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Selection for statistical significance is a well-known factor that distorts the published literature and challenges the cumulative progress in science. Recent replication failures have fueled concerns that many published results are false-positives. Brunner and Schimmack (2020) developed z-curve, a method for estimating the expected replication rate (ERR) – the predicted success rate of exact replication studies based on the mean power after selection for significance. This article introduces an extension of this method, z-curve 2.0. The main extension is an estimate of the expected discovery rate (EDR) – the estimate of a proportion that the reported statistically significant results constitute from all conducted statistical tests. This information can be used to detect and quantify the amount of selection bias by comparing the EDR to the observed discovery rate (ODR; observed proportion of statistically significant results). In addition, we examined the performance of bootstrapped confidence intervals in simulation studies. Based on these results, we created robust confidence intervals with good coverage across a wide range of scenarios to provide information about the uncertainty in EDR and ERR estimates. We implemented the method in the zcurve R package (Bartoš & Schimmack, 2020).
It has been known for decades that the published record in scientific journals is not representative of all studies that are conducted. For a number of reasons, most published studies are selected because they reported a theoretically interesting result that is statistically significant; p < .05 (Rosenthal & Gaito, 1964; Scheel, Schijen, & Lakens, 2021; Sterling, 1959; Sterling et al., 1995). This selective publishing of statistically significant results introduces a bias in the published literature. At the very least, published effect sizes are inflated. In the most extreme cases, a false-positive result is supported by a large number of statistically significant results (Rosenthal, 1979).
Some sciences (e.g., experimental psychology) tried to reduce the risk of false-positive results by demanding replication studies in multiple-study articles (cf. Wegner, 1992). However, internal replication studies provided a false sense of replicability because researchers used questionable research practices to produce successful internal replications (Francis, 2014; John, Lowenstein, & Prelec, 2012; Schimmack, 2012). The pervasive presence of publication bias at least partially explains replication failures in social psychology (Open Science Collaboration, 2015; Pashler & Wagenmakers, 2012, Schimmack, 2020); medicine (Begley & Ellis, 2012; Prinz, Schlange, & Asadullah 2011), and economics (Camerer et al., 2016; Chang & Li, 2015).
In meta-analyses, the problem of publication bias is usually addressed by one of the different methods for its detection and a subsequent adjustment of effect size estimates. However, many of them (Egger, Smith, Schneider, & Minder, 1997; Ioannidis and Trikalinos, 2007; Schimmack, 2012) perform poorly under conditions of heterogeneity (Renkewitz & Keiner, 2019), whereas others employ a meta-analytic model assuming that the studies are conducted on a single phenomenon (e.g., Hedges, 1992; Vevea & Hedges, 1995; Maier, Bartoš & Wagenmakers, in press). Moreover, while the aforementioned methods test for publication bias (return a p-value or a Bayes factor), they usually do not provide a quantitative estimate of selection bias. An exception would be the publication probabilities/ratios estimates from selection models (e.g., Hedges, 1992). Maximum likelihood selection models work well when the distribution of effect sizes is consistent with model assumptions, but can be biased when the distribution when the actual distribution does not match the expected distribution (e.g., Brunner & Schimmack, 2020; Hedges, 1992; Vevea & Hedges, 1995). Brunner and Schimmack (2020) introduced a new method that does not require a priori assumption about the distribution of effect sizes. The z-curve method uses a finite mixture model to correct for selection bias. We extended z-curve to also provide information about the amount of selection bias. To distinguish between the new and old z-curve methods, we refer to the old z-curve as z-curve 1.0 and the new z-curve as z-curve 2.0. Z-curve 2.0 has been implemented in the open statistic program R as the zcurve package that can be downloaded from CRAN (Bartoš & Schimmack, 2020).
Before we introduce z-curve 2.0, we would like to introduce some key statistical terms. We assume that readers are familiar with the basic concepts of statistical significance testing; normal distribution, null-hypothesis, alpha, type-I error, and false-positive result (see Bartoš & Maier, in press, for discussion of some of those concepts and their relation).
Power is defined as the long-run relative frequency of statistically significant results in a series of exact replication studies with the same sample size when the null-hypothesis is false. For example, in a study with two groups (n = 50), a population effect size of Cohen’s d = 0.4 has 50.8% power to produce a statistically significant result. Thus, 100 replications of this study are expected to produce approximately 50 statistically significant results. The actual frequency will approach 50.8% as the study is repeated infinitely.
Unconditional power extends the concept of power to studies where the null-hypothesis is true. Typically, power is a conditional probability assuming a non-zero effect size (i.e., the null-hypothesis is false). However, the long-run relative frequency of statistically significant results is also known when the null-hypothesis is true. In this case, the long-run relative frequency is determined by the significance criterion, alpha. With alpha = 5%, we expect that 5 out of 100 studies will produce a statistically significant result. We use the term unconditional power to refer to the long-run frequency of statistically significant results without conditioning on a true effect. When the effect size is zero and alpha is 5%, unconditional power is 5%. As we only consider unconditional power in this article, we will use the term power to refer to unconditional power, just like Canadians use the term hockey to refer to ice hockey.
Mean (unconditional) power is a summary statistic of studies that vary in power. Mean power is simply the arithmetic mean of the power of individual studies. For example, two studies with power = .4 and power = .6, have a mean power of .5.
Discovery rate is a relative frequency of statistically significant results. Following Soric (1989), we call statistically significant results discoveries. For example, if 100 studies produce 36 statistically significant results, the discovery rate is 36%. Importantly, the discovery rate does not distinguish between true or false discoveries. If only false-positive results were reported, the discovery rate would be 100%, but none of the discoveries would reflect a true effect (Rosenthal, 1979).
Selection bias is a process that favors the publication of statistically significant results. Consequently, the published literature has a higher percentage of statistically significant results than was among the actually conducted studies. It results from significance testing that creates two classes of studies separated by the significance criterion alpha. Those with a statistically significant result, p < .05, where the null-hypothesis is rejected, and those with a statistically non-significant result, where the null-hypothesis is not rejected, p > .05. Selection for statistical significance limits the population of all studies that were conducted to the population of studies with statistically significant results. For example, if two studies produce p-values of .20 and .01, only the study with the p-value .01 is retained. Selection bias is often called publication bias. Studies show that authors are more likely to submit findings for publication when the results are statistically significant (Franco, Malhotra & Simonovits, 2014).
Observed discovery rate (ODR) is the percentage of statistically significant results in an observed set of studies. For example, if 100 published studies have 80 statistically significant results, the observed discovery rate is 80%. The observed discovery rate is higher than the true discovery rate when selection bias is present.
Expected discovery rate (EDR) is the mean power before selection for significance; in other words, the mean power of all conducted studies with statistically significant and non-significant results. As power is the long-run relative frequency of statistically significant results, the mean power before selection for significance is the expected relative frequency of statistically significant results. As we call statistically significant results discoveries, we refer to the expected percentage of statistically significant results as the expected discovery rate. For example, if we have two studies with power of .05 and .95, we are expecting 1 statistically significant result and an EDR of 50%, (.95 + .05)/2 = .5.
Expected replication rate (ERR) is the mean power after selection for significance, in other words, the mean power of only the statistically significant studies. Furthermore, since most people would declare a replication successful only if it produces a result in the same direction, we base ERR on the power to obtain a statistically significant result in the same direction. Using the prior example, we assume that the study with 5% power produced a statistically non-significant result and the study with 95% power produced a statistically significant result. In this case, we end up with only one statistically significant result with 95% power. Subsequently, the mean power after selection for significance is 95% (there is almost zero chance that a study with 95% power would produce replication with an outcome in the opposite direction). Based on this estimate, we would predict that 95% of exact replications of this study with the same sample size, and therefore with 95% power, will be statistically significant in the same direction.
As mean power after selection for significance predicts the relative frequency of statistically significant results in replication studies, we call it the expected replication rate. The ERR also corresponds to the “aggregate replication probability” discussed by Miller (2009).
Before introducing the formal model, we illustrate the concepts with a fictional example. In the example, researchers test 100 true hypotheses with 100% power (i.e., every test of a true hypothesis produces p < .05) and 100 false hypotheses (H0 is true) with 5% power which is determined by alpha = .05. Consequently, the researchers obtain 100 true positive results and 5 false-positive results, for a total of 105 statistically significant results. The expected discovery rate is (1 × 100 + 0.05 × 100)/(100 + 100) = 105/200 = 52.5% which corresponds to the observed discovery rate when all conducted studies are reported.
So far, we have assumed that there is no selection bias. However, let us now assume that 50 of the 95 statistically non-significant results are not reported. In this case, the observed discovery rate increased from 105/200 to 105/150 = 70%. The discrepancy between the EDR, 52.5%, and the ODR, 70%, provides quantitative information about the amount of selection bias.
As shown, the EDR provides valuable information about the typical power of studies and about the presence of selection bias. However, it does not provide information about the replicability of the statistically significant results. The reason is that studies with higher power are more likely to produce a statistically significant result in replications (Brunner & Schimmack, 2020; Miller, 2009). The main purpose of z-curve 1.0 was to estimate the mean power after selection for significance to predict the outcome of exact replication studies. In the example, only 5 of the 100 false hypotheses were statistically significant. In contrast, all 100 tests of the true hypothesis were statistically significant. This means that the mean power after selection for significance is (5 × .025 + 100 × 1)/(5 + 100) = 100.125/105 ≈ 95.4%, which is the expected replication rate.
Unfortunately, there is no standard symbol for power, which is usually denoted as 1 – β, with β being the probability of a type-II error. We propose to use epsilon, ε, as a Greek symbol for power because one Greek word for power starts with this letter (εξουσία). We further add subscript 1 or 2, depending on whether the direction of the outcome is relevant or not. Therefore, denotes power of a study regardless of the direction of the outcome and denotes power of a study in a specified direction.
is defined as the mean power (ε2) of a set of K studies, independent on the outcome direction.
Following Brunner and Schimmack (2020), the expected replication rate (ERR) is defined as the ratio of mean squared power and mean power of all studies, statistically significant and non-significant ones. We modify the definition here by taking the direction of the replication study into account. The mean square power in the nominator is used because we are computing the expected relative frequency of statistically significant studies produced by a set of already statistically significant studies – if a study produces a statistically significant result with probability equal to its power, the chance that the same study will again be significant is power squared. The mean power in the denominator is used because we are restricting our selection to only already statistically significant studies which are produced at the rate corresponding to their power (see also Miller, 2009). The ratio simplifies by omitting division by K in both the nominator and denominator to:
which can also be read as a weighted mean power, where each power is weighted by itself. The weights originate from the fact that studies with higher power are more likely to produce statistically significant results. The weighted mean power of all studies is therefore equal to the unweighted mean power of the studies selected for significance (ksig; cf. Brunner & Schimmack, 2020).
If we have a set of studies with the same power (e.g., set of exact replications with the same sample size) that test for an effect with a z-test, the p-values converted to z-statistics follow a normal distribution with mean and a standard deviation equal to 1. Using an alpha level α, the power is the tail area of a standard normal distribution (Φ) centered over a mean, (μz) on the left and right side of the z-scores corresponding to alpha, -1.96 and 1.96 (with the usual alpha = .05),
or the tail area on the right side of the z-score corresponding to alpha, when we are also considering whether the directionality of the effect,
Two-sided p-values do not preserve the direction of the deviation from null and we cannot know whether a z-statistic comes from the lower or upper tail of the distribution. Therefore, we work with absolute values of z-statistics, changing their distribution from normal to folded normal distribution (Elandt, 1961; Leone, Nelson, & Nottingham, 1961).
Figure 1 illustrates the key concepts of z-curve with various examples. The first three density plots in the first row show the sampling distributions for studies with low (ε = 0.3), medium (ε = 0.5), and high (ε = .8) power, respectively. The last density plots illustrate the distribution that is obtained for a mixture of studies with low, medium, and high power with equal frequency (33.3% each). It is noteworthy that all four density distributions have different shapes. While Figure 1 illustrates how differences in power produce differences in the shape of the distributions, z-curve works backward and uses the shape of the distribution to estimate power.
Figure 1. Density (y-axis) of z-statistics (x-axis) generated by studies with different powers (columns) across different stages of the publication process (rows). The first row shows a distribution of z-statistics from z-tests homogeneous in power (the first three columns) or by their mixture (the fourth column). The second row shows only statistically significant z-statistics. The third row visualizes EDR as a proportion of statistically significant z-statistics out of all z-statistics. The fourth row shows a distribution of z-statistics from exact replications of only the statistically significant studies (dashed line for non-significant replication studies). The fifth row visualizes ERR as a proportion of statistically significant exact replications out of statistically significant studies.
Although z-curve can be used to fit the distributions in the first row, we assume that the observed distribution of all z-statistics is distorted by the selection bias. Even if some statistically non-significant p-values are reported, their distribution is subject to unknown selection effects. Therefore, by default z-curve assumes that selection bias is present and uses only the distribution of statistically significant results. This changes the distributions of z-statistics to folded normal distributions that are truncated at the z-score corresponding to the significance criterion, which is typically z = 1.96 for p = .05 (two-tailed). The second row in Figure 1 shows these truncated folded normal distributions. Importantly, studies with different levels of power produce different distributions despite the truncation. The different shapes of truncated distributions make it possible to estimate power by fitting a model to the truncated distribution. The third row of Figure 1 illustrates the EDR as a proportion of statistically significant studies from all conducted studies. We use Equation 3 to re-express EDR (Equation 2), which equals the mean unconditional power, of a set of K heterogenous studies using the means of sampling distributions of their z-statistics, μz,k,
Z-curve makes it possible to estimate the shape of the distribution in the region of statistically non-significant results on the basis of the observed distribution of statistically significant results. That is, after fitting a model to the grey area of the curve, it extrapolates the full distribution.
The fourth row of Figure 1 visualizes a distribution of expected z-statistics if the statistically significant studies were to be exactly replicated (not depicting the small proportion of results in the opposite direction than the original, significant, result). The full line highlights the portion of studies that would produce a statistically significant result, with the distribution of statistically non-significant studies drawn using the dashed line. An exact replication with the same sample size of the studies in the grey area in the second row is not expected to reproduce the truncated distribution again because truncation is a selection process. The replication distribution is not truncated and produces statistically significant and non-significant results. By modeling the selection process, z-curve predicts the non-truncated distributions in the fourth row from the truncated distributions in the second row.
The fifth row of Figure 1 visualizes ERR as a proportion of statistically significant exact replications in the expected direction from a set of the previously statistically significant studies. The ERR (Equation 1) of a set ofheterogeneous studies can be again re-expressed using Equations 3 and 4 with the means of sampling distributions of their z-statistics,
Z-curve is a finite mixture model (Brunner & Schimmack, 2020). Finite mixture models leverage the fact that an observed distribution of statistically significant z-statistics is a mixture of K truncated folded normal distribution with means and standard deviations 1. Instead of trying to estimate of every single observed z-statistic, a finite mixture model approximates the observed distribution based on K studies with a smaller set of J truncated folded normal distributions, , with J < K components,
Each mixture component j approximates a proportion of observed z-statistics with a probability density function, , of truncated folded normal distribution with parameters – a mean and standard deviation equal to 1. For example, while actual studies may vary in power from 40% to 60%, a mixture model may represent all of these studies with a single component with 50% power.
Z-curve 1.0 used three components with varying means. Extensive testing showed that varying means produced poor estimates of the EDR. Therefore, we switched to models with fixed means and increased the number of components to seven. The seven components are equally spaced by one standard deviation from z = 0 (power = alpha) to 6 (power ~ 1). As power for z-scores greater than 6 is essentially 1, it is not necessary to model the distribution of z-scores greater than 6, and all z-scores greater than 6 are assigned a power value of 1 (Brunner & Schimmack, 2020). The power values implied by the 7 components are .05, .17, .50, .85, .98, .999, .99997. We also tried a model with equal spacing of power, and we tried models with fewer or more components, but neither did improve performance in simulation studies.
We use the model parameter estimates to compute the estimated the EDR and ERR as the weighted average of seven truncated folded normal distributions centered over z = 0 to 6,
Z-curve 1.0 used an unorthodox approach to find the best fitting model that required fitting a truncated kernel-density distribution to the statistically significant z-statistics (Brunner & Schimmack, 2020). This is a non-trivial step that may produce some systematic bias in estimates. Z-curve 2.0 makes it possible to fit the model directly to the observed z-statistics using the well-established expectation maximization (EM) algorithm that is commonly used to fit mixture models (Dempster, Laird, & Rubin, 1977, Lee & Scott, 2012). Using the EM algorithm has the advantage that it is a well-validated method to fit mixture models. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the mechanics of the EM algorithm (cf. Bishop, 2006), but it is important to point out some of its potential limitations. The main limitation is that it may terminate the search for the best fit before the best fitting model has been found. In order to prevent this, we run 20 searches with randomly selected starting values and terminate the algorithm in the first 100 iterations, or if the criterion falls below 1e-3. We then select the outcome with the highest likelihood value and continue until 1000 iterations or a criterion value of 1e-5 is reached. To speed up the fitting process, we optimized the procedure using Rcpp (Eddelbuettel et al., 2011).
Information about point estimates should be accompanied by information about uncertainty whenever possible. The most common way to do so is by providing confidence intervals. We followed the common practice of using bootstrapping to obtain confidence intervals for mixture models (Ujeh et al., 2016). As bootstrapping is a resource-intensive process, we used 500 samples for the simulation studies. Users of the z-curve package can use more iterations to analyze actual data.
Brunner and Schimmack (2020) compared several methods for estimating mean power and found that z-curve performed better than three competing methods. However, these simulations were limited to the estimation of the ERR. Here we present new simulation studies to examine the performance of z-curve as a method to estimate the EDR as well. One simulation directly simulated power distributions, the other one simulated t-tests. We report the detailed results of both simulation studies in a Supplement. For the sake of brevity, we focus on the simulation of t-tests because readers can more easily evaluate the realism of these simulations. Moreover, most tests in psychology are t-tests or F-tests and Bruner and Schimmack (2020) already showed that the numerator degrees of freedom of F-tests do not influence results. Thus, the results for t-tests can be generalized to F-tests and z-tests.
The simulation was a complex 4 x 4 x 4 x 3 x 3 design with 576 cells. The first factor of the design that was manipulated was the mean effect size with Cohen’s ds ranging from 0 to 0.6 (0, 0.2, 0.4., 0.6). The second factor in the design was heterogeneity in effect sizes was simulated with a normal distribution around the mean effect size with SDs ranging from 0 to 0.6 (0, 0.2, 0.4., 0.6). Preliminary analysis with skewed distributions showed no influence of skew. The third factor of the design was sample size for between-subject design with N = 50, 100, and 200. The fourth factor of the design was the percentage of true null-hypotheses that ranged from 0 to 60% (0%, 20%, 40%, 60%). The last factor of the design was the number of studies with sets of k = 100, 300, and 1,000 statistically significant studies.
Each cell of the design was run 100 times for a total of 57,600 simulations. For the main effects of this design there were 57,600 / 4 = 14,400 or 57,600 / 3 = 19,200 simulations. Even for two-way interaction effects, the number of simulations is sufficient, 57,600 / 16 = 3,600. For higher interactions the design may be underpowered to detect smaller effects. Thus, our simulation study meets recommendations for sample sizes in simulation studies for main effects and two-way interactions, but not for more complex interaction effects (Morris, White, & Crowther, 2019). The code for the simulations is accessible at https://osf.io/r6ewt/.
For a comprehensive evaluation of z-curve 2.0 estimates, we report bias (i.e., mean distance between estimated and true values), root mean square error (RMSE; quantifying the error variance of the estimator), and confidence interval coverage (Morris et al. 2019). To check the performance of the z-curve across different simulation settings, we analyzed the results of the factorial design using analyses of variance (ANOVAs) for continuous measures and logistic regression for the evaluation of confidence intervals (0 = true value not in the interval, 1 = true value in the interval). The analysis scripts and results are accessible at https://osf.io/r6ewt/.
We start with the ERR because it is essentially a conceptual replication study of Brunner and Schimmack’s (2020) simulation studies with z-curve 1.0.
Visual inspection of the z-curves ERR estimates plotted against the true ERR values did not show any pathological behavior due to the approximation by a finite mixture model (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Estimated (y-axis) vs. true (x-axis) ERR in simulation U across a different number of studies.
Figure 3 shows that even with k = 100 studies, z-curve estimates are clustered close enough to the true values to provide useful predictions about the replicability of sets of studies. Overall bias was less than one percentage point, -0.88 (SEMCMC = 0.04). This confirms that z-curve has high large-sample accuracy (Brunner & Schimmack, 2020). RMSE decreased from 5.14 (SEMCMC = 0.03) percentage points with k = 100 to 2.21 (SEMCMC = 0.01) percentage points with k = 1,000. Thus, even with relatively small sample sizes of 100 studies, z-curve can provide useful information about the ERR.
The Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) showed no statistically significant 5-way interaction or 4-way interactions. A strong three-way interaction was found for effect size, heterogeneity of effect sizes, and sample size, z = 9.42. Despite the high statistical significance, effect sizes were small. Out of the 36 cells of the 4 x 3 x 3 design, 32 cells showed less than one percentage point bias. Larger biases were found when effect sizes were large, heterogeneity was low, and sample sizes were small. The largest bias was found for Cohen’s d = 0.6, SD = 0, and N = 50. In this condition, ERR was 4.41 (SEMCMC = 0.11) percentage points lower than the true replication rate. The finding that z-curve performs worse with low heterogeneity replicates findings by Brunner and Schimmack (2002). One reason could be that a model with seven components can easily be biased when most parameters are zero. The fixed components may also create a problem when true power is between two fixed levels. Although a bias of 4 percentage points is not ideal, it also does not undermine the value of a model that has very little bias across a wide range of scenarios.
The number of studies had a two-way interaction with effect size, z = 3.8, but bias in the 12 cells of the 4 x 3 design was always less than 2 percentage points. Overall, these results confirm the fairly good large sample accuracy of the ERR estimates.
We used logistic regression to examine patterns in the coverage of the 95% confidence intervals. This time a statistically significant four-way interaction emerged for effect size, heterogeneity of effect sizes, sample size, and the percentage of true null-hypotheses, z = 10.94. Problems mirrored the results for bias. Coverage was low when there were no true null-hypotheses, no heterogeneity in effect sizes, large effects, and small sample sizes. Coverage was only 31.3% (SEMCMC = 2.68) when the percentage of true H0 was 0, heterogeneity of effect sizes was 0, the effect size was Cohen’s d = 0.6, and the sample size was N = 50.
In statistics, it is common to replace confidence intervals that fail to show adequate coverage with confidence intervals that provide good coverage with real data; these confidence intervals are often called robust confidence intervals (Royall, 1996). We suspected that low coverage was related to systematic bias. When confidence intervals are drawn around systematically biased estimates, they are likely to miss the true effect size by the amount of systematic bias, when sampling error pushes estimates in the same direction as the systematic bias. To increase coverage, it is therefore necessary to take systematic bias into account. We created robust confidence intervals by adding three percentage points on each side. This is very conservative because the bias analysis would suggest that only adjustment in one direction is needed.
The logistic regression analysis still showed some statistically significant variation in coverage. The most notable finding was a 2-way interaction for effect size and sample size, z = 4.68. However, coverage was at 95% or higher for all 12 cells of the design. Further inspection showed that the main problem remained scenarios with high effect sizes (d = 0.6) and no heterogeneity (SD = 0), but even with small heterogeneity, SD = 0.2, this problem disappeared. We therefore recommend extending confidence intervals by three percentage points. This is the default setting in the z-curve package, but the package allows researchers to change these settings. Moreover, in meta-analyses of studies with low heterogeneity, alternative methods that are more appropriate for homogeneous methods (e.g., selection models; Hedges, 1992) may be used or the number of components could be reduced.
Visual inspection of EDRs plotted against the true discovery rates (Figure 4) showed a noticeable increase in uncertainty. This is to be expected as EDR estimates require estimation of the distribution for statistically non-significant z-statistics solely on the basis of the distribution of statistically significant results.
Figure 4. Estimated (y-axis) vs. true (x-axis) EDR across a different number of studies.
Despite the high variability in estimates, they can be useful. With the observed discovery rate in psychology being often over 90% (Sterling, 1959), many of these estimates would alert readers that selection bias is present. A bigger problem is that the highly variable EDR estimates might lack the power to detect selection bias in small sets of studies.
Across all studies, systematic bias was small, 1.42 (SEMCMC = 0.08) for 100 studies, 0.57 (SEMCMC = 0.06) for 300 studies, 0.16 (SEMCMC = 0.05) percentage points for 1000 studies. This shows that the shape of the distribution of statistically significant results does provide valid information about the shape of the full distribution. Consistent with Figure 4, RMSE values were large and remained fairly large even with larger number of studies, 11.70 (SEMCMC = 0.11) for 100 studies, 8.88 (SEMCMC = 0.08) for 300 studies, 6.49 (SEMCMC = 0.07) percentage points for 1000 studies. These results show how costly selection bias is because more precise estimates of the discovery rate would be available without selection bias.
The main consequence of high RMSE is that confidence intervals are expected to be wide. The next analysis examined whether confidence intervals have adequate coverage. This was not the case; coverage = 87.3% (SEMCMC = 0.14). We next used logistic regression to examine patterns in coverage in our simulation design. A notable 3-way interaction between effect size, sample size, and percentage of true H0 was present, z = 3.83. While the pattern was complex, not a single cell of the design showed coverage over 95%.
As before, we created robust confidence intervals by extending the interval. We settled for an extension by five percentage points. The 3-way interaction remained statistically significant, z = 3.36. Now 43 of the 48 cells showed coverage over 95%. For reasons that are not clear to us, the main problem occurred for an effect size of Cohen’s d = 0.4 and no true H0, independent of sample size. While improving the performance of z-curve remains an important goal and future research might find better approaches to address this problem, for now, we recommend using z-curve 2.0 with these robust confidence intervals, but users can specify more conservative adjustments.
Application to Real Data
It is not easy to evaluate the performance of z-curve 2.0 estimates with actual data because selection bias is ubiquitous and direct replication studies are fairly rare (Zwaan, Etz, Lucas, & Donnellan, 2018). A notable exception is the Open Science Collaboration project that replicated 100 studies from three psychology journals (Open Science Collaboration, 2015). This unprecedented effort has attracted attention within and outside of psychological science and the article has already been cited over 1,000 times. The key finding was that out of 97 statistically significant results, including marginally significant ones, only 36 replication studies (37%) reproduced a statistically significant result in the replication attempts.
This finding has produced a wide range of reactions. Often the results are cited as evidence for a replication crisis in psychological science, especially social psychology (Schimmack, 2020). Others argue that the replication studies were poorly carried out and that many of the original results are robust findings (Bressan, 2019). This debate mirrors other disputes about failures to replicate original results. The interpretation of replication studies is often strongly influenced by researchers’ a priori beliefs. Thus, they rarely settle academic disputes. Z-curve analysis can provide valuable information to determine whether an original or a replication study is more trustworthy. If a z-curve analysis shows no evidence for selection bias and a high ERR, it is likely that the original result is credible and the replication failure is a false negative result or the replication study failed to reproduce the original experiment. On the other hand, if there is evidence for selection bias and the ERR is low, replication failures are expected because the original results were obtained with questionable research practices.
Another advantage of z-curve analyses of published results is that it is easier to obtain large representative samples of studies than to conduct actual replication studies. To illustrate the usefulness of z-curve analyses, we focus on social psychology because this field has received the most attention from meta-psychologists (Schimmack, 2020). We fitted z-curve 2.0 to two studies of published test statistics from social psychology and compared these results to the actual success rate in the Open Science Collaboration project (k = 55).
One sample is based on Motyl et al.’s (2017) assessment of the replicability of social psychology (k = 678). The other sample is based on the coding of the most highly cited articles by social psychologists with a high H-Index (k = 2,208; Schimmack, 2021). The ERR estimates were 44%, 95% CI [35, 52]%, and 51%, 95% CI [45, 56]%. The two estimates do not differ significantly from each other, but both estimates are considerably higher than the actual discovery rate in the OSC replication project, 25%, 95% CI [13, 37]%. We postpone the discussion of this discrepancy to the discussion section.
The EDRs estimates were 16%, 95% CI [5, 32]%, and 14%, 95% CI [7, 23]%. Again, both of the estimates overlap and do not significantly differ. At the same time, the EDR estimates are much lower than the ODRs in these two data sets (90%, 89%). The z-curve analysis of published results in social psychology shows a strong selection bias that explains replication failures in actual replication attempts. Thus, the z-curve analysis reveals that replication failures cannot be attributed to problems of the replication attempts. Instead, the low EDR estimates show that many non-significant original results are missing from the published record.
A previous article introduced z-curve as a viable method to estimate mean power after selection for significance (Brunner & Schimmack, 2020). This is a useful statistic because it predicts the success rate of exact replication studies. We therefore call this statistic the expected replication rate. Studies with a high replication rate provide credible evidence for a phenomenon. In contrast, studies with a low replication rate are untrustworthy and require additional evidence.
We extended z-curve 1.0 in two ways. First, we implemented the expectation maximization algorithm to fit the mixture model to the observed distribution of z-statistics. This is a more conventional method to fit mixture models. We found that this method produces good estimates, but it did not eliminate some of the systematic biases that were observed with z-curve 1.0. More important, we extended z-curve to estimate the mean power before selection for significance. We call this statistic the expected discovery rate because mean power predicts the percentage of statistically significant results for a set of studies. We found that EDR estimates have satisfactory large sample accuracy, but vary widely in smaller sets of studies. This limits the usefulness for meta-analysis of small sets of studies, but as we demonstrated with actual data, the results are useful when a large set of studies is available. The comparison of the EDR and ODR can also be used to assess the amount of selection bias. A low EDR can also help researchers to realize that they test too many false hypotheses or test true hypotheses with insufficient power.
In contrast to Miller (2009), who stipulates that estimating the ERR (“aggregated replication probability”) is unattainable due to selection processes, Schimmack and Brunner’s (2020) z-curve 1.0 addresses the issue by modeling the selection for significance.
Finally, we examined the performance of bootstrapped confidence intervals in simulation studies. We found that coverage for 95% confidence intervals was sometimes below 95%. To improve the coverage of confidence intervals, we created robust confidence intervals that added three percentage points to the confidence interval of the ERR and five percentage points to the confidence interval of the EDR.
We demonstrate the usefulness of the EDR and confidence intervals with an example from social psychology. We find that ERR overestimates the actual replicability in social psychology. We also find clear evidence that power in social psychology is low and that high success rates are mostly due to selection for significance. It is noteworthy that while the Motyl et al.’s (2017) dataset is representative for social psychology, Schimmack’s (2021) dataset sampled highly influential articles. The fact that both sampling procedures produced similar results suggests that studies by eminent researchers or studies with high citation rates are no more replicable than other studies published in social psychology.
Z-curve 2.0 does provide additional valuable information that was not provided by z-curve 1.0. Moreover, z-curve 2.0 is available as an R-package, making it easier for researchers to conduct z-curve analyses (Bartoš & Schimmack, 2020). This article provides the theoretical background for the use of the z-curve package. Subsequently, we discuss some potential limitations of z-curve 2.0 analysis and compare z-curve 2.0 to other methods that aim to estimate selection bias or power of studies.
Bias Detection Methods
In theory, bias detection is as old as meta-analysis. The first bias test showed that Mendel’s genetic experiments with peas had less sampling error than a statistical model would predict (Pires & Branco, 2010). However, when meta-analysis emerged as a widely used tool to integrate research findings, selection bias was often ignored. Psychologists focused on fail-safe N (Rosenthal, 1979), which did not test for the presence of bias and often led to false conclusions about the credibility of a result (Ferguson & Heene, 2012). The most common tools to detect bias rely on correlations between effect sizes and sample size. A key problem with this approach is that it often has low power and that results are not trustworthy under conditions of heterogeneity (Inzlicht, Gervais, & Berkman, 2015; Renkewitz & Keiner, 2019). The tests are also not useful for meta-analysis of heterogeneous sets of studies where researchers use larger samples to study smaller effects, which also introduces a correlation between effect sizes and sample sizes. Due to these limitations, evidence of bias has been dismissed as inconclusive (Cunningham & Baumeister, 2016; Inzlicht & Friese; 2019).
It is harder to dismiss evidence of bias when a set of published studies has more statistically significant results than the power of the studies warrants; that is, the ODR exceeds the EDR (Sterling et al., 1995). Aside from z-curve 2.0, there are two other bias tests that rely on a comparison of the ODR and EDR to evaluate the presence of selection bias, namely the Test of Excessive Significance (TES, Ioannidis & Trikalinos, 2005) and the Incredibility Test (IT; Schimmack, 2012).
Z-curve 2.0 has several advantages over the existing methods. First, TES was explicitly designed for meta-analysis with little heterogeneity and may produce biased results when heterogeneity is present (Renkewitz & Keiner, 2019). Second, both the TES and the IT take observed power at face value. As observed power is inflated by selection for significance, the tests have low power to detect selection for significance, unless the selection bias is large. Finally, TES and IT rely on p-values to provide information about bias. As a result, they do not provide information about the amount of selection bias.
Z-curve 2.0 overcomes these problems by correcting the power estimate for selection bias, providing quantitative evidence about the amount of bias by comparing the ODR and EDR, and by providing evidence about statistical significance by means of a confidence interval around the EDR estimate. Thus, z-curve 2.0 is a valuable tool for meta-analysts, especially when analyzing a large sample of heterogenous studies that vary widely in designs and effect sizes. As we demonstrated with our example, the EDR of social psychology studies is very low. This information is useful because it alerts readers to the fact that not all p-values below .05 reveal a true and replicable finding.
Nevertheless, z-curve has some limitations. One limitation is that it does not distinguish between significant results with opposite signs. In the presence of multiple tests of the same hypothesis with opposite signs, researchers can exclude inconsistent significant results and estimate z-curve on the basis of significant results with the correct sign. However, the selection of tests by the meta-analyst introduces additional selection bias, which has to be taken into account in the comparison of the EDR and ODR. Another limitation is the assumption that all studies used the same alpha criterion (.05) to select for significance. This possibility can be explored by conducting multiple z-curve analyses with different selection criteria (e.g., .05, .01). The use of lower selection criteria is also useful because some questionable research practices produce a cluster of just significant results. However, all statistical methods can only produce estimates that come with some uncertainty. When severe selection bias is present, new studies are needed to provide credible evidence for a phenomenon.
Predicting Replication Outcomes
Since 2011, many psychologists have learned that published significant results can have a low replication probability (Open Science Collaboration, 2015). This makes it difficult to trust the published literature, especially older articles that report results from studies with small samples that were not pre-registered. Should these results be disregarded because they might have been obtained with questionable research practices? Should results only be trusted if they have been replicated in a new, ideally pre-registered, replication study? Or should we simply assume that most published results are probably true and continue to treat every p-value below .05 as a true discovery?
The appeal of z-curve is that we can use the published evidence to distinguish between credible and “incredible” (biased) statistically significant results. If a meta-analysis shows low selection bias and a high replication rate, the results are credible. If a meta-analysis shows high selection bias and a low replication rate, the results are incredible and require independent verification.
As appealing as this sounds, every method needs to be validated before it can be applied to answer substantive questions. This is also true for z-curve 2.0. We used the results from the OSC replicability project for this purpose. The results suggest that z-curve predictions of replication rates may be overly optimistic. While the expected replication rate was between 44% and 51% (35% – 56% CI range), the actual success rate was only 25%, 95% CI [13, 37]%. Thus, it is important to examine why z-curve estimates are higher than the actual replication rate in the OSC project.
One possible explanation is that there is a problem with the replication studies. Social psychologists quickly criticized the quality of the replication studies (Gilbert, King, Pettigrew, & Wilson, 2016). In response, the replication team conducted the new replications of contested replication studies. Based on the effect sizes in these much larger replication studies, not a single original study would have produced statistically significant results (Ebersole et al., 2020). It is therefore unlikely that the quality of replication studies explains the low success rate of replication studies in social psychology.
A more interesting explanation is that social psychological phenomena are not as stable as boiling distilled water under tightly controlled laboratory conditions. Rather, effect sizes vary across populations, experimenters, times of day, and a myriad of other factors that are difficult to control (Stroebe & Strack, 2014). In this case, selection for significance produces additional regression to the mean because statistically significant results were obtained with the help of favorable hidden moderators that produced larger effect sizes that are unlikely to be present again in a direct replication study.
The worst-case scenario is that studies that were selected for significance are no more powerful than studies that produced statistically non-significant results. In this case, the EDR predicts the outcome of actual replication studies. Consistent with this explanation, the actual replication rate of 25%, 95% CI [13, 37]%, was highly consistent with the EDR estimates of 16%, 95% CI [5, 32]%, and 14%, 95% CI [7, 23]%. More research is needed once more replication studies become available to see how closely actual replication rates are to the EDR and the ERR. For now, they should be considered the worst and the best possible scenarios and actual replication rates are expected to fall somewhere between these two estimates.
A third possibility for the discrepancy is that questionable research practices change the shape of the z-curve in ways that are different from a simple selection model. For example, if researchers have several statistically significant results and pick the highest one, the selection model underestimates the amount of selection that occurred. This can bias z-curve estimates and inflate the ERR and EDR estimates. Unfortunately, it is also possible that questionable research practices have the opposite effect and that ERR and EDR estimates underestimate the true values. This uncertainty does not undermine the usefulness of z-curve analyses. Rather it shows how questionable research practices undermine the credibility of published results. Z-curve 2.0 does not alleviate the need to reform research practices and to ensure that all researchers report their results honestly.
Z-curve 1.0 made it possible to estimate the replication rate of a set of studies on the basis of published test results. Z-curve 2.0 makes it possible to also estimate the expected discovery rate; that is, how many tests were conducted to produce the statistically significant results. The EDR can be used to evaluate the presence and amount of selection bias. Although there are many methods that have the same purpose, z-curve 2.0 has several advantages over these methods. Most importantly, it quantifies the amount of selection bias. This information is particularly useful when meta-analyses report effect sizes based on methods that do not consider the presence of selection bias.
Most of the ideas in the manuscript were developed jointly. The main idea behind the z-curve method and its density version was developed by Dr. Schimmack. Mr. Bartoš implemented the EM version of the method and conducted the extensive simulation studies.
Access to computing and storage facilities owned by parties and projects contributing to the National Grid Infrastructure MetaCentrum provided under the program “Projects of Large Research, Development, and Innovations Infrastructures” (CESNET LM2015042), is greatly appreciated. We would like to thank Maximilian Maier, Erik W. van Zwet, and Leonardo Tozzi for valuable comments on a draft of this manuscript.
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 In reality, sampling erorr will produce an observed discovery rate that deviates slightly from the expected discovery rate. To keep things simple, we assume that the observed discovery rate matches the expected discovery rate perfectly.
 We thank Erik van Zwet for suggesting this modification in his review and for many other helpful comments.
 To compute MCMC standard errors of bias and RMSE across multiple conditions with different true ERR/EDR value, we centered the estimates by substracting the true ERR/EDR. For computing the MCMC standard error of RMSE, we used the Jackknife estimate of variance Efron & Stein (1981).
This blog post is heavily based on one of my first blog-posts in 2014 (Schimmack, 2014). The blog post reports a meta-analysis of ego-depletion studies that used the hand-grip paradigm. When I first heard about the hand-grip paradigm, I thought it was stupid because there is so much between-subject variance in physical strength. However, then I learned that it is the only paradigm that uses a pre-post design, which removes between-subject variance from the error term. This made the hand-grip paradigm the most interesting paradigm because it has the highest power to detect ego-depletion effects. I conducted a meta-analysis of the hand-grip studies and found clear evidence of publication bias. This finding is very damaging to the wider ego-depletion research because other studies used between-subject designs with small samples which have very low power to detect small effects.
This prediction was confirmed in meta-analyses by Carter,E.C., Kofler, L.M., Forster, D.E., and McCulloch,M.E. (2015) that revealed publication bias in ego-depletion studies with other paradigms.
The results also explain why attempts to show ego-depletion effects with within-subject designs failed (Francis et al., 2018). Within-subject designs increase power by removing fixed between-subject variance such as physical strength. However, given the lack of evidence with the hand-grip paradigm it is not surprising that within-subject designs also failed to show ego-depletion effects with other dependent variables in within-subject designs. Thus, these results further suggest that ego-depletion effects are too small to be used for experimental investigations of will-power.
Of course, Roy F. Baumeister doesn’t like this conclusion because his reputation is to a large extent based on the resource model of will-power. His response to the evidence that most of the evidence is based on questionable practices that produced illusory evidence has been to attack the critics (cf. Schimmack, 2019).
In 2016, he paid to publish a critique of Carter’s (2015) meta-analysis in Frontiers of Psychology (Cunningham & Baumeister, 2016). In this article, the authors question the results obtained by bias-tests that reveal publication bias and suggest that there is no evidence for ego-depletion effects.
Unfortunately, Cunningham and Baumeister’s (2016) article is cited frequently as if it contained some valid scientific arguments.
For example, Christodoulou, Lac, and Moore (2017) cite the article to dismiss the results of a PEESE analysis that suggests publication bias is present and there is no evidence that infants can add and subtract. Thus, there is a real danger that meta-analysts will use Cunningham & Baumeister’s (2016) article to dismiss evidence of publication bias and to provide false evidence for claims that rest on questionable research practices.
Fact Checking Cunningham and Baumeister’s Criticisms
Cunningham and Baumeister (2016) claim that results from bias tests are difficult to interpret, but there criticism is based on false arguments and inaccurate claims.
Confusing Samples and Populations
This scientifically sounding paragraph is a load of bull. The authors claim that inferential tests require sampling from a population and raise a question about the adequacy of a sample. However, bias tests do not work this way. They are tests of the population, namely the population of all of the studies that could be retrieved that tested a common hypothesis (e.g., all handgrip studies of ego-depletion). Maybe more studies exist than are available. Maybe the results based on the available studies differ from results if all studies were available, but that is irrelevant. The question is only whether the available studies are biased or not. So, why do we even test for significance? That is a good question. The test for significance only tells us whether bias is merely a product of random chance or whether it was introduced by questionable research practices. However, even random bias is bias. If a set of studies reports only significant results, and the observed power of the studies is only 70%, there is a discrepancy. If this discrepancy is not statistically significant, there is still a discrepancy. If it is statistically significant, we are allowed to attribute it to questionable research practices such as those that Baumeister and several others admitted using.
“We did run multiple studies, some of which did not work, and some of which worked better than others. You may think that not reporting the less successful studies is wrong, but that is how the field works.” (Roy Baumeister, personal email communication) (Schimmack, 2014).
Given the widespread use of questionable research practices in experimental social psychology, it is not surprising that bias-tests reveal bias. It is actually more surprising when these tests fail to reveal bias, which is most likely a problem of low statistical power (Renkewitz & Keiner, 2019).
The claims about power are not based on clearly defined constructs in statistics. Statistical power is a function of the strength of a signal (the population effect size) and the amount of noise (sampling error). Researches skills are not a part of statistical power. Results should be independent of a researcher. A researcher could of course pick procedures that maximize a signal (powerful interventions) or reduce sampling error (e.g., pre-post designs), but these factors play a role in the designing of a study. Once a study is carried out, the population effect size is what it was and the sampling error is what it was. Thus, honestly reported test statistics tell us about the signal-to-noise ratio in a study that was conducted. Skillful researchers would produce stronger test-statistics (higher t-values, F-values) than unskilled researchers. The problem for Baumeister and other ego-depletion researchers is that the t-values and F-values tend to be weak and suggest questionable research practices rather than skill produced significant results. In short, meta-analysis of test-statistics reveal whether researchers used skill or questionable research practices to produce significant results.
The reference to Morey (2013) suggests that there is a valid criticism of bias tests, but that is not the case. Power-based bias tests are based on sound statistical principles that were outlined by a statistician in the journal American Statistician (Sterling, Rosenbaum, & Weinkam, 1995). Building on this work, Jerry Brunner (professor of statistics) and I published theorems that provide the basis of bias tests like TES to reveal the use of questionable research practices (Brunner & Schimmack, 2019). The real challenge for bias tests is to estimate mean power without information about the population effect sizes. In this regard, TES is extremely conservative because it relies on a meta-analysis of observed effect sizes to estimate power. These effect sizes are inflated when questionable research practices were used, which makes the test conservative. However, there is a problem with TES when effect sizes are heterogeneous. This problem is avoided by alternative bias tests like the R-Index that I used to demonstrate publication bias in the handgrip studies of ego-depletion. In sum, bias tests like the R-Index and TES are based on solid mathematical foundations and simulation studies show that they work well in detecting the use of questionable research practices.
Confusing Absence of Evidence with Evidence of Absence
PET and PEESE are extension of Eggert’s regression test of publication bias. All methods relate sample sizes (or sampling error) to effect size estimates. Questionable research practices tend to introduce a negative correlation between sample size and effect sizes or a positive correlation between sampling error and effect sizes. The reason is that significance requires a signal to noise ratio of 2:1 for t-tests or 4:1 for F-tests to produce a significant result. To achieve this ratio with more noise (smaller sample, more sampling error), the signal has to be inflated more.
The novel contribution of PET and PEESE was to use the intercept of the regression model as an effect size estimate that corrects for publication bias. This estimate needs to be interpreted in the context of the sampling error of the regression model, using a 95%CI around the point estimate.
Carter et al. (2015) found that the 95%CI often included a value of zero, which implies that the data are too weak to reject the null-hypothesis. Such non-significant results are notoriously difficult to interpret because they neither support nor refute the null-hypothesis. The main conclusion that can be drawn from this finding is that the existing data are inconclusive.
This main conclusion does not change when the number of studies is less than 20. Stanley and Doucouliagos (2014) were commenting on the trustworthiness of point estimates and confidence intervals in smaller samples. Smaller samples introduce more uncertainty and we should be cautious in the interpretation of results that suggest there is an effect because the assumptions of the model are violated. However, if the results already show that there is no evidence, small samples merely further increase uncertainty and make the existing evidence even less conclusive.
Aside from the issues regarding the interpretation of the intercept, Cunningham and Baumeister also fail to address the finding that sample sizes and effect sizes were negatively correlated. If this negative correlation is not caused by questionable research practices, it must be caused by something else. Cunningham and Baumeister fail to provide an answer to this important question.
No Evidence of Flair and Skill
Earlier Cunningham and Baumeister (2016) claimed that power depends on researchers’ skills and they argue that new investigators may be less skilled than the experts who developed paradigms like Baumeister and colleagues.
However, they then point out that Carter et al.’s (2015) examined lab as a moderator and found no difference between studies conducted by Baumeister and colleagues or other laboratories.
Thus, there is no evidence whatsoever that Baumeister and colleagues were more skillful and produced more credible evidence for ego-depletion than other laboratories. The fact that everybody got ego-depletion effects can be attributed to the widespread use of questionable research practices that made it possible to get significant results even for implausible phenomena like extrasensory perception (John et al., 2012; Schimmack, 2012). Thus, the large number of studies that support ego-depletion merely shows that everybody used questionable research practices like Baumeister did (Schimmack, 2014; Schimmack, 2016), which is also true for many other areas of research in experimental social psychology (Schimmack, 2019). Francis (2014) found that 80% of articles showed evidence that QRPs were used.
Handgrip Replicability Analysis
The meta-analysis included 18 effect sizes based on handgrip studies. Two unpublished studies (Ns = 24, 37) were not included in this analysis. Seeley & Gardner (2003)’s study was excluded because it failed to use a pre-post design, which could explain the non-significant result. The meta-analysis reported two effect sizes for this study. Thus, 4 effects were excluded and the analysis below is based on the remaining 14 studies.
All articles presented significant effects of will-power manipulations on handgrip performance. Bray et al. (2008) reported three tests; one was deemed not significant (p = .10), one marginally significant (.06), and one was significant at p = .05 (p = .01). The results from the lowest p-value were used. As a result, the success rate was 100%.
Median observed power was 63%. The inflation rate is 37% and the R-Index is 26%. An R-Index of 22% is consistent with a scenario in which the null-hypothesis is true and all reported findings are type-I errors. Thus, the R-Index supports Carter and McCullough’s (2014) conclusion that the existing evidence does not provide empirical support for the hypothesis that will-power manipulations lower performance on a measure of will-power.
The R-Index can also be used to examine whether a subset of studies provides some evidence for the will-power hypothesis, but that this evidence is masked by the noise generated by underpowered studies with small samples. Only 7 studies had samples with more than 50 participants. The R-Index for these studies remained low (20%). Only two studies had samples with 80 or more participants. The R-Index for these studies increased to 40%, which is still insufficient to estimate an unbiased effect size.
One reason for the weak results is that several studies used weak manipulations of will-power (e.g., sniffing alcohol vs. sniffing water in the control condition). The R-Index of individual studies shows two studies with strong results (R-Index > 80). One study used a physical manipulation (standing one leg). This manipulation may lower handgrip performance, but this effect may not reflect an influence on will-power. The other study used a mentally taxing (and boring) task that is not physically taxing as well, namely crossing out “e”s. This task seems promising for a replication study.
Power analysis with an effect size of d = .2 suggests that a serious empirical test of the will-power hypothesis requires a sample size of N = 300 (150 per cell) to have 80% power in a pre-post study of will-power.
Baumeister has lost any credibility as a scientist. He is pretending to engage in a scientific dispute about the validity of ego-depletion research, but he is ignoring the most obvious evidence that has accumulated during the past decade. Social psychologists have misused the scientific method and engaged in a silly game of producing significant p-values that support their claims. Data were never used to test predictions and studies that failed to support hypotheses were not published.
“We did run multiple studies, some of which did not work, and some of which worked better than others. You may think that not reporting the less successful studies is wrong, but that is how the field works.” (Roy Baumeister, personal email communication)
As a result, the published record lacks credibility and cannot be used to provide empirical evidence for scientific claims. Ego-depletion is a glaring example of everything that went wrong in experimental social psychology. This is not surprising because Baumeister and his students used questionable research practices more than other social psychologists (Schimmack, 2018). Now he is trying to to repress this truth, which should not surprise any psychologist familiar with motivated biases and repressive coping. However, scientific journals should not publish his pathetic attempts to dismiss criticism of his work. Cunningham and Baumeister’s article provides not a single valid scientific argument. Frontiers of Psychology should retract the article.
Carter,E.C.,Kofler,L.M.,Forster,D.E.,and McCulloch,M.E. (2015).A series of meta-analytic tests of the depletion effect: Self-control does not seem to rely on a limited resource. J. Exp.Psychol.Gen. 144, 796–815. doi:10.1037/xge0000083
In 2002, Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. He received the award for his groundbreaking work on human irrationality in collaboration with Amos Tversky in the 1970s.
In 1999, Daniel Kahneman was the lead editor of the book “Well-Being: The foundations of Hedonic Psychology.” Subsequently, Daniel Kahneman conducted several influential studies on well-being.
The aim of the book was to draw attention to hedonic or affective experiences as an important, if not the sole, contributor to human happiness. He called for a return to Bentham’s definition of a good life as a life filled with pleasure and devoid of pain a.k.a displeasure.
The book was co-edited by Norbert Schwarz and Ed Diener, who both contributed chapters to the book. These chapters make contradictory claims about the usefulness of life-satisfaction judgments as an alternative measure of a good life.
Ed Diener is famous for his conception of wellbeing in terms of a positive hedonic balance (lot’s of pleasure, little pain) and high life-satisfaction. In contrast, Schwarz is known as a critic of life-satisfaction judgments. In fact, Schwarz and Strack’s contribution to the book ended with the claim that “most readers have probably concluded that there is little to be learned from self-reports of global well-being” (p. 80).
To a large part, Schwarz and Strack’s pessimistic view is based on their own studies that seemed to show that life-satisfaction judgments are influenced by transient factors such as current mood or priming effects.
“the obtained reports of SWB are subject to pronounced question-order- effects because the content of preceding questions influences the temporary accessibility of relevant information” (Schwarz & Strack, p. 79).
There is only one problem with this claim; it is only true for a few studies conducted by Schwarz and Strack. Studies by other researchers have produced much weaker and often not statistically reliable context effects (see Schimmack & Oishi, 2005, for a meta-analysis). In fact, a recent attempt to replicate Schwarz and Strack’s results in a large sample of over 7,000 participants failed to show the effect and even found a small, but statistically significant effect in the opposite direction (ManyLabs2).
Figure 1 summarizes the results of the meta-analysis from Schimmack and Oishi 2005), but it is enhanced by new developments in meta-analysis. The blue line in the graph regresses effect sizes (converted into Fisher-z scores) onto sampling error (1/sqrt(N -3). Publication bias and other statistical tricks produce a correlation between effect size and sampling error. The slope of the blue line shows clear evidence of publication bias, z = 3.85, p = .0001. The intercept (where the line meets zero on the x-axis) can be interpreted as a bias-corrected estimate of the real effect size. The value is close to zero and not statistically significant, z = 1.70, p = .088. The green line shows the effect size in the replication study, which was also close to zero, but statistically significant in the opposite direction. The orange vertical red line shows the average effect size without controlling for publication bias. We see that this naive meta-analysis overestimates the effect size and falsely suggests that item-order effects are a robust phenomenon. Finally, the graph highlights the three results from studies by Strack and Schwarz. These results are clear outliers and even above the biased blue regression line. The biggest outlier was obtained by Strack et al. (1991) and this is the finding that is featured in Kahneman’s book, even though it is not reproducible and clearly inflated by sampling error. Interestingly, sampling error is also called noise and Kahneman wrote a whole new book about the problems of noise in human judgments.
While the figure is new, the findings were published in 2005, several years before Kahneman wrote his book “Thinking Fast and Slow). He was simply to lazy to use the slow process of a thorough literature research to write about life-satisfaction judgments. Instead, he relied on a fast memory search that retrieved a study by his buddy. Thus, while the chapter is a good example of biases that result from fast information processing, it is not a good chapter to tell readers about life-satisfaction judgments.
To be fair, Kahneman did inform his readers that he is biased against life-satisfaction judgments. Having come to the topic of well-being from the study of the mistaken memories of colonoscopies and painfully cold hands, I was naturally suspicious of global satisfaction with life as a valid measure of well-being (Kindle Locations 6796-6798). Later on, he even admits to his mistake. Life satisfaction is not a flawed measure of their experienced well-being, as I thought some years ago. It is something else entirely (Kindle Location 6911-6912).
However, insight into his bias was not enough to motivate him to search for evidence that may contradict his bias. This is known as confirmation bias. Even ideal-prototypes of scientists like Nobel Laureates are not immune to this fallacy. Thus, this example shows that we cannot rely on simple cues like “professor at Ivy League,” “respected scientists,” or “published in prestigious journals.” to trust scientific claims. Scientific claims need to be backed up by credible evidence. Unfortunately, social psychology has produced a literature that is not trustworthy because studies were only published if they confirmed theories. It will take time to correct these mistakes of the past by carefully controlling for publication bias in meta-analyses and by conducting pre-registered studies that are published even if they falsify theoretical predictions. Until then, readers should be skeptical about claims based on psychological ‘science,’ even if they are made by a Nobel Laureate.
Citation: Schimmack, U. (2012). The ironic effect of significant results on the credibility of multiple-study articles. Psychological Methods, 17(4), 551-566. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0029487
In 2011 I wrote a manuscript in response to Bem’s (2011) unbelievable and flawed evidence for extroverts’ supernatural abilities. It took nearly two years for the manuscript to get published in Psychological Methods. While I was proud to have published in this prestigious journal without formal training in statistics and a grasp of Greek notation, I now realize that Psychological Methods was not the best outlet for the article, which may explain why even some established replication revolutionaries do not know it (comment: I read your blog, but I didn’t know about this article). So, I decided to publish an abridged (it is still long), lightly edited (I have learned a few things since 2011), and commented (comments are in […]) version here.
I also learned a few things about titles. So the revised version, has a new title.
Finally, I can now disregard the request from the editor, Scott Maxwell, on behave of reviewer Daryl Bem, to change the name of my statistical index from magic index to incredibilty index. (the advantage of publishing without the credentials and censorship of peer-review).
For readers not familiar with experimental social psychology, it is also important to understand what a multiple study article is. Most science are happy with one empirical study per article. However, social psychologists didn’t trust the results of a single study with p < .05. Therefore, they wanted to see internal conceptual replications of phenomena. Magically, Bem was able to provide evidence for supernatural abilities in not just 1 or 2 or 3 studies, but 8 conceptual replication studies with 9 successful tests. The chance of a false positive result in 9 statistical tests is smaller than the chance of finding evidence for the Higgs-Bosson particle, which was a big discovery in physics. So, readers in 2011 had a difficult choice to make: either supernatural phenomena are real or multiple study articles are unreal. My article shows that the latter is likely to be true, as did an article by Greg Francis.
Aside from Alcock’s demonstration of a nearly perfect negative correlation between effect sizes and sample sizes and my demonstration of insufficient variance in Bem’s p-values, Francis’s article and my article remain the only article that question the validity of Bem’s origina findings. Other articles have shown that the results cannot be replicated, but I showed that the original results were already too good to be true. This blog post explains, how I did it.
Why most multiple-study articles are false: An Introduction to the Magic Index
(the article formerly known as “The Ironic Effect of Significant Results on the Credibility of Multiple-Study Articles”)
Cohen (1962) pointed out the importance of statistical power for psychology as a science, but statistical power of studies has not increased, while the number of studies in a single article has increased. It has been overlooked that multiple studies with modest power have a high probability of producing nonsignificant results because power decreases as a function of the number of statistical tests that are being conducted (Maxwell, 2004). The discrepancy between the expected number of significant results and the actual number of significant results in multiple-study articles undermines the credibility of the reported
results, and it is likely that questionable research practices have contributed to the reporting of too many significant results (Sterling, 1959). The problem of low power in multiple-study articles is illustrated using Bem’s (2011) article on extrasensory perception and Gailliot et al.’s (2007) article on glucose and self-regulation. I conclude with several recommendations that can increase the credibility of scientific evidence in psychological journals. One major recommendation is to pay more attention to the power of studies to produce positive results without the help of questionable research practices and to request that authors justify sample sizes with a priori predictions of effect sizes. It is also important to publish replication studies with nonsignificant results if these studies have high power to replicate a published finding.
Less is more, except of course for sample size. (Cohen, 1990, p. 1304)
In 2011, the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an article that provided empirical support for extrasensory perception (ESP; Bem, 2011). The publication of this controversial article created vigorous debates in psychology
departments, the media, and science blogs. In response to this debate, the acting editor and the editor-in-chief felt compelled to write an editorial accompanying the article. The editors defended their decision to publish the article by noting that Bem’s (2011) studies were performed according to standard scientific practices in the field of experimental psychology and that it would seem inappropriate to apply a different standard to studies of ESP (Judd & Gawronski, 2011).
Others took a less sanguine view. They saw the publication of Bem’s (2011) article as a sign that the scientific standards guiding publication decisions are flawed and that Bem’s article served as a glaring example of these flaws (Wagenmakers, Wetzels, Borsboom,
& van der Maas, 2011). In a nutshell, Wagenmakers et al. (2011) argued that the standard statistical model in psychology is biased against the null hypothesis; that is, only findings that are statistically significant are submitted and accepted for publication.
This bias leads to the publication of too many positive (i.e., statistically significant) results. The observation that scientific journals, not only those in psychology,
publish too many statistically significant results is by no means novel. In a seminal article, Sterling (1959) noted that selective reporting of statistically significant results can produce literatures that “consist in substantial part of false conclusions” (p.
Three decades later, Sterling, Rosenbaum, and Weinkam (1995) observed that the “practice leading to publication bias have [sic] not changed over a period of 30 years” (p. 108). Recent articles indicate that publication bias remains a problem in psychological
journals (Fiedler, 2011; John, Loewenstein, & Prelec, 2012; Kerr, 1998; Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2011; Strube, 2006; Vul, Harris, Winkielman, & Pashler, 2009; Yarkoni, 2010).
Other sciences have the same problem (Yong, 2012). For example, medical journals have seen an increase in the percentage of retracted articles (Steen, 2011a, 2011b), and there is the concern that a vast number of published findings may be false (Ioannidis,
However, a recent comparison of different scientific disciplines suggested that the bias is stronger in psychology than in some of the older and harder scientific disciplines at the top of a hierarchy of sciences (Fanelli, 2010).
It is important that psychologists use the current crisis as an opportunity to fix problems in the way research is being conducted and reported. The proliferation of eye-catching claims based on biased or fake data can have severe negative consequences for a
science. A New Yorker article warned the public that “all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable” (Lehrer, 2010, p. 1).
If students who read psychology textbooks and the general public lose trust in the credibility of psychological science, psychology loses its relevance because
objective empirical data are the only feature that distinguishes psychological science from other approaches to the understanding of human nature and behavior. It is therefore hard to exaggerate the seriousness of doubts about the credibility of research findings published in psychological journals.
In an influential article, Kerr (1998) discussed one source of bias, namely, hypothesizing after the results are known (HARKing). The practice of HARKing may be attributed to the
high costs of conducting a study that produces a nonsignificant result that cannot be published. To avoid this negative outcome, researchers can design more complex studies that test multiple hypotheses. Chances increase that at least one of the hypotheses
will be supported, if only because Type I error increases (Maxwell, 2004). As noted by Wagenmakers et al. (2011), generations of graduate students were explicitly advised that this questionable research practice is how they should write scientific manuscripts
It is possible that Kerr’s (1998) article undermined the credibility of single-study articles and added to the appeal of multiple-study articles (Diener, 1998; Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012). After all, it is difficult to generate predictions for significant effects
that are inconsistent across studies. Another advantage is that the requirement of multiple significant results essentially lowers the chances of a Type I error, that is, the probability of falsely rejecting the null hypothesis. For a set of five independent studies,
the requirement to demonstrate five significant replications essentially shifts the probability of a Type I error from p < .05 for a single study to p < .0000003 (i.e., .05^5) for a set of five studies.
This is approximately the same stringent criterion that is being used in particle physics to claim a true discovery (Castelvecchi, 2011). It has been overlooked, however, that researchers have to pay a price to meet more stringent criteria of credibility. To demonstrate significance at a more stringent criterion of significance, it is
necessary to increase sample sizes to reduce the probability of making a Type II error (failing to reject the null hypothesis). This probability is called beta. The inverse probability (1 – beta) is called power. Thus, to maintain high statistical power to demonstrate an effect with a more stringent alpha level requires an
increase in sample sizes, just as physicists had to build a bigger collider to have a chance to find evidence for smaller particles like the Higgs boson particle.
Yet there is no evidence that psychologists are using bigger samples to meet more stringent demands of replicability (Cohen, 1992; Maxwell, 2004; Rossi, 1990; Sedlmeier & Gigerenzer, 1989). This raises the question of how researchers are able to replicate findings in multiple-study articles despite modest power to demonstrate significant effects even within a single study. Researchers can use questionable research
practices (e.g., snooping, not reporting failed studies, dropping dependent variables, etc.; Simmons et al., 2011; Strube, 2006) to dramatically increase the chances of obtaining a false-positive result. Moreover, a survey of researchers indicated that these
practices are common (John et al., 2012), and the prevalence of these practices has raised concerns about the credibility of psychology as a science (Yong, 2012).
An implicit assumption in the field appears to be that the solution to these problems is to further increase the number of positive replication studies that need to be presented to ensure scientific credibility (Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012). However, the assumption that many replications with significant results provide strong evidence for a hypothesis is an illusion that is akin to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy (Milloy, 1995). Imagine a Texan farmer named Joe. One day he invites you to his farm and shows you a target with nine shots in the bull’s-eye and one shot just outside the bull’s-eye. You are impressed by his shooting abilities until you find out that he cannot repeat this performance when you challenge him to do it again.
[So far, well-known Texan sharpshooters in experimental social psychology have carefully avoided demonstrating their sharp shooting abilities in open replication studies to avoid the embarrassment of not being able to do it again].
Over some beers, Joe tells you that he first fired 10 shots at the barn and then drew the targets after the shots were fired. One problem in science is that reading a research
article is a bit like visiting Joe’s farm. Readers only see the final results, without knowing how the final results were created. Is Joe a sharpshooter who drew a target and then fired 10 shots at the target? Or was the target drawn after the fact? The reason why multiple-study articles are akin to a Texan sharpshooter is that psychological studies have modest power (Cohen, 1962; Rossi, 1990; Sedlmeier & Gigerenzer, 1989). Assuming
60% power for a single study, the probability of obtaining 10 significant results in 10 studies is less than 1% (.6^10 = 0.6%).
I call the probability to obtain only significant results in a set of studies total power. Total power parallels Maxwell’s (2004) concept of all-pair power for multiple comparisons in analysis-of variance designs. Figure 1 illustrates how total power decreases with the number of studies that are being conducted. Eventually, it becomes extremely unlikely that a set of studies produces only significant results. This is especially true if a single study has modest power. When total power is low, it is incredible that a set
of studies yielded only significant results. To avoid the problem of incredible results, researchers would have to increase the power of studies in multiple-study articles.
Table 1 shows how the power of individual studies has to be adjusted to maintain 80% total power for a set of studies. For example, to have 80% total power for five replications, the power of each study has to increase to 96%.
Table 1 also shows the sample sizes required to achieve 80% total power, assuming a simple between-group design, an alpha level of .05 (two-tailed), and Cohen’s
(1992) guidelines for a small (d = .2), moderate, (d = .5), and strong (d = .8) effect.
[To demonstrate a small effect 7 times would require more than 10,000 participants.]
In sum, my main proposition is that psychologists have falsely assumed that increasing the number of replications within an article increases credibility of psychological science. The problem of this practice is that a truly programmatic set of multiple studies
is very costly and few researchers are able to conduct multiple studies with adequate power to achieve significant results in all replication attempts. Thus, multiple-study articles have intensified the pressure to use questionable research methods to compensate for low total power and may have weakened rather than strengthened the credibility of psychological science.
[I believe this is one reason why the replication crisis has hit experimental social psychology the hardest. Other psychologists could use HARKing to tell a false story about a single study, but experimental social psychologists had to manipulate the data to get significance all the time. Experimental cognitive psychologists also have multiple study articles, but they tend to use more powerful within-subject designs, which makes it more credible to get significant results multiple times. The multiple study BS design made it impossible to do so, which resulted in the publication of BS results.]
What Is the Allure of Multiple-Study Articles?
One apparent advantage of multiple-study articles is to provide stronger evidence against the null hypothesis (Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012). However, the number of studies is irrelevant because the strength of the empirical evidence is a function of the
total sample size rather than the number of studies. The main reason why aggregation across studies reduces randomness as a possible explanation for observed mean differences (or correlations) is that p values decrease with increasing sample size. The
number of studies is mostly irrelevant. A study with 1,000 participants has as much power to reject the null hypothesis as a meta-analysis of 10 studies with 100 participants if it is reasonable to assume a common effect size for the 10 studies. If true effect sizes vary across studies, power decreases because a random-effects model may be more appropriate (Schmidt, 2010; but see Bonett, 2009). Moreover, the most logical approach to reduce concerns about Type I error is to use more stringent criteria for significance (Mudge, Baker, Edge, & Houlahan, 2012). For controversial or very important research findings, the significance level could be set to p < .001 or, as in particle physics, to p <
[Ironically, five years later we have a debate about p < .05 versus p < .005, without even thinking about p < .0000005 or any mention that even a pair of studies with p < .05 in each study effectively have an alpha less than p < .005, namely .0025 to be exact.]
It is therefore misleading to suggest that multiple-study articles are more credible than single-study articles. A brief report with a large sample (N = 1,000) provides more credible evidence than a multiple-study article with five small studies (N = 40, total
N = 200).
The main appeal of multiple-study articles seems to be that they can address other concerns (Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012). For example, one advantage of multiple studies could be to test the results across samples from diverse populations (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). However, many multiple-study articles are based on samples drawn from a narrowly defined population (typically, students at the local university). If researchers were concerned about generalizability across a wider range of individuals, multiple-study articles should examine different populations. However, it is not clear why it would be advantageous to conduct multiple independent studies with different populations. To compare populations, it would be preferable to use the same procedures and to analyze the data within a single statistical model with population as a potential moderating factor. Moreover, moderator tests often have low power. Thus, a single study with a large sample and moderator variables is more informative than articles that report separate analyses with small samples drawn from different populations.
Another attraction of multiple-study articles appears to be the ability to provide strong evidence for a hypothesis by means of slightly different procedures. However, even here, single studies can be as good as multiple-study articles. For example, replication across different dependent variables in different studies may mask the fact that studies included multiple dependent variables and researchers picked dependent variables that produced significant results (Simmons et al., 2011). In this case, it seems preferable to
demonstrate generalizability across dependent variables by including multiple dependent variables within a single study and reporting the results for all dependent variables.
One advantage of a multimethod assessment in a single study is that the power to
demonstrate an effect increases for two reasons. First, while some dependent variables may produce nonsignificant results in separate small studies due to low power (Maxwell, 2004), they may all show significant effects in a single study with the total sample size
of the smaller studies. Second, it is possible to increase power further by constraining coefficients for each dependent variable or by using a latent-variable measurement model to test whether the effect is significant across dependent variables rather than for each one independently.
Multiple-study articles are most common in experimental psychology to demonstrate the robustness of a phenomenon using slightly different experimental manipulations. For example, Bem (2011) used a variety of paradigms to examine ESP. Demonstrating
a phenomenon in several different ways can show that a finding is not limited to very specific experimental conditions. Analogously, if Joe can hit the bull’s-eye nine times from different angles, with different guns, and in different light conditions, Joe
truly must be a sharpshooter. However, the variation of experimental procedures also introduces more opportunities for biases (Ioannidis, 2005).
[This is my take down of social psychologists’ claim that multiple conceptual replications test theories, Stroebe & Strack, 2004]
The reason is that variation of experimental procedures allows researchers to discount null findings. Namely, it is possible to attribute nonsignificant results to problems with the experimental procedure rather than to the absence of an effect. In this way, empirical studies no longer test theoretical hypotheses because they can only produce two results: Either they support the theory (p < .05) or the manipulation did not work (p > .05). It is therefore worrisome that Bem noted that “like most social psychological experiments, the experiments reported here required extensive pilot testing” (Bem, 2011, p. 421). If Joe is a sharpshooter, who can hit the bull’s-eye from different angles and with different guns, why does he need extensive training before he can perform the critical shot?
The freedom of researchers to discount null findings leads to the paradox that conceptual replications across multiple studies give the impression that an effect is robust followed by warnings that experimental findings may not replicate because they depend “on subtle and unknown factors” (Bem, 2011, p. 422).
If experimental results were highly context dependent, it would be difficult to explain how studies reported in research articles nearly always produce the expected results. One possible explanation for this paradox is that sampling error in small samples creates the illusion that effect sizes vary systematically, although most of the variation is random. Researchers then pick studies that randomly produced inflated effect sizes and may further inflate them by using questionable research methods to achieve significance (Simmons et al., 2011).
[I was polite when I said “may”. This appears to be exactly what Bem did to get his supernatural effects.]
The final set of studies that worked is then published and gives a false sense of the effect size and replicability of the effect (you should see the other side of Joe’s barn). This may explain why research findings initially seem so impressive, but when other researchers try to build on these seemingly robust findings, it becomes increasingly uncertain whether a phenomenon exists at all (Ioannidis, 2005; Lehrer, 2010).
At this point, a lot of resources have been wasted without providing credible evidence for an effect.
[And then Stroebe and Strack in 2014 suggest that real replication studies that let the data determine the outcome are a waste of resources.]
To increase the credibility of reported findings, it would be better to use all of the resources for one powerful study. For example, the main dependent variable in Bem’s (2011) study of ESP was the percentage of correct predictions of future events.
Rather than testing this ability 10 times with N = 100 participants, it would have been possible to test the main effect of ESP in a single study with 10 variations of experimental procedures and use the experimental conditions as a moderating factor. By testing one
main effect of ESP in a single study with N = 1,000, power would be greater than 99.9% to demonstrate an effect with Bem’s a priori effect size.
At the same time, the power to demonstrate significant moderating effects would be much lower. Thus, the study would lead to the conclusion that ESP does exist but that it is unclear whether the effect size varies as a function of the actual experimental
paradigm. This question could then be examined in follow-up studies with more powerful tests of moderating factors.
In conclusion, it is true that a programmatic set of studies is superior to a brief article that reports a single study if both articles have the same total power to produce significant results (Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012). However, once researchers use questionable research practices to make up for insufficient total power, multiple-study articles lose their main advantage over single-study articles, namely, to demonstrate generalizability across different experimental manipulations or other extraneous factors.
Moreover, the demand for multiple studies counteracts the demand for more
powerful studies (Cohen, 1962; Maxwell, 2004; Rossi, 1990) because limited resources (e.g., subject pool of PSY100 students) can only be used to increase sample size in one study or to conduct more studies with small samples.
It is therefore likely that the demand for multiple studies within a single article has eroded rather than strengthened the credibility of published research findings
(Steen, 2011a, 2011b), and it is problematic to suggest that multiple-study articles solve the problem that journals publish too many positive results (Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012). Ironically, the reverse may be true because multiple-study articles provide a
false sense of credibility.
Joe the Magician: How Many Significant Results Are Too Many?
Most people enjoy a good magic show. It is fascinating to see something and to know at the same time that it cannot be real. Imagine that Joe is a well-known magician. In front of a large audience, he fires nine shots from impossible angles, blindfolded, and seemingly through the body of an assistant, who miraculously does not bleed. You cannot figure out how Joe pulled off the stunt, but you know it was a stunt. Similarly, seeing Joe hit the bull’s-eye 1,000 times in a row raises concerns about his abilities as a sharpshooter and suggests that some magic is contributing to this miraculous performance. Magic is fun, but it is not science.
[Before Bem’s article appeared, Steve Heine gave a talk at the University of Toront where he presented multiple studies with manipulations of absurdity (absurdity like Monty Python’s “Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter; cf. Proulx, Heine, & Vohs, PSPB, 2010). Each absurd manipulation was successful. I didn’t have my magic index then, but I did understand the logic of Sterling et al.’s (1995) argument. So, I did ask whether there were also manipulations that did not work and the answer was affirmative. It was rude at the time to ask about a file drawer before 2011, but a recent twitter discussion suggests that it wouldn’t be rude in 2018. Times are changing.]
The problem is that some articles in psychological journals appear to be more magical than one would expect on the basis of the normative model of science (Kerr, 1998). To increase the credibility of published results, it would be desirable to have a diagnostic tool that can distinguish between credible research findings and those that are likely to be based on questionable research practices. Such a tool would also help to
counteract the illusion that multiple-study articles are superior to single-study articles without leading to the erroneous reverse conclusion that single-study articles are more trustworthy.
[I need to explain why I targeted multiple-study articles in particular. Even the personality section of JPSP started to demand multiple studies because they created the illusion of being more rigorous, e.g., the crazy glucose article was published in that section. At that time, I was still trying to publish as many articles as possible in JPSP and I was not able to compete with crazy science.]
Articles should be evaluated on the basis of their total power to demonstrate consistent evidence for an effect. As such, a single-study article with 80% (total) power is superior to a multiple-study article with 20% total power, but a multiple-study article with 80% total power is superior to a single-study article with 80% power.
The Magic Index (formerly known as the Incredibility Index)
The idea to use power analysis to examine bias in favor of theoretically predicted effects and against the null hypothesis was introduced by Sterling et al. (1995). Ioannidis and Trikalinos (2007) provided a more detailed discussion of this approach for the detection of bias in meta-analyses. Ioannidis and Trikalinos’s exploratory test estimates the probability of the number of reported significant results given the average power of the reported studies. Low p values suggest that there are too many significant results, suggesting that questionable research methods contributed to the reported results. In contrast, the inverse inference is not justified because high p values do not justify the inference that questionable research practices did not contribute to the results. To emphasize this asymmetry in inferential strength, I suggest reversing the exploratory test, focusing on the probability of obtaining more nonsignificant results than were reported in a multiple-study article and calling this index the magic index.
Higher values indicate that there is a surprising lack of nonsignificant results (a.k.a., shots that missed the bull’s eye). The higher the magic index is, the more incredible the observed outcome becomes.
Too many significant results could be due to faking, fudging, or fortune. Thus, the statistical demonstration that a set of reported findings is magical does not prove that questionable research methods contributed to the results in a multiple-study article. However, even when questionable research methods did not contribute to the results, the published results are still likely to be biased because fortune helped to inflate effect sizes and produce more significant results than total power justifies.
Computation of the Incredibility Index
To understand the basic logic of the M-index, it is helpful to consider a concrete example. Imagine a multiple-study article with 10 studies with an average observed effect size of d = .5 and 84 participants in each study (42 in two conditions, total N = 840) and all studies producing a significant result. At first sight, these 10 studies seem to provide strong support against the null hypothesis. However, a post hoc power analysis with the average effect size of d = .5 as estimate of the true effect size reveals that each study had
only 60% power to obtain a significant result. That is, even if the true effect size were d = .5, only six out of 10 studies should have produced a significant result.
The M-index quantifies the probability of the actual outcome (10 out of 10 significant results) given the expected value (six out of 10 significant results) using binomial
probability theory. From the perspective of binomial probability theory, the scenario
is analogous to an urn problem with replacement with six green balls (significant) and four red balls (nonsignificant). The binomial probability to draw at least one red ball in 10 independent draws is 99.4%. (Stat Trek, 2012).
That is, 994 out of 1,000 multiple-study articles with 10 studies and 60% average power
should have produced at least one nonsignificant result in one of the 10 studies. It is therefore incredible if an article reports 10 significant results because only six out of 1,000 attempts would have produced this outcome simply due to chance alone.
[I now realize that observed power of 60% would imply that the null-hypothesis is true because observed power is also inflated by selecting for significance. As 50% observed poewr is needed to achieve significance and chance cannot produce the same observed power each time, the minimum observed power is 62%!]
One of the main problems for power analysis in general and the computation of the IC-index in particular is that the true effect size is unknown and has to be estimated. There are three basic approaches to the estimation of true effect sizes. In rare cases, researchers provide explicit a priori assumptions about effect sizes (Bem, 2011). In this situation, it seems most appropriate to use an author’s stated assumptions about effect sizes to compute power with the sample sizes of each study. A second approach is to average reported effect sizes either by simply computing the mean value or by weighting effect sizes by their sample sizes. Averaging of effect sizes has the advantage that post hoc effect size estimates of single studies tend to have large confidence intervals. The confidence intervals shrink when effect sizes are aggregated across
studies. However, this approach has two drawbacks. First, averaging of effect sizes makes strong assumptions about the sampling of studies and the distribution of effect sizes (Bonett, 2009). Second, this approach assumes that all studies have the same effect
size, which is unlikely if a set of studies used different manipulations and dependent variables to demonstrate the generalizability of an effect. Ioannidis and Trikalinos (2007) were careful to warn readers that “genuine heterogeneity may be mistaken for bias” (p.
[I did not know about Ioannidis and Trikalinos’s (2007) article when I wrote the first draft. Maybe that is a good thing because I might have followed their approach. However, my approach is different from their approach and solves the problem of pooling effect sizes. Claiming that my method is the same as Trikalinos’s method is like confusing random effects meta-analysis with fixed-effect meta-analysis]
To avoid the problems of average effect sizes, it is promising to consider a third option. Rather than pooling effect sizes, it is possible to conduct post hoc power analysis for each study. Although each post hoc power estimate is associated with considerable sampling error, sampling errors tend to cancel each other out, and the M-index for a set of studies becomes more accurate without having to assume equal effect sizes in all studies.
Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the M-index is unbiased because power is a nonlinear function of effect sizes. Yuan and Maxwell (2005) examined the implications of this nonlinear relationship. They found that the M-index may provide inflated estimates of average power, especially in small samples where observed effect sizes vary widely around the true effect size. Thus, the M-index is conservative when power is low and magic had to be used to create significant results.
In sum, it is possible to use reported effect sizes to compute post hoc power and to use post hoc power estimates to determine the probability of obtaining a significant result. The post hoc power values can be averaged and used as the probability for a successful
outcome. It is then possible to use binomial probability theory to determine the probability that a set of studies would have produced equal or more nonsignificant results than were actually reported. This probability is [now] called the M-index.
[Meanwhile, I have learned that it is much easier to compute observed power based on reported test statistics like t, F, and chi-square values because observed power is determined by these statistics.]
Example 1: Extrasensory Perception (Bem, 2011)
I use Bem’s (2011) article as an example because it may have been a tipping point for the current scientific paradigm in psychology (Wagenmakers et al., 2011).
[I am still waiting for EJ to return the favor and cite my work.]
The editors explicitly justified the publication of Bem’s article on the grounds that it was subjected to a rigorous review process, suggesting that it met current standards of scientific practice (Judd & Gawronski, 2011). In addition, the editors hoped that the publication of Bem’s article and Wagenmakers et al.’s (2011) critique would stimulate “critical further thoughts about appropriate methods in research on social cognition and attitudes” (Judd & Gawronski, 2011, p. 406).
A first step in the computation of the M-index is to define the set of effects that are being examined. This may seem trivial when the M-index is used to evaluate the credibility of results in a single article, but multiple-study articles contain many results and it is not always obvious that all results should be included in the analysis (Maxwell, 2004).
[Same here. Maxwell accepted my article, but apparently doesn’t think it is useful to cite when he writes about the replication crisis.]
[deleted minute details about Bem’s study here.]
Another decision concerns the number of hypotheses that should be examined. Just as multiple studies reduce total power, tests of multiple hypotheses within a single study also reduce total power (Maxwell, 2004). Francis (2012b) decided to focus only on the
hypothesis that ESP exists, that is, that the average individual can foresee the future. However, Bem (2011) also made predictions about individual differences in ESP. Therefore, I used all 19 effects reported in Table 7 (11 ESP effects and eight personality effects).
[I deleted the section that explains alternative approaches that rely on effect sizes rather than observed power here.]
I used G*Power 3.1.2 to obtain post hoc power on the basis of effect sizes and sample sizes (Faul, Erdfelder, Buchner, & Lang, 2009).
The M-index is more powerful when a set of studies contains only significant results. In this special case, the M-index is the inverse probability of total power.
[An article by Fabrigar and Wegener misrepresents my article and confuses the M-Index with total power. When articles do report non-significant result and honestly report them as failures to reject the null-hypothesis (not marginal significance), it is necessary to compute the binomial probability to get the M-Index.]
[Again, I deleted minute computations for Bem’s results.]
Using the highest magic estimates produces a total Magic-Index of 99.97% for Bem’s 17 results. Thus, it is unlikely that Bem (2011) conducted 10 studies, ran 19 statistical tests of planned hypotheses, and obtained 14 statisstically significant results.
Yet the editors felt compelled to publish the manuscript because “we can only take the author at his word that his data are in fact genuine and that the reported findings have not been taken from a larger set of unpublished studies showing null effects” (Judd & Gawronski, 2011, p. 406).
[It is well known that authors excluded disconfirming evidence and that editors sometimes even asked authors to engage in this questionable research practice. However, this quote implies that the editors asked Bem about failed studies and that he assured them that there are no failed studies, which may have been necessary to publish these magical results in JPSP. If Bem did not disclose failed studies on request and these studies exist, it would violate even the lax ethical standards of the time that mostly operated on a “don’t ask don’t tell” basis. ]
The M-index provides quantitative information about the credibility of this assumption and would have provided the editors with objective information to guide their decision. More importantly, awareness about total power could have helped Bem to plan fewer studies with higher total power to provide more credible evidence for his hypotheses.
Example 2: Sugar High—When Rewards Undermine Self-Control
Bem’s (2011) article is exceptional in that it examined a controversial phenomenon. I used another nine-study article that was published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to demonstrate that low total power is also a problem
for articles that elicit less skepticism because they investigate less controversial hypotheses. Gailliot et al. (2007) examined the relation between blood glucose levels and self-regulation. I chose this article because it has attracted a lot of attention (142 citations in Web of Science as of May 2012; an average of 24 citations per year) and it is possible to evaluate the replicability of the original findings on the basis of subsequent studies by other researchers (Dvorak & Simons, 2009; Kurzban, 2010).
[If anybody needs evidence that citation counts are a silly indicator of quality, here it is: the article has been cited 80 times in 2014, 64 times in 2015, 63 times in 2016, and 61 times in 2017. A good reason to retract it, if JPSP and APA cares about science and not just impact factors.]
Sample sizes were modest, ranging from N = 12 to 102. Four studies had sample sizes of N < 20, which Simmons et al. (2011) considered to require special justification. The total N is 359 participants. Table 1 shows that this total sample
size is sufficient to have 80% total power for four large effects or two moderate effects and is insufficient to demonstrate a [single] small effect. Notably, Table 4 shows that all nine reported studies produced significant results.
The M-Index for these 9 studies was greater than 99%. This indicates that from a statistical point of view, Bem’s (2011) evidence for ESP is more credible than Gailliot et al.’s (2007) evidence for a role of blood glucose in self-regulation.
A more powerful replication study with N = 180 participants provides more conclusive evidence (Dvorak & Simons, 2009). This study actually replicated Gailliot et al.’s (1997) findings in Study 1. At the same time, the study failed to replicate the results for Studies 3–6 in the original article. Dvorak and Simons (2009) did not report the correlation, but the authors were kind enough to provide this information. The correlation was not significant in the experimental group, r(90) = .10, and the control group, r(90) =
.03. Even in the total sample, it did not reach significance, r(180) = .11. It is therefore extremely likely that the original correlations were inflated because a study with a sample of N = 90 has 99.9% power to produce a significant effect if the true effect
size is r = .5. Thus, Dvorak and Simons’s results confirm the prediction of the M-index that the strong correlations in the original article are incredible.
In conclusion, Gailliot et al. (2007) had limited resources to examine the role of blood glucose in self-regulation. By attempting replications in nine studies, they did not provide strong evidence for their theory. Rather, the results are incredible and difficult to replicate, presumably because the original studies yielded inflated effect sizes. A better solution would have been to test the three hypotheses in a single study with a large sample. This approach also makes it possible to test additional hypotheses, such as mediation (Dvorak & Simons, 2009). Thus, Example 2 illustrates that
a single powerful study is more informative than several small studies.
Fifty years ago, Cohen (1962) made a fundamental contribution to psychology by emphasizing the importance of statistical power to produce strong evidence for theoretically predicted effects. He also noted that most studies at that time had only sufficient power to provide evidence for strong effects. Fifty years later, power
analysis remains neglected. The prevalence of studies with insufficient power hampers scientific progress in two ways. First, there are too many Type II errors that are often falsely interpreted as evidence for the null hypothesis (Maxwell, 2004). Second, there
are too many false-positive results (Sterling, 1959; Sterling et al., 1995). Replication across multiple studies within a single article has been considered a solution to these problems (Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012). The main contribution of this article is to point out that multiple-study articles do not provide more credible evidence simply because they report more statistically significant results. Given the modest power of individual studies, it is even less credible that researchers were able to replicate results repeatedly in a series of studies than that they obtained a significant effect in a single study.
The demonstration that multiple-study articles often report incredible results might help to reduce the allure of multiple-study articles (Francis, 2012a, 2012b). This is not to say that multiple-study articles are intrinsically flawed or that single-study articles are superior. However, more studies are only superior if total power is held constant, yet limited resources create a trade-off between the number of studies and total power of a set of studies.
To maintain credibility, it is better to maximize total power rather than number of studies. In this regard, it is encouraging that some editors no longer consider number ofstudies as a selection criterion for publication (Smith, 2012).
[Over the past years, I have been disappointed by many psychologists that I admired or respected. I loved ER Smith’s work on exemplar models that influenced my dissertation work on frequency estimation of emotion. In 2012, I was hopeful that he would make real changes, but my replicability rankings show that nothing changed during his term as editor of the JPSP section that published Bem’s article. Five wasted years and nobody can say he couldn’t have known better.]
Subsequently, I first discuss the puzzling question of why power continues to be ignored despite the crucial importance of power to obtain significant results without the help of questionable research methods. I then discuss the importance of paying more attention to total power to increase the credibility of psychology as a science. Due to space limitations, I will not repeat many other valuable suggestions that have been made to improve the current scientific model (Schooler, 2011; Simmons et al., 2011; Spellman, 2012; Wagenmakers et al., 2011).
In my discussion, I will refer to Bem’s (2011) and Gailliot et al.’s (2007) articles, but it should be clear that these articles merely exemplify flaws of the current scientific
paradigm in psychology.
Why Do Researchers Continue to Ignore Power?
Maxwell (2004) proposed that researchers ignore power because they can use a shotgun approach. That is, if Joe sprays the barn with bullets, he is likely to hit the bull’s-eye at least once. For example, experimental psychologists may use complex factorial
designs that test multiple main effects and interactions to obtain at
least one significant effect (Maxwell, 2004).
Psychologists who work with many variables can test a large number of correlations
to find a significant one (Kerr, 1998). Although studies with small samples have modest power to detect all significant effects (low total power), they have high power to detect at least one significant effect (Maxwell, 2004).
The shotgun model is unlikely to explain incredible results in multiple-study articles because the pattern of results in a set of studies has to be consistent. This has been seen as the main strength of multiple-study articles (Ledgerwood & Sherman, 2012).
However, low total power in multiple-study articles makes it improbable that all studies produce significant results and increases the pressure on researchers to use questionable research methods to comply with the questionable selection criterion that
manuscripts should report only significant results.
A simple solution to this problem would be to increase total power to avoid
having to use questionable research methods. It is therefore even more puzzling why the requirement of multiple studies has not resulted in an increase in power.
One possible explanation is that researchers do not care about effect sizes. Researchers may not consider it unethical to use questionable research methods that inflate effect sizes as long as they are convinced that the sign of the reported effect is consistent
with the sign of the true effect. For example, the theory that implicit attitudes are malleable is supported by a positive effect of experimental manipulations on the implicit association test, no matter whether the effect size is d = .8 (Dasgupta & Greenwald,
2001) or d = .08 (Joy-Gaba & Nosek, 2010), and the influence of blood glucose levels on self-control is supported by a strong correlation of r = .6 (Gailliot et al., 2007) and a weak correlation of r = .1 (Dvorak & Simons, 2009).
The problem is that in the real world, effect sizes matter. For example, it matters whether exercising for 20 minutes twice a week leads to a weight loss of one
pound or 10 pounds. Unbiased estimates of effect sizes are also important for the integrity of the field. Initial publications with stunning and inflated effect sizes produce underpowered replication studies even if subsequent researchers use a priori power analysis.
As failed replications are difficult to publish, inflated effect sizes are persistent and can bias estimates of true effect sizes in meta-analyses. Failed replication studies in file drawers also waste valuable resources (Spellman, 2012).
In comparison to one small (N = 40) published study with an inflated effect size and
nine replication studies with nonsignificant replications in file drawers (N = 360), it would have been better to pool the resources of all 10 studies for one strong test of an important hypothesis (N = 400).
A related explanation is that true effect sizes are often likely to be small to moderate and that researchers may not have sufficient resources for unbiased tests of their hypotheses. As a result, they have to rely on fortune (Wegner, 1992) or questionable research
methods (Simmons et al., 2011; Vul et al., 2009) to report inflated observed effect sizes that reach statistical significance in small samples.
Another explanation is that researchers prefer small samples to large samples because small samples have less power. When publications do not report effect sizes, sample sizes become an imperfect indicator of effect sizes because only strong effects
reach significance in small samples. This has led to the flawed perception that effect sizes in large samples have no practical significance because even effects without practical significance can reach statistical significance (cf. Royall, 1986). This line of
reasoning is fundamentally flawed and confounds credibility of scientific evidence with effect sizes.
The most probable and banal explanation for ignoring power is poor statistical training at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Discussions with colleagues and graduate students suggest that power analysis is mentioned, but without a sense of importance.
[I have been preaching about power for years in my department and it became a running joke for students to mention power in their presentation without having any effect on research practices until 2011. Fortunately, Bem unintentionally made it able to convince some colleagues that power is important.]
Research articles also reinforce the impression that power analysis is not important as sample sizes vary seemingly at random from study to study or article to article. As a result, most researchers probably do not know how risky their studies are and how lucky they are when they do get significant and inflated effects.
I hope that this article will change this and that readers take total power into account when they read the next article with five or more studies and 10 or more significant results and wonder whether they have witnessed a sharpshooter or have seen a magic show.
Finally, it is possible that researchers ignore power simply because they follow current practices in the field. Few scientists are surprised that published findings are too good to be true. Indeed, a common response to presentations of this work has been that the M-index only shows the obvious. Everybody knows that researchers use a number of questionable research practices to increase their chances of reporting significant results, and a high percentage of researchers admit to using these practices, presumably
because they do not consider them to be questionable (John et al., 2012).
[Even in 2014, Stroebe and Strack claim that it is not clear which practices should be considered questionable, whereas my undergraduate students have no problem realizing that hiding failed studies undermines the purpose of doing an empirical study in the first place.]
The benign view of current practices is that successful studies provide all of the relevant information. Nobody wants to know about all the failed attempts of alchemists to turn base metals into gold, but everybody would want to know about a process that
actually achieves this goal. However, this logic rests on the assumption that successful studies were really successful and that unsuccessful studies were really flawed. Given the modest power of studies, this conclusion is rarely justified (Maxwell, 2004).
To improve the status of psychological science, it will be important to elevate the scientific standards of the field. Rather than pointing to limited resources as an excuse,
researchers should allocate resources more wisely (spend less money on underpowered studies) and conduct more relevant research that can attract more funding. I think it would be a mistake to excuse the use of questionable research practices by pointing out that false discoveries in psychological research have less dramatic consequences than drugs with little benefits, huge costs, and potential side effects.
Therefore, I disagree with Bem’s (2000) view that psychologists should “err on the side of discovery” (p. 5).
[Yup, he wrote that in a chapter that was used to train graduate students in social psychology in the art of magic.]
Recommendations for Improvement
Use Power in the Evaluation of Manuscripts
Granting agencies often ask that researchers plan studies with adequate power (Fritz & MacKinnon, 2007). However, power analysis is ignored when researchers report their results. The reason is probably that (a priori) power analysis is only seen as a way to ensure that a study produces a significant result. Once a significant finding has been found, low power no longer seems to be a problem. After all, a significant effect was found (in one condition, for male participants, after excluding two outliers, p =
One way to improve psychological science is to require researchers to justify sample sizes in the method section. For multiple-study articles, researchers should be asked to compute total power.
[This is something nobody has even started to discuss. Although there are more and more (often questionable) a priori power calculations in articles, they tend to aim for 80% power for a single hypothesis test, but these articles often report multiple studies or multiple hypothesis tests in a single article. The power to get two significant results with 80-% for each test is only 64%. ]
If a study has 80% total power, researchers should also explain how they would deal with the possible outcome of a nonsignificant result. Maybe it would change the perception of research contributions when a research article reports 10 significant
results, although power was only sufficient to obtain six. Implementing this policy would be simple. Thus, it is up to editors to realize the importance of statistical power and to make power an evaluation criterion in the review process (Cohen, 1992).
Implementing this policy could change the hierarchy of psychological
journals. Top journals would no longer be the journals with the most inflated effect sizes but, rather, the journals with the most powerful studies and the most credible scientific evidence.
[Based on this idea, I started developing my replicability rankings of journals. And they show that impact factors still do not take replicability into account.]
Reward Effort Rather Than Number of Significant Results
Another recommendation is to pay more attention to the total effort that went into an empirical study rather than the number of significant p values. The requirement to have multiple studies with no guidelines about power encourages a frantic empiricism in
which researchers will conduct as many cheap and easy studies as possible to find a set of significant results.
[And if power is taken into account, researchers now do six cheap Mturk studies. Although this is better than six questionable studies, it does not correct the problem that good research often requires a lot of resources.]
It is simply too costly for researchers to invest in studies with observation of real behaviors, high ecological validity, or longitudinal assessments that take
time and may produce a nonsignificant result.
Given the current environmental pressures, a low-quality/high-quantity strategy is
more adaptive and will ensure survival (publish or perish) and reproductive success (more graduate students who pursue a lowquality/ high-quantity strategy).
[It doesn’t help to become a meta-psychologists. Which smart undergraduate student would risk the prospect of a career by becoming a meta-psychologist?]
A common misperception is that multiple-study articles should be rewarded because they required more effort than a single study. However, the number of studies is often a function of the difficulty of conducting research. It is therefore extremely problematic to
assume that multiple studies are more valuable than single studies.
A single longitudinal study can be costly but can answer questions that multiple cross-sectional studies cannot answer. For example, one of the most important developments in psychological measurement has been the development of the implicit association test
(Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). A widespread belief about the implicit association test is that it measures implicit attitudes that are more stable than explicit attitudes (Gawronski, 2009), but there exist hardly any longitudinal studies of the stability of implicit attitudes.
[I haven’t checked but I don’t think this has changed much. Cross-sectional Mturk studies can still produce sexier results than a study that simply estimates the stability of the same measure over time. Social psychologists tend to be impatient creatures (e.g., Bem)]
A simple way to change the incentive structure in the field is to undermine the false belief that multiple-study articles are better than single-study articles. Often multiple studies are better combined into a single study. For example, one article published four studies that were identical “except that the exposure duration—suboptimal (4 ms)
or optimal (1 s)—of both the initial exposure phase and the subsequent priming phase was orthogonally varied” (Murphy, Zajonc, & Monahan, 1995, p. 589). In other words, the four studies were four conditions of a 2 x 2 design. It would have been more efficient and
informative to combine the information of all studies in a single study. In fact, after reporting each study individually, the authors reported the results of a combined analysis. “When all four studies are entered into a single analysis, a clear pattern emerges” (Murphy et al., 1995, p. 600). Although this article may be the most extreme example of unnecessary multiplicity, other multiple-study articles could also be more informative by reducing the number of studies in a single article.
Apparently, readers of scientific articles are aware of the limited information gain provided by multiple-study articles because citation counts show that multiple-study articles do not have more impact than single-study articles (Haslam et al., 2008). Thus, editors should avoid using number of studies as a criterion for accepting articles.
Allow Publication of Nonsignificant Results
The main point of the M-index is to alert researchers, reviewers, editors, and readers of scientific articles that a series of studies that produced only significant results is neither a cause for celebration nor strong evidence for the demonstration of a scientific discovery; at least not without a power analysis that shows the results are credible.
Given the typical power of psychological studies, nonsignificant findings should be obtained regularly, and the absence of nonsignificant results raises concerns about the credibility of published research findings.
Most of the time, biases may be benign and simply produce inflated effect sizes, but occasionally, it is possible that biases may have more serious consequences (e.g.,
demonstrate phenomena that do not exist).
A perfectly planned set of five studies, where each study has 80% power, is expected to produce one nonsignificant result. It is not clear why editors sometimes ask researchers to remove studies with nonsignificant results. Science is not a beauty contest, and a
nonsignificant result is not a blemish.
This wisdom is captured in the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, in which beautiful objects are designed to have a superficial imperfection as a reminder that nothing is perfect. On the basis of this conception of beauty, a truly perfect set of studies is one that echoes the imperfection of reality by including failed studies or studies that did not produce significant results.
Even if these studies are not reported in great detail, it might be useful to describe failed studies and explain how they informed the development of studies that produced significant results. Another possibility is to honestly report that a study failed to produce a significant result with a sample size that provided 80% power and that the researcher then added more participants to increase power to 95%. This is different from snooping (looking at the data until a significant result has been found), especially if it is stated clearly that the sample size was increased because the effect was not significant with the originally planned sample size and the significance test has been adjusted to take into account that two significance tests were performed.
The M-index rewards honest reporting of results because reporting of null findings renders the number of significant results more consistent with the total power of the studies. In contrast, a high M-index can undermine the allure of articles that report more significant results than the power of the studies warrants. In this
way, post-hoc power analysis could have the beneficial effect that researchers finally start paying more attention to a priori power.
Limited resources may make it difficult to achieve high total power. When total power is modest, it becomes important to report nonsignificant results. One way to report nonsignificant results would be to limit detailed discussion to successful studies but to
include studies with nonsignificant results in a meta-analysis. For example, Bem (2011) reported a meta-analysis of all studies covered in the article. However, he also mentioned several pilot studies and a smaller study that failed to produce a significant
result. To reduce bias and increase credibility, pilot studies or other failed studies could be included in a meta-analysis at the end of a multiple-study article. The meta-analysis could show that the effect is significant across an unbiased sample of studies that produced significant and nonsignificant results.
This overall effect is functionally equivalent to the test of the hypothesis in a single
study with high power. Importantly, the meta-analysis is only credible if it includes nonsignificant results.
[Since then, several articles have proposed meta-analyses and given tutorials on mini-meta-analysis without citing my article and without clarifying that these meta-analysis are only useful if all evidence is included and without clarifying that bias tests like the M-Index can reveal whether all relevant evidence was included.]
It is also important that top journals publish failed replication studies. The reason is that top journals are partially responsible for the contribution of questionable research practices to published research findings. These journals look for novel and groundbreaking studies that will garner many citations to solidify their position
as top journals. As everywhere else (e.g., investing), the higher payoff comes with a higher risk. In this case, the risk is publishing false results. Moreover, the incentives for researchers to get published in top journals or get tenure at Ivy League universities
increases the probability that questionable research practices contribute
to articles in the top journals (Ledford, 2010). Stapel faked data to get a publication in Science, not to get a publication in Psychological Reports.
There are positive signs that some journal editors are recognizing their responsibility for publication bias (Dirnagl & Lauritzen, 2010). The medical journal Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism created a section that allows researchers to publish studies with disconfirmatory evidence so that this evidence is published in the same journal. One major advantage of having this section in top journals is that it may change the evaluation criteria of journal editors toward a more careful assessment of Type I error when they accept a manuscript for publication. After all, it would be quite embarrassing to publish numerous articles that erred on the side of discovery if subsequent issues reveal that these discoveries were illusory.
[After some pressure from social media, JPSP did publish failed replications of Bem, and it now has a replication section (online only). Maybe somebody can dig up some failed replications of glucose studies, I know they exist, or do one more study to publish in JPSP that, just like ESP, glucose is a myth.]
It could also reduce the use of questionable research practices by researchers eager to publish in prestigious journals if there was a higher likelihood that the same journal will publish failed replications by independent researchers.It might also motivate more researchers to conduct rigorous replication studies if they can bet against a finding and hope to get a publication in a prestigious journal.
The M-index can be helpful in putting pressure on editors and journals to curb the proliferation of false-positive results because it can be used to evaluate editors and journals in terms of the credibility of the results that are published in these journals.
As everybody knows, the value of a brand rests on trust, and it is easy to destroy this value when consumers lose that trust. Journals that continue to publish incredible results and suppress contradictory replication studies are not going to survive, especially given the fact that the Internet provides an opportunity for authors of repressed replication studies to get their findings out (Spellman, 2012).
[I wrote this in the third revision when I thought the editor would not want to see the manuscript again.]
[I deleted the section where I pick on Ritchie’s failed replications of Bem because three studies with small studies of N = 50 are underpowered and can be dismissed as false positives. Replication studies should have at least the sample size of original studies which was N = 100 for most of Bem’s studies.]
Another solution would be to ignore p values altogether and to focus more on effect sizes and confidence intervals (Cumming & Finch, 2001). Although it is impossible to demonstrate that the true effect size is exactly zero, it is possible to estimate
true effect sizes with very narrow confidence intervals. For example, a sample of N = 1,100 participants would be sufficient to demonstrate that the true effect size of ESP is zero with a narrow confidence interval of plus or minus .05.
If an even more stringent criterion is required to claim a null effect, sample sizes would have to increase further, but there is no theoretical limit to the precision of effect size estimates. No matter whether the focus is on p values or confidence intervals, Cohen’s recommendation that bigger is better, at least for sample sizes, remains true because large samples are needed to obtain narrow confidence intervals (Goodman & Berlin, 1994).
Changing paradigms is a slow process. It took decades to unsettle the stronghold of behaviorism as the main paradigm in psychology. Despite Cohen’s (1962) important contribution to the field 50 years ago and repeated warnings about the problems of underpowered studies, power analysis remains neglected (Maxwell, 2004; Rossi, 1990; Sedlmeier & Gigerenzer, 1989). I hope the M-index can make a small contribution toward the goal of improving the scientific standards of psychology as a science.
Bem’s (2011) article is not going to be a dagger in the heart of questionable research practices, but it may become the historic marker of a paradigm shift.
There are positive signs in the literature on meta-analysis (Sutton & Higgins, 2008), the search for better statistical methods (Wagenmakers, 2007)*, the call for more
open access to data (Schooler, 2011), changes in publication practices of journals (Dirnagl & Lauritzen, 2010), and increasing awareness of the damage caused by questionable research practices (Francis, 2012a, 2012b; John et al., 2012; Kerr, 1998; Simmons
et al., 2011) to be hopeful that a paradigm shift may be underway.
[Another sad story. I did not understand Wagenmaker’s use of Bayesian methods at the time and I honestly thought this work might make a positive contribution. However, in retrospect I realize that Wagenmakers is more interested in selling his statistical approach at any cost and disregards criticisms of his approach that have become evident in recent years. And, yes, I do understand how the method works and why it will not solve the replication crisis (see commentary by Carlsson et al., 2017, in Psychological Science).]
Even the Stapel debacle (Heatherton, 2010), where a prominent psychologist admitted to faking data, may have a healthy effect on the field.
[Heaterton emailed me and I thought he was going to congratulate me on my nice article or thank me for citing him, but he was mainly concerned that quoting him in the context of Stapel might give the impression that he committed fraud.]
After all, faking increases Type I error by 100% and is clearly considered unethical. If questionable research practices can increase Type I error by up to 60% (Simmons et al., 2011), it becomes difficult to maintain that these widely used practices are questionable but not unethical.
[I guess I was a bit optimistic here. Apparently, you can hide as many studies as you want, but you cannot change one data point because that is fraud.]
During the reign of a paradigm, it is hard to imagine that things will ever change. However, for most contemporary psychologists, it is also hard to imagine that there was a time when psychology was dominated by animal research and reinforcement schedules. Older psychologists may have learned that the only constant in life is change.
[Again, too optimistic. Apparently, many old social psychologists still believe things will remain the same as they always were. Insert head in the sand cartoon here.]
I have been fortunate enough to witness historic moments of change such as the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of behaviorism when Skinner gave his last speech at the convention of the American Psychological Association in 1990. In front of a packed auditorium, Skinner compared cognitivism to creationism. There was dead silence, made more audible by a handful of grey-haired members in the audience who applauded
[Only I didn’t realize that research in 1990 had other problems. Nowadays I still think that Skinner was just another professor with a big ego and some published #me_too allegations to his name, but he was right in his concerns about (social) cognitivism as not much more scientific than creationism.]
I can only hope to live long enough to see the time when Cohen’s valuable contribution to psychological science will gain the prominence that it deserves. A better understanding of the need for power will not solve all problems, but it will go a long way toward improving the quality of empirical studies and the credibility of results published in psychological journals. Learning about power not only empowers researchers to conduct studies that can show real effects without the help of questionable research practices but also empowers them to be critical consumers of published research findings.
Knowledge about power is power.
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Received May 30, 2011
Revision received June 18, 2012
Accepted June 25, 2012
Further Revised February 18, 2018
In 2008, Turner and colleagues (2008) examined the presence of publication bias in clinical trials of antidepressants. They found that out of 74 FDA-registered studies, 51% showed positive results. However, positive results were much more likely to be published, as 94% of the published results were positive. There were two reasons for the inflated percentage of positive results. First, negative results were not published. Second, negative results were published as positive results. Turner and colleagues’ (2008) results received a lot of attention and cast doubt on the effectiveness of anti-depressants.
A year after Turner and colleagues (2008) published their study, Moreno, Sutton, Turner, Abrams, Cooper and Palmer (2009) examined the influence of publication bias on the effect-size estimate in clinical trials of antidepressants. They found no evidence of publication bias in the FDA-registered trials, leading the researchers to conclude that the FDA data provide an unbiased gold standard to examine biases in the published literature.
The effect size for treatment with anti-depressants in the FDA data was g = 0.31, 95% confidence interval 0.27 to 0.35. In contrast, the uncorrected average effect size in the published studies was g = 0.41, 95% confidence interval 0.37 to 0.45. This finding shows that publication bias inflates effect size estimates by 32% ((0.41 – 0.31)/0.31).
Moreno et al. (2009) also used regression analysis to obtain a corrected effect size estimate based on the biased effect sizes in the published literature. In this method, effect sizes are regressed on sampling error under the assumption that studies with smaller samples (and larger sampling error) have more bias. The intercept is used as an estimate of the population effect size when sampling error is zero. This correction method yielded an effect size estimate of g = 0.29, 95% confidence interval 0.23 to 0.35, which is similar to the gold standard estimate (.31).
The main limitation of the regression method is that other factors can produce a correlation between sample size and effect size (e.g., higher quality studies are more costly and use smaller samples). To avoid this problem, we used an alternative correction method that does not make this assumption.
The method uses the R-Index to examine bias in a published data set. The R-Index increases as statistical power increases and it decreases when publication bias is present. To obtain an unbiased effect size estimate, studies are selected to maximize the R-Index.
Since the actual data files were not available, graphs A and B from Moreno et al.’s (2009) study were used to obtain information about effect size and sample error of all the FDA-registered and the published journal articles.
The FDA-registered studies had the success rate of 53% and the observed power of 56%, resulting in an inflation of close to 0. The close match between the success rate and observed confirms FDA studies are not biased. Given the lack of bias (inflation), the most accurate estimate of the effect size is obtained by using all studies.
The published journal articles had a success rate of 86% and the observed power of 73%, resulting in the inflation rate of 12%. The inflation rate of 12% confirms that the published data set is biased. The R-Index subtracts the inflation rate from observed power to correct for inflation. Thus, the R-Index for the published studies is 73-12 = 61. The weighted effect size estimate was d = .40.
The next step was to select sets of studies to maximize the R-Index. As most studies were significant, the success rate could not change much. As a result, most of the increase would be achieved by selecting studies with higher sample sizes in order to increase power. The maximum R-Index was obtained for a cut-off point of N = 225. This left 14 studies with a total sample size of 4,170 participants. The success rate was 100% with median observed power of 85%. The Inflation was still 15%, but the R-Index was higher than it was for the full set of studies (70 vs. 61). The weighted average effect size in the selected set of powerful studies was d = .34. This result is very similar to the gold standard in the FDA data. The small discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that even studies with 85% power still have a small bias in the estimation of the true effect size.
In conclusion, our alternative effect size estimation procedure confirms Moreno et al.’s (2009) results using an alternative bias-correction method and shows that the R-Index can be a valuable tool to detect and correct for publication bias in other meta-analyses.
These results have important practical implications. The R-Index confirms that published clinical trials are biased and can provide false information about the effectiveness of drugs. It is therefore important to ensure that clinical trials are preregistered and that all results of clinical trials are published. The R-Index can be used to detect violations of these practices that lead to biased evidence. Another important finding is that clinical trials of antidepressants do show effectiveness and that antidepressants can be used as effective treatments of depression. The presence of publication bias should not be used to claim that antidepressants lack effectiveness.
Moreno, S. G., Sutton, A. J., Turner, E. H., Abrams, K. R., Cooper, N. J., Palmer, T. M., & Ades, A. E. (2009). Novel methods to deal with publication biases: secondary analysis of antidepressant trials in the FDA trial registry database and related journal publications. Bmj, 339, b2981.
Turner, E. H., Matthews, A. M., Linardatos, E., Tell, R. A., & Rosenthal, R. (2008). Selective publication of antidepressant trials and its influence on apparent efficacy. New England Journal of Medicine, 358(3), 252-260.
Imagine an NBA player has an 80% chance to make one free throw. What is the chance that he makes both free throws? The correct answer is 64% (80% * 80%).
Now consider the possibility that it is possible to distinguish between two types of free throws. Some free throws are good; they don’t touch the rim and make a swishing sound when they go through the net (all net). The other free throws bounce of the rim and go in (rattling in).
What is the probability that an NBA player with an 80% free throw percentage makes a free throw that is all net or rattles in? It is more likely that an NBA player with an 80% free throw average makes a perfect free throw because a free throw that rattles in could easily have bounded the wrong way, which would lower the free throw percentage. To achieve an 80% free throw percentage, most free throws have to be close to perfect.
Let’s say the probability of hitting the rim and going in is 30%. With an 80% free throw average, this means that the majority of free throws are in the close-to-perfect category (20% misses, 30% rattle-in, 50% close-to-perfect).
What does this have to do with science? A lot!
The reason is that the outcome of a scientific study is a bit like throwing free throws. One factor that contributes to a successful study is skill (making correct predictions, avoiding experimenter errors, and conducting studies with high statistical power). However, another factor is random (a lucky or unlucky bounce).
The concept of statistical power is similar to an NBA players’ free throw percentage. A researcher who conducts studies with 80% statistical power is going to have an 80% success rate (that is, if all predictions are correct). In the remaining 20% of studies, a study will not produce a statistically significant result, which is equivalent to missing a free throw and not getting a point.
Many years ago, Jacob Cohen observed that researchers often conduct studies with relatively low power to produce a statistically significant result. Let’s just assume right now that a researcher conducts studies with 60% power. This means, researchers would be like NBA players with a 60% free-throw average.
Now imagine that researchers have to demonstrate an effect not only once, but also a second time in an exact replication study. That is researchers have to make two free throws in a row. With 60% power, the probability to get two significant results in a row is only 36% (60% * 60%). Moreover, many of the freethrows that are made rattle in rather than being all net. The percentages are about 40% misses, 30% rattling in and 30% all net.
One major difference between NBA players and scientists is that NBA players have to demonstrate their abilities in front of large crowds and TV cameras, whereas scientists conduct their studies in private.
Imagine an NBA player could just go into a private room, throw two free throws and then report back how many free throws he made and the outcome of these free throws determine who wins game 7 in the playoff finals. Would you trust the player to tell the truth?
If you would not trust the NBA player, why would you trust scientists to report failed studies? You should not.
It can be demonstrated statistically that scientists are reporting more successes than the power of their studies would justify (Sterling et al., 1995; Schimmack, 2012). Amongst scientists this fact is well known, but the general public may not fully appreciate the fact that a pair of exact replication studies with significant results is often just a selection of studies that included failed studies that were not reported.
Fortunately, it is possible to use statistics to examine whether the results of a pair of studies are likely to be honest or whether failed studies were excluded. The reason is that an amateur is not only more likely to miss a free throw. An amateur is also less likely to make a perfect free throw.
Based on the theory of statistical power developed by Nyman and Pearson and popularized by Jacob Cohen, it is possible to make predictions about the relative frequency of p-values in the non-significant (failure), just significant (rattling in), and highly significant (all net) ranges.
As for made-free-throws, the distinction between lucky and clear successes is somewhat arbitrary because power is continuous. A study with a p-value of .0499 is very lucky because p = .501 would have been not significant (rattled in after three bounces on the rim). A study with p = .000001 is a clear success. Lower p-values are better, but where to draw the line?
As it turns out, Jacob Cohen’s recommendation to conduct studies with 80% power provides a useful criterion to distinguish lucky outcomes and clear successes.
Imagine a scientist conducts studies with 80% power. The distribution of observed test-statistics (e.g. z-scores) shows that this researcher has a 20% chance to get a non-significant result, a 30% chance to get a lucky significant result (p-value between .050 and .005), and a 50% chance to get a clear significant result (p < .005). If the 20% failed studies are hidden, the percentage of results that rattled in versus studies with all-net results are 37 vs. 63%. However, if true power is just 20% (an amateur), 80% of studies fail, 15% rattle in, and 5% are clear successes. If the 80% failed studies are hidden, only 25% of the successful studies are all-net and 75% rattle in.
One problem with using this test to draw conclusions about the outcome of a pair of exact replication studies is that true power is unknown. To avoid this problem, it is possible to compute the maximum probability of a rattling-in result. As it turns out, the optimal true power to maximize the percentage of lucky outcomes is 66% power. With true power of 66%, one would expect 34% misses (p > .05), 32% lucky successes (.050 < p < .005), and 34% clear successes (p < .005).
For a pair of exact replication studies, this means that there is only a 10% chance (32% * 32%) to get two rattle-in successes in a row. In contrast, there is a 90% chance that misses were not reported or that an honest report of successful studies would have produced at least one all-net result (z > 2.8, p < .005).
Example: Unconscious Priming Influences Behavior
I used this test to examine a famous and controversial set of exact replication studies. In Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996), Dr. Bargh reported two exact replication studies (studies 2a and 2b) that showed an effect of a subtle priming manipulation on behavior. Undergraduate students were primed with words that are stereotypically associated with old age. The researchers then measured the walking speed of primed participants (n = 15) and participants in a control group (n = 15).
The two studies were not only exact replications of each other; they also produced very similar results. Most readers probably expected this outcome because similar studies should produce similar results, but this false belief ignores the influence of random factors that are not under the control of a researcher. We do not expect lotto winners to win the lottery again because it is an entirely random and unlikely event. Experiments are different because there could be a systematic effect that makes a replication more likely, but in studies with low power results should not replicate exactly because random sampling error influences results.
Study 1: t(28) = 2.86, p = .008 (two-tailed), z = 2.66, observed power = 76%
Study 2: t(28) = 2.16, p = .039 (two-tailed), z = 2.06, observed power = 54%
The median power of these two studies is 65%. However, even if median power were lower or higher, the maximum probability of obtaining two p-values in the range between .050 and .005 remains just 10%.
Although this study has been cited over 1,000 times, replication studies are rare.
One of the few published replication studies was reported by Cesario, Plaks, and Higgins (2006). Naïve readers might take the significant results in this replication study as evidence that the effect is real. However, this study produced yet another lucky success.
Study 3: t(62) = 2.41, p = .019, z = 2.35, observed power = 65%.
The chances of obtaining three lucky successes in a row is only 3% (32% *32% * 32*). Moreover, with a median power of 65% and a reported success rate of 100%, the success rate is inflated by 35%. This suggests that the true power of the reported studies is considerably lower than the observed power of 65% and that observed power is inflated because failed studies were not reported.
The R-Index corrects for inflation by subtracting the inflation rate from observed power (65% – 35%). This means the R-Index for this set of published studies is 30%.
This R-Index can be compared to several benchmarks.
An R-Index of 22% is consistent with the null-hypothesis being true and failed attempts are not reported.
An R-Index of 40% is consistent with 30% true power and all failed attempts are not reported.
It is therefore not surprising that other researchers were not able to replicate Bargh’s original results, even though they increased statistical power by using larger samples (Pashler et al. 2011, Doyen et al., 2011).
In conclusion, it is unlikely that Dr. Bargh’s original results were the only studies that they conducted. In an interview, Dr. Bargh revealed that the studies were conducted in 1990 and 1991 and that they conducted additional studies until the publication of the two studies in 1996. Dr. Bargh did not reveal how many studies they conducted over the span of 5 years and how many of these studies failed to produce significant evidence of priming. If Dr. Bargh himself conducted studies that failed, it would not be surprising that others also failed to replicate the published results. However, in a personal email, Dr. Bargh assured me that “we did not as skeptics might presume run many studies and only reported the significant ones. We ran it once, and then ran it again (exact replication) in order to make sure it was a real effect.” With a 10% probability, it is possible that Dr. Bargh was indeed lucky to get two rattling-in findings in a row. However, his aim to demonstrate the robustness of an effect by trying to show it again in a second small study is misguided. The reason is that it is highly likely that the effect will not replicate or that the first study was already a lucky finding after some failed pilot studies. Underpowered studies cannot provide strong evidence for the presence of an effect and conducting multiple underpowered studies reduces the credibility of successes because the probability of this outcome to occur even when an effect is present decreases with each study (Schimmack, 2012). Moreover, even if Bargh was lucky to get two rattling-in results in a row, others will not be so lucky and it is likely that many other researchers tried to replicate this sensational finding, but failed to do so. Thus, publishing lucky results hurts science nearly as much as the failure to report failed studies by the original author.
Dr. Bargh also failed to realize how lucky he was to obtain his results, in his response to a published failed-replication study by Doyen. Rather than acknowledging that failures of replication are to be expected, Dr. Bargh criticized the replication study on methodological grounds. There would be a simple solution to test Dr. Bargh’s hypothesis that he is a better researcher and that his results are replicable when the study is properly conducted. He should demonstrate that he can replicate the result himself.
In an interview, Tom Bartlett asked Dr. Bargh why he didn’t conduct another replication study to demonstrate that the effect is real. Dr. Bargh’s response was that “he is aware that some critics believe he’s been pulling tricks, that he has a “special touch” when it comes to priming, a comment that sounds like a compliment but isn’t. “I don’t think anyone would believe me,” he says.” The problem for Dr. Bargh is that there is no reason to believe his original results, either. Two rattling-in results alone do not constitute evidence for an effect, especially when this result could not be replicated in an independent study. NBA players have to make free-throws in front of a large audience for a free-throw to count. If Dr. Bargh wants his findings to count, he should demonstrate his famous effect in an open replication study. To avoid embarrassment, it would be necessary to increase the power of the replication study because it is highly unlikely that even Dr. Bargh can continuously produce significant results with samples of N = 30 participants. Even if the effect is real, sampling error is simply too large to demonstrate the effect consistently. Knowledge about statistical power is power. Knowledge about post-hoc power can be used to detect incredible results. Knowledge about a priori power can be used to produce credible results.
Citation: Dr. R (2015). Meta-analysis of observed power. R-Index Bulletin, Vol(1), A2.
In a previous blog post, I presented an introduction to the concept of observed power. Observed power is an estimate of the true power on the basis of observed effect size, sampling error, and significance criterion of a study. Yuan and Maxwell (2005) concluded that observed power is a useless construct when it is applied to a single study, mainly because sampling error in a single study is too large to obtain useful estimates of true power. However, sampling error decreases as the number of studies increases and observed power in a set of studies can provide useful information about the true power in a set of studies.
This blog post introduces various methods that can be used to estimate power on the basis of a set of studies (meta-analysis). I then present simulation studies that compare the various estimation methods in terms of their ability to estimate true power under a variety of conditions. In this blog post, I examine only unbiased sets of studies. That is, the sample of studies in a meta-analysis is a representative sample from the population of studies with specific characteristics. The first simulation assumes that samples are drawn from a population of studies with fixed effect size and fixed sampling error. As a result, all studies have the same true power (homogeneous). The second simulation assumes that all studies have a fixed effect size, but that sampling error varies across studies. As power is a function of effect size and sampling error, this simulation models heterogeneity in true power. The next simulations assume heterogeneity in population effect sizes. One simulation uses a normal distribution of effect sizes. Importantly, a normal distribution has no influence on the mean because effect sizes are symmetrically distributed around the mean effect size. The next simulations use skewed normal distributions. This simulation provides a realistic scenario for meta-analysis of heterogeneous sets of studies such as a meta-analysis of articles in a specific journal or articles on different topics published by the same author.
Observed Power Estimation Method 1: The Percentage of Significant Results
The simplest method to determine observed power is to compute the percentage of significant results. As power is defined as the long-range percentage of significant results, the percentage of significant results in a set of studies is an unbiased estimate of the long-term percentage. The main limitation of this method is that the dichotomous measure (significant versus insignificant) is likely to be imprecise when the number of studies is small. For example, two studies can only show observed power values of 0, 25%, 50%, or 100%, even if true power were 75%. However, the percentage of significant results plays an important role in bias tests that examine whether a set of studies is representative. When researchers hide non-significant results or use questionable research methods to produce significant results, the percentage of significant results will be higher than the percentage of significant results that could have been obtained on the basis of the actual power to produce significant results.
Observed Power Estimation Method 2: The Median
Schimmack (2012) proposed to average observed power of individual studies to estimate observed power. Yuan and Maxwell (2005) demonstrated that the average of observed power is a biased estimator of true power. It overestimates power when power is less than 50% and it underestimates true power when power is above 50%. Although the bias is not large (no more than 10 percentage points), Yuan and Maxwell (2005) proposed a method that produces an unbiased estimate of power in a meta-analysis of studies with the same true power (exact replication studies). Unlike the average that is sensitive to skewed distributions, the median provides an unbiased estimate of true power because sampling error is equally likely (50:50 probability) to inflate or deflate the observed power estimate. To avoid the bias of averaging observed power, Schimmack (2014) used median observed power to estimate the replicability of a set of studies.
Observed Power Estimation Method 3: P-Curve’s KS Test
Another method is implemented in Simonsohn’s (2014) pcurve. Pcurve was developed to obtain an unbiased estimate of a population effect size from a biased sample of studies. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to determine the power of studies because bias is a function of power. The pcurve estimation uses an iterative approach that tries out different values of true power. For each potential value of true power, it computes the location (quantile) of observed test statistics relative to a potential non-centrality parameter. The best fitting non-centrality parameter is located in the middle of the observed test statistics. Once a non-central distribution has been found, it is possible to assign each observed test-value a cumulative percentile of the non-central distribution. For the actual non-centrality parameter, these percentiles have a uniform distribution. To find the best fitting non-centrality parameter from a set of possible parameters, pcurve tests whether the distribution of observed percentiles follows a uniform distribution using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. The non-centrality parameter with the smallest test statistics is then used to estimate true power.
Observed Power Estimation Method 4: P-Uniform
van Assen, van Aert, and Wicherts (2014) developed another method to estimate observed power. Their method is based on the use of the gamma distribution. Like the pcurve method, this method relies on the fact that observed test-statistics should follow a uniform distribution when a potential non-centrality parameter matches the true non-centrality parameter. P-uniform transforms the probabilities given a potential non-centrality parameter with a negative log-function (-log[x]). These values are summed. When probabilities form a uniform distribution, the sum of the log-transformed probabilities matches the number of studies. Thus, the value with the smallest absolute discrepancy between the sum of negative log-transformed percentages and the number of studies provides the estimate of observed power.
Observed Power Estimation Method 5: Averaging Standard Normal Non-Centrality Parameter
In addition to these existing methods, I introduce to novel estimation methods. The first new method converts observed test statistics into one-sided p-values. These p-values are then transformed into z-scores. This approach has a long tradition in meta-analysis that was developed by Stouffer et al. (1949). It was popularized by Rosenthal during the early days of meta-analysis (Rosenthal, 1979). Transformation of probabilities into z-scores makes it easy to aggregate probabilities because z-scores follow a symmetrical distribution. The average of these z-scores can be used as an estimate of the actual non-centrality parameter. The average z-score can then be used to estimate true power. This approach avoids the problem of averaging power estimates that power has a skewed distribution. Thus, it should provide an unbiased estimate of true power when power is homogenous across studies.
Observed Power Estimation Method 6: Yuan-Maxwell Correction of Average Observed Power
Yuan and Maxwell (2005) demonstrated a simple average of observed power is systematically biased. However, a simple average avoids the problems of transforming the data and can produce tighter estimates than the median method. Therefore I explored whether it is possible to apply a correction to the simple average. The correction is based on Yuan and Maxwell’s (2005) mathematically derived formula for systematic bias. After averaging observed power, Yuan and Maxwell’s formula for bias is used to correct the estimate for systematic bias. The only problem with this approach is that bias is a function of true power. However, as observed power becomes an increasingly good estimator of true power in the long run, the bias correction will also become increasingly better at correcting the right amount of bias.
The Yuan-Maxwell correction approach is particularly promising for meta-analysis of heterogeneous sets of studies such as sets of diverse studies in a journal. The main advantage of this method is that averaging of power makes no assumptions about the distribution of power across different studies (Schimmack, 2012). The main limitation of averaging power was the systematic bias, but Yuan and Maxwell’s formula makes it possible to reduce this systematic bias, while maintaining the advantage of having a method that can be applied to heterogeneous sets of studies.
Homogeneous Effect Sizes and Sample Sizes
The first simulation used 100 effect sizes ranging from .01 to 1.00 and 50 sample sizes ranging from 11 to 60 participants per condition (Ns = 22 to 120), yielding 5000 different populations of studies. The true power of these studies was determined on the basis of the effect size, sample size, and the criterion p < .025 (one-tailed), which is equivalent to .05 (two-tailed). Sample sizes were chosen so that average power across the 5,000 studies was 50%. The simulation drew 10 random samples from each of the 5,000 populations of studies. Each sample of a study simulated a between-subject design with the given population effect size and sample size. The results were stored as one-tailed p-values. For the meta-analysis p-values were converted into z-scores. To avoid biases due to extreme outliers, z-scores greater than 5 were set to 5 (observed power = .999).
The six estimation methods were then used to compute observed power on the basis of samples of 10 studies. The following figures show observed power as a function of true power. The green lines show the 95% confidence interval for different levels of true power. The figure also includes red dashed lines for a value of 50% power. Studies with more than 50% observed power would be significant. Studies with less than 50% observed power would be non-significant. The figures also include a blue line for 80% true power. Cohen (1988) recommended that researchers should aim for a minimum of 80% power. It is instructive how accurate estimation methods are in evaluating whether a set of studies met this criterion.
The histogram shows the distribution of true power across the 5,000 populations of studies.
The histogram shows that the simulation covers the full range of power. It also shows that high-powered studies are overrepresented because moderate to large effect sizes can achieve high power for a wide range of sample sizes. The distribution is not important for the evaluation of different estimation methods and benefits all estimation methods equally because observed power is a good estimator of true power when true power is close to the maximum (Yuan & Maxwell, 2005).
The next figure shows scatterplots of observed power as a function of true power. Values above the diagonal indicate that observed power overestimates true power. Values below the diagonal show that observed power underestimates true power.
Visual inspection of the plots suggests that all methods provide unbiased estimates of true power. Another observation is that the count of significant results provides the least accurate estimates of true power. The reason is simply that aggregation of dichotomous variables requires a large number of observations to approximate true power. The third observation is that visual inspection provides little information about the relative accuracy of the other methods. Finally, the plots show how accurate observed power estimates are in meta-analysis of 10 studies. When true power is 50%, estimates very rarely exceed 80%. Similarly, when true power is above 80%, observed power is never below 50%. Thus, observed power can be used to examine whether a set of studies met Cohen’s recommended guidelines to conduct studies with a minimum of 80% power. If observed power is 50%, it is nearly certain that the studies did not have the recommended 80% power.
To examine the relative accuracy of different estimation methods quantitatively, I computed bias scores (observed power – true power). As bias can overestimate and underestimate true power, the standard deviation of these bias scores can be used to quantify the precision of various estimation methods. In addition, I present the mean to examine whether a method has large sample accuracy (i.e. the bias approaches zero as the number of simulations increases). I also present the percentage of studies with no more than 20% points bias. Although 20% bias may seem large, it is not important to estimate power with very high precision. When observed power is below 50%, it suggests that a set of studies was underpowered even if the observed power estimate is an underestimation.
The quantitative analysis also shows no meaningful differences among the estimation methods. The more interesting question is how these methods perform under more challenging conditions when the set of studies are no longer exact replication studies with fixed power.
The next simulation simulated variation in sample sizes. For each population of studies, sample sizes were varied by multiplying a particular sample size by factors of 1 to 5.5 (1.0, 1.5,2.0…,5.5). Thus, a base-sample-size of 40 created a range of sample sizes from 40 to 220. A base-sample size of 100 created a range of sample sizes from 100 to 2,200. As variation in sample sizes increases the average sample size, the range of effect sizes was limited to a range from .004 to .4 and effect sizes were increased in steps of d = .004. The histogram shows the distribution of power in the 5,000 population of studies.
The simulation covers the full range of true power, although studies with low and very high power are overrepresented.
The results are visually not distinguishable from those in the previous simulation.
The quantitative comparison of the estimation methods also shows very similar results.
In sum, all methods perform well even when true power varies as a function of variation in sample sizes. This conclusion may not generalize to more extreme simulations of variation in sample sizes, but more extreme variations in sample sizes would further increase the average power of a set of studies because the average sample size would increase as well. Thus, variation in effect sizes poses a more realistic challenge for the different estimation methods.
Heterogeneous, Normally Distributed Effect Sizes
The next simulation used a random normal distribution of true effect sizes. Effect sizes were simulated to have a reasonable but large variation. Starting effect sizes ranged from .208 to 1.000 and increased in increments of .008. Sample sizes ranged from 10 to 60 and increased in increments of 2 to create 5,000 populations of studies. For each population of studies, effect sizes were sampled randomly from a normal distribution with a standard deviation of SD = .2. Extreme effect sizes below d = -.05 were set to -.05 and extreme effect sizes above d = 1.20 were set to 1.20. The first histogram of effect sizes shows the 50,000 population effect sizes. The histogram on the right shows the distribution of true power for the 5,000 sets of 10 studies.
The plots of observed and true power show that the estimation methods continue to perform rather well even when population effect sizes are heterogeneous and normally distributed.
The quantitative comparison suggests that puniform has some problems with heterogeneity. More detailed studies are needed to examine whether this is a persistent problem for puniform, but given the good performance of the other methods it seems easier to use these methods.
Heterogeneous, Skewed Normal Effect Sizes
The next simulation puts the estimation methods to a stronger challenge by introducing skewed distributions of population effect sizes. For example, a set of studies may contain mostly small to moderate effect sizes, but a few studies examined large effect sizes. To simulated skewed effect size distributions, I used the rsnorm function of the fGarch package. The function creates a random distribution with a specified mean, standard deviation, and skew. I set the mean to d = .2, the standard deviation to SD = .2, and skew to 2. The histograms show the distribution of effect sizes and the distribution of true power for the 5,000 sets of studies (k = 10).
This time the results show differences between estimation methods in the ability of various estimation methods to deal with skewed heterogeneity. The percentage of significant results is unbiased, but is imprecise due to the problem of averaging dichotomous variables. The other methods show systematic deviations from the 95% confidence interval around the true parameter. Visual inspection suggests that the Yuan-Maxwell correction method has the best fit.
This impression is confirmed in quantitative analyses of bias. The quantitative comparison confirms major problems with the puniform estimation method. It also shows that the median, p-curve, and the average z-score method have the same slight positive bias. Only the Yuan-Maxwell corrected average power shows little systematic bias.
To examine biases in more detail, the following graphs plot bias as a function of true power. These plots can reveal that a method may have little average bias, but has different types of bias for different levels of power. The results show little evidence of systematic bias for the Yuan-Maxwell corrected average of power.
The following analyses examined bias separately for simulation with less or more than 50% true power. The results confirm that all methods except the Yuan-Maxwell correction underestimate power when true power is below 50%. In contrast, most estimation methods overestimate true power when true power is above 50%. The exception is puniform which still underestimated true power. More research needs to be done to understand the strange performance of puniform in this simulation. However, even if p-uniform could perform better, it is likely to be biased with skewed distributions of effect sizes because it assumes a fixed population effect size.
This investigation introduced and compared different methods to estimate true power for a set of studies. All estimation methods performed well when a set of studies had the same true power (exact replication studies), when effect sizes were homogenous and sample sizes varied, and when effect sizes were normally distributed and sample sizes were fixed. However, most estimation methods were systematically biased when the distribution of effect sizes was skewed. In this situation, most methods run into problems because the percentage of significant results is a function of the power of individual studies rather than the average power.
The results of these analyses suggest that the R-Index (Schimmack, 2014) can be improved by simply averaging power and then applying the Yuan-Maxwell correction. However, it is important to realize that the median method tends to overestimate power when power is greater than 50%. This makes it even more difficult for the R-Index to produce an estimate of low power when power is actually high. The next step in the investigation of observed power is to examine how different methods perform in unrepresentative (biased) sets of studies. In this case, the percentage of significant results is highly misleading. For example, Sterling et al. (1995) found percentages of 95% power, which would suggest that studies had 95% power. However, publication bias and questionable research practices create a bias in the sample of studies that are being published in journals. The question is whether other observed power estimates can reveal bias and can produce accurate estimates of the true power in a set of studies.