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Social psych's "replication crisis" is just your everyday, honest-to-goodness paradigm shift.

The Qualiast

Social psych's "replication crisis" is just your everyday, honest-to-goodness paradigm shift.

Daniel Yudkin

Have you heard? Social psychology is going through a “replication crisis.” Tons of well-known experiments have “failed to replicate,” which means that when researchers tried to repeat the experiment they no longer observed the same effects. This would be like an experiment where you dropped a ball from a leaning tower and it only fell to the ground some of the time. 

Take the “automaticity” experiments. What social psychologists originally showed in these studies is that little things in our environment influence our behavior in ways we’re not aware of.

For example, a psychologist named John Bargh showed that if you get people to do a word game (unscrambling words to make a sentence, for example) that has certain old-people-y words in it—e.g., gray, Florida, wrinkle—they’ll walk slower down the hallway after they leave the experiment.

Obviously, advertisers and marketers have known about the power of suggestion for a long time. But never has it been shown just how subtle and powerful these cues can be.

But here’s the problem. When other psychologists ran exactly the same experiment several years later, getting people to do a scrambled-sentence task had absolutely no effect on how fast they walked.

Now, in itself, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But in recent years, there have been hundreds of attempts to replicate many different well-known studies, a startling percentage of which have experienced similar failures.

Does this mean we should give up on social psychology altogether? Some think so. But most other people see this crisis as an opportunity to do some serious reflection about what we’re trying to accomplish and how we go about it.

Fifty years ago, this philosopher of science named Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one of whose main points was that science progresses kind of like a geyser, bubbling along slowly for long periods before erupting unpredictably into revolution and change. These explosions are called “paradigm shifts” and afterwards nothing looks the same.

I think we’re in the middle of just such a paradigm shift right now. What’s obvious is that science—a systematic, disciplined, evidence-based way of learning about the world—has some good stuff to tell us about human experience. What’s not obvious is exactly how this gets done.

There are several important questions being hashed out in the psychology community in the wake of this "replication crisis" that still don’t have clear answers. How important is it that a study be easily “replicable,” given how fickle and weird human behavior is? How bad is it if a study doesn’t replicate? What kind of statistics calculations can we do to ensure we're being as faithful as possible to the data we collect?

Not everyone yet agrees on the answers to these questions. But on the other hand, that, I think, is what makes social psychology today so exciting. We’re a pretty young field, and we’re going through some growing pains as we try to turn the bright light of Science toward the finicky and unpredictable topic of human behavior.

What this means is that as we go through this paradigm shift, the best thing we can do is keep an open mind and be open to new ideas and suggestions about how to improve our field.

Where are these suggestions going to come from? From newbies and non-experts. These are the people that haven't already been influenced by decades of old habits. 

The questions we ask are the questions everybody asks: Why do people do what they do? So the non-trained social psychologists have arguably just as deep and intuitive an understanding of the social world as real psychologists. The solutions to today's replication crisis are just as likely to come from outside the field as from within.