Psychology is having a replication crisis. Iconic studies are falling apart when researchers try the same experiment using improved methods and find… nothing’s there.
It turns out, a lot of psychology that’s entered modern culture is based on small studies of Western college students – hardly representatives of all humanity or even all Americans. Adding college employees and their families as subjects still offers a very limited sample.
Consider the marshmallow test. Young children who resist eating a marshmallow when promised, if they wait, they’ll get two, are supposedly on the road to successful adult lives.
Ultimately, a new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success. getpocket.com
If your pantry is empty or the adults in your life have trouble caring for you, then eating that marshmallow now instead of waiting makes sense.
Let’s not just pick on psychology. Medicine, economics, marketing, sports, and hydrology all need to clean up their act.
Sometimes, outright fraud has been involved. Replication in science is good at weeding out fraud, but it takes time. Part of the problem seems to be that journals like to publish exciting new studies, not yeoman replications. Ditto universities and anyone else funding research. It’s a situation so-sad-it’s-funny: in one Big Bang Theory episode, Leonard’s mother disses him for replicating someone else’s work.
But without reproducible results, you don’t truly have science.
More classic experiments fail replication, click this link.
- Stanford Prison Experiment
- Robbers Cave
- Milgram electroshock test
- Our brains can be subtly “primed” with thoughts and actions
- Merely smiling caused people to become happier
- Stereotype threat
Not all questionable studies are old:
- “Narcissism epidemic” among millennials
Disproved studies are often retracted. Such news doesn’t make it into the popular press very often, but you can find more here.
I love science – it’s the best way to learn about the physical world we share. But as Stephen Jay Gould said, science must be understood as a gutsy human enterprise.
Human weaknesses follow us all, but the method will lead us true if we let it. That’s not always easy, but it’s right.