According to the headlines, social psychology has had a terrible year—and, at any rate, a bad week. The New York Times Magazine devoted nearly seven thousand words to Diederik Stapel, the Dutch researcher who committed fraud in at least fifty-four scientific papers, while Nature just published a report about another controversy, questioning whether some well-known “social-priming” results from the social psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis are replicable. Dijksterhuis famously found that thinking about a professor before taking an exam improves your performance, while thinking about a soccer ruffian makes you do worse. Although nobody doubts that Dijksterhuis ran the experiment that he says he did, it may be that his finding is either weak, or simply wrong—perhaps the peril of a field that relies too heavily on the notion that if something is statistically likely, it can be counted on.
Things aren’t quite as bad as they seem, though. Although Nature’s report was headlined “Disputed results a fresh blow for social psychology,” it scarcely noted that there have been some replications of experiments modelled on Dijksterhuis’s phenomenon. His finding could still out turn to be right, if weaker than first thought. More broadly, social priming is just one thread in the very rich fabric of social psychology. The field will survive, even if social priming turns out to have been overrated or an unfortunate detour.
Even if this one particular line of work is under a shroud, it is important not to lose sight of the fact many of the old standbys from social psychology have been endlessly replicated, like the Milgram effect—the old study of obedience in which subjects turned up electrical shocks (or what they thought were electrical shocks) all the way to four hundred and fifty volts, apparently causing great pain to their subjects, simply because they’d been asked to do it. Milgram himself replicated the experiment numerous times, in many different populations, with groups of differing backgrounds. It is still robust (in hands of other researchers) nearly fifty years later. And even today, people are still extending that result; just last week I read about a study in which intrepid experimenters asked whether people might administer electric shocks to robots, under similar circumstances. (Answer: yes.)
More importantly, there is something positive that has come out of the crisis of replicability—something vitally important for all experimental sciences.
Read the rest of the article, including more about the importance of this shift toward encouraging replication, here.
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