Psychology Itself Is Under Scrutiny

Jul 16, 2018 · 87 comments
scott allen (nebraska)
The sad part of modern science is that most of it is NOT true. Research by John Ioanaidis has shown as much of 80% of what science research has reported is not true. The New Yorker had an excellent article in 2005 called "The Truth Wears Off" that reported on a phoneme called the "decline effect". A well documented paper in PLOS called "How Many Scientist Fabricate and Falsify Research" the numbers are staggering at the amount of fraud in modern research/science. Even the New York Times had an article titled "Retracted Scientific Studies: A Growing List" in 2015. If you really want to be scared of the problem go to a website called Retraction Watch which covers the latest scientific papers that are retracted and why they were retracted. This is not a liberal vs conservative or republican vs democrat issue, bad science has lead to billions of tax dollars being misspent or misdirected and people actually being harmed.
Bert Meltzer (Israel)
Social psychological experiments sometimes cannot be duplicated because no two successive psychological situations are the same. The moment the results of a social psychological experiment become known, published, and somewhat "public" it disperses into the air and changes the awareness - the zeitgeist within and of the collective conscious (and collective unconscious). Thus the next attempt to "duplicate" the experiment is doing so in a world, and with subjects with a different consciousness than the original experiment. It is, by definition of evolving consciousness, inevitably a "different situation." Different results can reflect changing consciousness and sensitivity as much as error aspects of the original experiment.
glorybe (New York)
Zimbardo's comment about "situational pressures and expectations" being key to certain behavioral outcomes is important to note. In his study with college age males the granting of "control" by some participants over others led to an excessive use of power and domination. The experiment had to be halted and certain ethical guidelines were not in play at that time. The role playing was taken seriously and even the voluntary "prisoners" did not attempt to escape. The tendency to follow orders and also to avoid "messing up" a scientific experiment may well have been part of the situational pressure and desire to conform to an "expert's" expectations. This was also the case in the Milgram experiment, where subjects were told by a person in a lab coat that important research was being done. Few challenged authority or halted the voluntary participation, but the setting and instructions held sway. So tbere are many variables involved in human behavior and ironically the desire to cooperate and please the authority figure was central to both those experiments. These traits played out during the Third Reich and many other wars (de-humanization). Many people are not familiar with psychological studies, the scientific method or the long evolution of the field and theoretical ideas, whiich are constantly changing due in part to research and understanding of brain functions, society and the individual's place in an increasingly technological, ecologically fragile world.
Matt Polsky (White, New Jersey)
The damage to the replication part of the science method having already been done, this strikes me as still early, but a constructive way to try to re-build the psychology field. However, as one commentator said, watch out for "feels right." Many things may feel right, but are actually totally wrong. It may still be salvageable, though, with the right distinctions. See another article in today's NYT about the related area of intuition, which, while also not perfect, may offer the beginning of a way to put that on more solid footing. It will continue to be messy, but more real. Plus, maybe we need a better way to look at these things. We may have to forget about absolute, single-factor causality. Instead we may need to get comfortable, both in academia and in "the real world," with being part right, being less certain and more humble about what we think we know, and considering quantum physic's use of (at least rough) probabilities. Speaking of physics and cardiology, I wouldn't necessarily give them a bye on everything, either. Instead, see what philosophers of science, among others, have to say. The psychology field just may be ahead of others in biting the self-reflection bullet. None of this is to detract from science or social science. The latter, in particular, is underrated in how important it can be to helping us get out of our many binds. That's why it's important to self-heal, as well as our being more astute of what we ask from it, and interpret what we are getting.
BostonReader (Boston, MA)
What? How dare you impugn a real, authentic, "hard" science like "nutrition advice"? Saying it "shifts in the wind"? By so doing, you're opening up other scientific or quasi-scientific domains like, say, psychology, or what is laughably referred to in these pages as "climate science", to...doubts, possibly justified. How is this even allowed? All those college perferssers suddenly thrown into positions where they could be subject to ridicule? Why, it don't make no sense at all!
vbering (Pullman, wa)
Whenever you call your field "science" over and over, it's a pretty good indication that it's not much of one. Physicists, chemists, and biologists don't natter on about "science," but psychologists, and economists do. Economists are the worst. "Economic science" always induces a smirk.
JamesEric (El Segundo)
“Many famous studies of human behavior cannot be reproduced. Even so, they revealed aspects of our inner lives that feel true.” Among the last of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s works was a volume titled, The Inner and the Outer. It was an attempt to place psychology on a solid foundation. In his later period, Wittgenstein held that many of our philosophical problems arise from what he termed “the bewitchment of language” and that these problems are resolved through a kind of philosophical grammar and the clarification of language. At any rate, his last philosophical investigations had to do with the distinction inner and outer. He was arguing against those who held we can never know the inner person. We can only know the outer manifestation. Towards the end of these investigations, almost as a conclusion, Wittgenstein said that many people say that because of the distinction inner/outer, we can never know a person with the precision that we know 2 + 2 = 4. This, however is logically backward. It is simply a matter of experience that although we can indeed know other persons, we can never know them with the precision that we know 2 + 2 = 4. We express this fact by making the distinction inner/outer which is nothing but a poetic metaphor that we have been bewitched into thinking is something real. The “debunked” experiments of this article do tell us something about human life but not with the precision of 2 + 2 = 4.
Diana Senechal (Szolnok, Hungary)
Thank you for this description of Wittgenstein's The Inner and the Outer. It is illuminating here (and interesting in itself). One day, about a decade ago, I was reading a children's book about Martin Luther King Jr. to elementary school students in East New York, Brooklyn. I came to the quote, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Attempting to explain this, I said, "that is, where they will be judged by their inside, not their outside." I then asked, "What's inside a person?" The kids cheerfully shouted out, "Bones! Veins! Lungs!" I then recognized how faulty my explanation was and how much better MLK had put it.
DLS (Bloomington, IN)
"Feel true"? Did the caption beneath the title of this article really say that? Alas, there are dozens of myths, legends, fabrications, hoaxes, and pseudo-scientific hypotheses that "feel true," from the heliocentric theory of the solar system and Lamarck's theory of the inheritance of acquired traits to psychoanalysis and Marxism. What a concept! X "feels" true or might be true; therefore it IS true! As long as there are researchers who are politically or culturally inspired and determined to validate their beliefs, we'll continue to get this sort of "fake science."
Concerned Doctor (Princeton, NJ)
Unlike in physics and medicine, psychological research cannot easily be decontextualized from the prevailing zeitgeist and social sentiments of the era in which it is conducted. The Stanford prison experiment revealed the brutal tendencies of our species, and how our society is bound by a thin veneer of civility, but close to the surface lurks our savage, primitive nature. While it might be harder to replicate today, it’s probably due to a greater awareness of ethics in psychological research and the strict control of IRBs (Institution Review Boards). Nevertheless, given our countries incredibly tribalistic and divisive current zeitgeist (as evidenced by Trump’s “election,” the spineless GOP, and the Trump supporters still drinking the cool aid), if Zimbardo’s research could be precisely recreated today, imagine what the study would show now. We only have to look 30 years before Zimbardo’s classic experiment (i.e., Nazi Germany in the 1940s) to see what social groups and the pressure they exert on many people can bring to the surface in our species, and how terrifyingly fragile our social constructs and restraints are. That’s why tyrants, despots, psychopathic dictators, and other unsavory people have dominated the history of Humankind. And why the bromance between Trump and Putin is so, so frightening.
Diana Senechal (Szolnok, Hungary)
Some findings in the social sciences suffer not from weak methodology but from weak reasoning and questioning. They need more grounding in philosophy, logic, and literature. For instance, many growth mindset proponents presume that the more growth mindset you have, the better off you will be. They do not consider the possibility that a mixture of mindsets may be optimal and that pure growth mindset, if even possible, could drive a person to ruin. Like many promising ideas in psychology, the idea of growth mindset requires wise interpretation and application (not to mention continued research). But the overall tendency is to take an idea much too far: to make a product of it and to defend it against criticism and doubt.
T (Kansas City)
A narrow view at best. Human beings are extremely complicated, motivated by many things, and not “countable” in the way things like bacterial infections are. This massive push to ONLY do research, regardless of whether it’s worth doing or not, reduces human beings to numbers. It has resulted in much of the field of psychology being cognitive behavioral only, and what isn’t discussed much with the public is that many researchers do absolutely no practice with psychotherapy. In fact many are actively hostile to it. Another horrible factor is big pharmaceutical, health insurers and government agencies that don’t really want to treat humans as they need to be treated because of cost. You better believe insurance execs are in the business of denying as much treatment as possible for their own bottom lines and bonuses. The current research coming out of universities is often funded by these “stakeholders”. It’s not about psychology anymore then, it’s about money. Real valid research that investigates real live human beings with all their problems, not just some narrowly controlled counting experiment is desperately needed, but profit motives work actively against real need. Psychoanalysts and psychodynamic therapists and researchers have known this for years, and design much better research and treatment. They see the individual behind the numbers.
Eric (New York)
How do we explain the evils perpetrated by guards in Nazi Germany? Were they all psychopaths? Or were they more or less ordinary people who, once they had complete power over the prisoners, let their darker sides come out? This is the question most of us who consider ourselves decent and moral people, ask ourselves: Would I behave that way in that situation?
Laura McGuire (Honolulu)
@Eric You raise a difficult question, but the Nazi guard example is perhaps not the best. A large percentage of the SS were young men who had previously been members of the Hitler Youth. They had been plucked from their families at a young age and heavily indoctrinated that Jews were inhuman— in effect, many had been brainwashed. By in large, most SS members were not ordinary, run of the mill citizens who were suddenly given the job. Rather they were people who had been carefully selected and prepared by the Nazi government for their “work.” The ones who specifically chose to join the SS were typically pretty mediocre and dismal people to begin with. Petty criminals and the like.
Working Stiff (New York)
You should consider the 1962 work of Stanley Milgrim at Yale, testing the tendency of people to violate norms of decency when given commands to do so.
JamesEric (El Segundo)
A person is much more complex than an atom. So when a physicist is studying an atom, he has a tremendous amount of leverage, in terms of complexity, over the object of his study. When a psychologist is studying another person, that leverage is reduced to zero. Moreover, the object of the psychologist’s study is also a subject and might even regard the psychologist as an object of study. In fact that’s what we all do in every human interaction—judge one another. Finally, an atom can’t talk back to the physicist. A person can talk back to the psychologist. It is the foolish attempt to use physics as the model for the social sciences that makes them appear as a kind of “scientific superstition,” a kind of sorcery.
Skillethead (New Zealand)
The marshmallow test cannot be reproduced? In what universe? Mr. Carey might educate himself and read up on any number of replications, most notably in The Dunedin Study research. I also note that the work showing that Nosek's replication study was full of flaws is not mentioned. There are a lot of studies in psychology, as in medical science, economics, and a host of other fields that do not replicate. And then we discard those findings. Now admittedly, some findings are impervious to subsequent debunking (see, e.g., the Mozart Effect). Some ideas are just so attractive that no amount of counter findings will refute them. But we see this in GMO foods, artificial sweeteners, and the paleo diet as well as in nonsense like the Mozart Effect. Doesn't mean they weren't debunked.
Matt (NJ)
When publishing studies, authors should always be careful about the need/desire to over-state their conclusions. Authors should always be honest about limitations and faults in their methodology. The problem is, they sometimes are not, which creates a whole mess of "junk science."
Make America Sane (NYC)
And then there's law school...… or medical school or business school (and the Harvard team method 0 and the Ivies. Everything in one's life determines behavior/ Authenticity is a word I hate. To prosper, to pass a test, to keep a job people will engage in all sorts of behavior and lie or otherwise obfuscate. Not sure psychology has the "right" tests. (That's why w do research for which hopefully the results are not fudged.) Probably could use many more.
Adrian (Brooklyn)
Im available 6 days a week for anyone that needs a DESPOJÓ. I’ll work your BAD JUJU out @ $500.00 per hour and it will take about 100 hrs minimum. If it were that easy then all would be well-adjusted and balanced. The self-exploration journey is complex. Many carry heavy emotional and psychological baggage around; helping them to lighten the load, help them learn coping & management skills to handle the internal & external environment are important tools to become as close as possible to be a Fully Form Adult. Everyone’s needs and wants vary greatly and we must respectful of their individuality. We must provide support to all those in need.
Sid Griffiths (Boston)
This is what some of us having been saying for a while. Test on motivation, IQ, effortfulness and other personality and biological tests tell us almost nothing. They cannot explain the social, historical and economic forces that shape our ever increasing complex world. This is why we need nuance and complexity when viewing human behaviors such as crime, achievement, drive, excellence etc. We need a broader lens to understand the phenomena of today and the future. I will recommend a case by case basis. Somebody can thrive in a terrible environment, overcome odds and succeed. Another person given those same circumstances will become a statistic. Why? We need a broad spectrum of pathways and possibilities for each individual.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@Sid Griffiths. Really inaccurate. Tests, if created and administered by professionals are reliable and valid, and predict many outcomes. Such a general statement overlooks the science and rigor around test construction and validation. I've done this myself. We take it very seriously, and we do not use tests inappropriately (some non-professionals might, and they could be liable in such instances). The right measure (be it a structure interview, assessment, simulation, etc.) for the right purpose, administered and interpreted professionally, can be very useful to educators, parents, individuals and organizations.
Grebulocities (Illinois)
@walkman666 - Tests are certainly useful. If you take a large sample of people who are in the top 10% of both IQ and conscientiousness, the sample mean on most "positive" outcome variables like income will show that they do well above average. But there will still be a big spread even among that high-performing group. A few will still end up falling victim to mental or physical health issues, or will simply have a string of unfortunate events result in underperformance. There will be fewer such people than in the general population, but there will still be some. Test results are useful, but you have to know how to use them. They point to general tendencies, which can be useful, but they aren't particularly good at predicting individual life outcomes.
Tracy Mayne (New York, NY)
@Grebuloci. There is rigor in the development of tests around internal reliability and validity. The issue I have is how much variance those tests actually explain when used to predict external events. IQ explains up to 10% of the variance in income. Given large sample sizes, the association is statistically significant, but really, how meaningful is it? How many psychological studies have been published that explained <10% of the variance in outcome, have never been replicated, but have become part of the theoretical pantheon?
James Wilson (Burlington VT)
The mathematician Stanislaw Ulam asked the economist Paul Samuelson to name one result from the social sciences that was both true and non-trivial. Some years later (30, I think), Samuelson responded with David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage, which is about 200 years old. Meanwhile the hard sciences can cite thousands of such results, including 'elementary' ones (e.g., the 'birthday paradox' in statistics, or Lagrange's theorem in group theory). The social sciences' intellectual triviality and lack of rigor seem to go hand in hand with their proneness to bias. Sloppy methods don't catch bias; biased, tendentious studies use sloppy methods. And the social sciences tend to attract people who are okay with that.
Howard G (New York)
@James Wilson - An example of "Sloppy Reasoning" -- Three men traveling overland go into a roadside inn to spend the night - The desk clerk explains there's only one room available - which they agree to share for the night - The clerk tells the men the cost of the room is $30, payable in advance - Each man hands the clerk a $10 bill and they go up to their room -- Later that evening, the clerk is settling the accounts and has too much money - He realizes the price for the room with the three men is $25 - not $30 - and he owes them a refund -- He hands five $1 bills to the bellboy and tells him to go upstairs and return it to the three men -- The bellboy knocks on the door and all three men are there - He explains what happens and hands the men the five $1 bills - Each man takes $1 for himself - and they hand the remaining $2 back to the bellboy as a tip for his troubles - and he leaves to gon about his other business -- So -- Each of the three men - having originally handed over $10 to the desk clerk - have now received $1 back - thereby now making their individual payment to be $9 -- $9 x 3 = $27 + $2 which the bellboy was given for his tip = $29 -- !!! Where is the 30th dollar ...??
Frank (Boston)
If studies cannot be replicated then psychology is not science, but a faith-based belief system. And appeals to the "felt truth" of un-replicated and un-replicatable studies just underlines that.
Alex Rodman (NYC)
@Frank Thanks for assuring me I can safely disregard anything you say from now on because apparently, according to you, the field of psychology as a whole is based on faith.
BC (Vermont)
If experiments become classics "because they dramatized something people recognized in themselves and in others" and "live in the common culture as powerful metaphors," maybe we should be investing more in the arts, which fill this role without appropriating undue and sometimes dangerous authority.
wanda (Kentucky )
@BC As a literature teacher, I tease my students, asking why literature is superior to psychology? Because we know we're making it up. Literature, psychology, and religion are ultimately all about the stories that we tell each other and ourselves and the stories our lives tell, including the meta story of Adam and Eve, who, having discovered that there is good and there is evil, have to decide over and over which is which.
ubique (New York)
Friedrich Nietzsche quite notably referred to Psychology as a vice, whose practitioners would inexorably become fixated on a highly simplistic view of human development that has permeated through the ages by way of religious mythology. Putting aside the replication crisis for a moment, isn’t it worth considering how absurd it is that demonic exorcisms are still practiced in the year 2018?
Joel Nguyen (Danville California )
Should researchers whose studies affected the lives of many people (e.g. diet, health practices, child rearing, investment, employee management etc) be held accountable and financial liable (class action lawsuits) for fraudulent or reckless practices? Hopefully the threat of potential financial liability would deter bad and irresponsible researches and protect the welfare of sometimes millions of lives.
GR (Canada)
@Joel Nguyen Scientific knowledge is not itself a policy or prescription and any attempt to find its immediate application in your life seriously misunderstands both the method and the incremental progress scientific work achieves in any field. For instance, based on the constant popularization of nutrition studies on coffee, how many times would you have taken up and given up the habit? The meta analysis of those seemingly contradictory studies would reveal interesting variation based on sample selection, method of preparation, consumption levels, and individual characteristics that may not be relevant to your individual choice to drink coffee or not.
Joel Nguyen (Danville California)
The liability would only be held against researchers who have been proved to intentionally commit frauds or reckless and irresponsible practices. Of course there should be some prescribed legal safeguards to protect researchers from being harassed or bankrupted by those who don't like the study results (for example, liquor or drug industry).
BC (Vermont)
Should we sue Freud?
Megan (Philadelphia)
When my brother and I were children, my mother volunteered us for the marshmallow test. My brother immediately ate his one marshmallow and then was sent back into the hallway with my mother. I waited the duration, and was sent back into the hallway with my two marshmallows. When my mother saw I had two marshmallows and my brother had none, she made me give him one of mine. She felt badly about this after the experimenters explained the whole experiment to her, and it became a family joke over the years. In our youth, it seemed like the marshmallow test could predict a degree of success associated with self restraint: I always did better in school than my brother, and it seemed like I'd be more successful. But, as adults, my brother has thrived financially while I struggled, in part due to lots of student loan debt. I think that, when we're looking at these studies, it's important to remember that the context is our larger society. In some societies, in some times, delayed gratification and self-restraint will be rewarded. In others, it will be punished. These tests measure a single important trait, but whether that trait predicts any outcome in life depends entirely on context-- that is to say, the evolving rules of society.
Edward Swing (Peoria, AZ)
@Megan There are certainly individual differences in life outcomes, such as income, independently of trait differences in self-control. Self-control correlates with these outcomes, but it is an imperfect predictor. Many other factors can affect it. For example, males are socialized much more than females to prioritize their earning potential. That said, there's no evidence that there's any society or era in which those with less self-control are more successful on average, as you suggest. It's very unlikely that any such society/time exists, given that adapting ones behavior to the demands of the environment is itself a form of self-control. A more likely explanation for the outcomes of you and your brother is that you are exceptions to a broader generalization, perhaps due to other factors such as gender socialization, as mentioned above.
BC (Vermont)
@Megan You may be conceding too much in writing that "these tests measure a single important trait." There is a great problem in psychology of reifying test results into fixed traits. Some argue that self esteem is an example. And "intelligence" has become almost synonymous with IQ.
walkman666 (Nyc)
The linked Nosek et al. article is more balanced and thorough and useful to get informed about the basis of the reproducability project. This article's sensationalist headline is pretty misleading suggesting that our field is being called into question. This article sorta ironically falls victim to a famous availability heuristic (Kahneman and Tversky), founded by psyhologists (and often used in the context of economics). Most psychological research is pretty mundane, and follows a lot of strict methodological rigor. Nosek referred to some of the most techincal journals in the field. Reading some of the literature in these journals will turn many folks off of psychology, out of sheer boredeom, but not due to the fact that it's not a science. There's a lot of rigor, review, and ethics involved in proper psych research and practice.
AG (Canada)
What makes a field a science is the methodology it uses, not the object of study. Humans are much more difficult to study than inanimate objects, not just because you can't control them as well, but because there are ethical considerations involved. Does that mean we don,t even try, and just shrug our shoulders and give up, and rely on our intuitions and impressions? Or does it mean we keep trying, while aware of the limitations of our efforts?
Jaque (Champaign, Illinois)
I am puzzled that the first thing the column questions is Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. In spite of minor defects you may have noticed in the experiment, the ultimate conclusion stands. We have plenty of real life situations where Zimbardo's findings hold. From the past we have plenty of evidence from the slavery and colonial history. We have plenty of evidence in the present day conflicts - Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Burma, Libya, and many more. However, I agree that the findings of the Marshmallow Test are highly questionable. Predicting the future of any individual is bound to be a failure even from genetics, let alone from a simple psychological test.
SteveRR (CA)
@Jaque The reason we don't use "slavery and colonial history" and the like is because of the simple scientific maxim that the plural of anecdote is not data.
Mark F (Ottawa)
In many ways, we reject the invasion of science into the mind: "...that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object--that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated--chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!" Like Dostoevsky wrote here, we resist tabulations, to prove to observer and ourselves that we are not piano-keys.
gm (syracuse area)
I had a professor in graduate school who proclaimed that with a four year degree you feel that you know everything in psychology; when you obtain your masters you realize you dont know anything and when you receive your doctorate you understand that nobody knows anything. In retrospect I believe he was saying that intelligence entails not having complete certainty in your positions and to be willing to shift gears when evidence contradicts your core beliefs. When people ask me what to look for in a therapist I state that one red flag would be a practitioners rigid belief in one particular style of therapy as opposed to adjusting to the unique needs of individual clientèle. Studies are useful in presenting possibilities and probabilities but obviously shouldnt be taken as gospel.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@gm. You had a wise professor in gradual school. It's a fascinating field, and even more so in our current times. Love the probabilities point.
Adrian (Brooklyn)
@gm - thank you for posting a carefully worded and insightful comment.
MA (Brooklyn, NY)
Studies of human biology and nutrition have also had some difficulty with replication; with its narrow ideological focus, low response rates, and lack of critical counterpoint, one can only imagine what a bundle of nonsense sociology must be.
Tricia (California)
Even with animal behavior, the complexity of individuals makes the generalizations very difficult to uphold. And yet, the religious fervor that those of certain bents hang onto to behavior modification, without flexibility, does a disservice to all.
KM (Houston)
Feel true = Have been cited so often that they are taken for axioms of human nature and shape the way we understand ourselves. That's what ideology is.
srwdm (Boston)
Psychology is not a "hard" science, and we must never forget that. Even the sub-field of physiological psychology takes a fundamentally different approach than, say, traditional physiology. [In fact, "hard" science has a hard enough time of its own with rigor.]
Tracy Mayne (New York, NY)
@srwdm Areas of psychology, such as cognitive neuroscience, are methodologically rigorous. A lot of behavioral work (operant conditioning comes to mind) has also withstood the test of replication. There are babies, but they are in an awful lot of bath water.
William Smith (United States)
@srwdm As long as you follow the scientific method, is it still a science? What's considered a hard or soft science?
Rhporter (Virginia)
Replication is an easy enough standard. If results can’t be replicated then they are suspect. The author seems unclear about that. It damages the value of the article. On another point, whether understanding human psychology is really hard may be a special problem for humans since we can’t think outside our own box. Perhaps dogs or birds understand us well enough for their own purposes.
SteveRR (CA)
@Rhporte well no - all that replication does is lower the probability that a measured effect is not due to chance - this is how the hypothetico-deductive model works in all science.
Rita Harris (NYC)
Years ago when I attended the Freshman Program Graduate Center of CUNY and later CCNY, I had the pleasure of having my understanding of various psychological concepts expanded thanks to Drs. Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo and a very long conversation with Dr. Skinner. Yes, I am speaking of the City University of New York where for $52.00 per semester one could receive an incredible education. What I understood, and here I agree 1000% with Dr. Zimbardo, is that once one is given a position of authority over others, the behavior which flows from that relationship creates its own unique nightmares. Dr. Milgram's experiments tested the premise 'I was only following orders' & will continue administering shocks to an individual because I was told to do so. Again the central concept being, when directed by folks in authority, people will compromise their morals and continue administering shocks to an individual despite understanding that the victims could die. Dr. Skinner, of course made clear a concept of once you get used to it, you will salivate when you associate a sound with the desired item. I don't really believe that folks today would now seek to re-create these experiments because scientific theory requires that the experiment is repeatable. There is no way that the rest of life has repeated those Milgram, Zimbardo & Skinner realities, over and over again. Let's move on & pursue understanding how people might vote against their own interests.
Joe Mama (Uranus)
@Rita Harris Associationism is not Skinner it is Pavlov
Rita Harris (NYC)
I actually spoke with Dr. Skinner when he spoke at CCNY. I felt lucky. I do not know what Rita Harris Associationism is or is not but its not me.
Joe Mama (Uranus)
@Rita Harris When you hit reply, the user you are replying to appears in the comment. Apologies. Associationism is associated with Pavlov, Pavlov's original experiments were on dogs salivating to stimuli that do not typically elicit salivation but do when associated with other stimuli. I am a Skinnerian and thus the correction was to attribute the idea to its founder. Skinner was the greatest psychologist of all time in my opinion but I believe I would e in the minority there.
Emergence (pdx)
The conundrum with psychology is that the scientific method encounters a problem when applied to this field because the subject of the experiment (i.e., the mind) is the same thing that generated the hypothesis, designed the experiment, interpreted the results and drew the conclusions, making it difficult to claim objectivity. I think the Buddhist practice of meditation is as effective a method as any to study the mind, in this case, one's own.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@Emergence. No. First, psychology is the scientific study of behavior, not of the mind. Second, the subject of experiments are hypotheses derived based on either a new theory, or an extension of an existing theory. Hypotheses are tested, not minds. Third, all science is arguably derived by "minds." This is a straw man argument.
Bill Sr (MA)
I don’t think we can think of psychology as a science until fundamental issues are resolved. What is human psychology’s proper subject matter? This cannot even be defined clearly. Is it mind, behavior, emotion, all of the above or other? What is consciousness? If the subject matter could be clearly defined the question remains of how to study it. It might be necessary to think of the human world as distinct from the natural world because, though we are animals, we have a unique capacity for language, that seems to separate humans from all other animals. Language allows us to step outside the natural world and go beyond laws that dictate how the material universe functions. We seem able to declare through words what the human world is rather than discover it. It’s as if we put into the human world what we find in it rather than observe it and learn as the physicists does. The human world is a human construction nested in the physical universe. We live our symbols as if they represent realty but the merely represent our projections.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@Bill Sr Whaaat? It's a science. Of course, as psychologist, and one who has taught research methods, I am bit a biased about my own field. Read a book on the history of psychology, or take a class in research methods in experimental psychology. One of the core aspects of psychological research is behavioral observation. Please.
ezgene (New Pine Creek, Oregon)
@Bill Sr I couldn't agree more, but to add the whole dualism factor of our evident free will or determinism.
frugalfish (rio de janeiro)
it's not really germane, but lawyers study "law" -- and philosophers have never agreed upon just what "law" is. The most advanced degree in law is an SJD --Scientiae Juridicae Doctor, even though most of us practitioners do not consider law a "science" in the technical sense thereof.
John Kleeberg (New York City)
Sir Karl Popper's definitions of what makes a science (falsifiability) were motivated by his assertion that Freudian psychology is not a science, any more than astrology is. Chemistry is a science - through hydrolysis we can convert water into hydrogen and oxygen, and we can predict how much hydrogen and oxygen will be produced, and in what proportions. We can send people to the moon on the basis of Newtonian physics and astronomy, because Newtonian physics and astronomy tell us where the moon will be. We can undergo anesthesia during surgery and not die, because anesthesiologists know how much anesthesia is safe to administer. We have such confidence in the science of anesthesia that we can entrust anesthesiologists with our lives - but would you trust a psychologist or an anthropologist or an economist with your life? None of the social sciences can claim this predictive power. Maybe it's time we started taking Sir Karl Popper seriously.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@John Kleeberg Right. Psychoanalytic theory was highly debated due to the way Freud did his "research." In short, psychology is a social science, sometimes referred to as a soft science, while the natural or hard sciences of chemistry, physics and biology have more objective phenomena and observable data. This does not make psych and sociology not sciences though (although a lot of natural science folks may differ on this).
pat (chi)
@John Kleeberg I don't that having variability in a response should preclude some areas from being considered a science. Also, some people die during anesthesia.
SteveRR (CA)
@John Kleberg Actually we don't simply use Newtonian Physics in space - it is necessary to account for Einsteinian Relativistic effects and all calculations do
Patricia Ewick (Worcester, Ma)
Since Zimbardo was attempting to simulate prison environment and prison roles, it would be necessary to communicate to prison guards the expectation that they treat prisoners in dehumanizing ways since that is exactly what occurs in real prisons. His point was that cruelty is not necessarily or always an individual character trait. Even well adjusted college students when enacting the role of guard are capable of egregious acts. The instructions Zimbardo gave to the pseudo-guards did not bias the outcome, they produced the outcome. This, moreover, was the point of the simulation. Zimbardo's simulation cannot be replicated for ethical reasons. Perhaps we could attempt to demonstrate the effect of role expectations on behavior by changing real prison culture by communicating to real prison guards that they should treat prisoners with dignity and see if their behavior changes. That would be entirely ethical.
AG (Canada)
@Patricia Ewick what evidence is there about just what prison guards are told is their job? Is it the same in every prison? Are they told their job is to punish and humiliate? Or are they told one thing in principle, but reality means they soon come to act in another? What about in different countries?
Margaret Neubauer (Forest Hills, NY)
The Stanford Prison Experiment may help to understand the callous behavior of some ICE agents.
juarah (New York, NY)
Since Freud it has been argued that psychology is not a science because it can not be measured. And since then the goal has been to measure psychology. We do it by measuring behavior. The flaw is, we are all different, with different experiences. Now it is decades later since the original studies, with children growing up in a different world. It may be more "mindful" to study how we are evolving as a species, not debunking the past and it's failures.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@juarah. Kinda. Yes, psychologists scientifically measure behavior. Further, individual differences are not a flaw of psychology, but actually a part of the science. Some even define psychology is the scientific study of individual differences! (I like the scientific study of behavior better). Freud's research was criticized as unscientific; it was pure case study.
Peter Johnson (London)
The statistical link between intelligence tests (IQ) and economic and social success has been shown to be very strong, and the results have been replicated endlessly. However these powerful results, statistically linking measured IQ and life outcomes, are scientifically correct but not less politically correct. Psychologists attempting to create more politically correct theories have ended up created a mess of unsubstantiated claims with no predictive substance.
Megan (Spokane, WA)
@Peter Johnson IQ test success by people of privilege who have spent their entire lives being trained on how to take tests (a skill in and of itself) are indicative of the traits considered intelligent by the creators of the test. Lower scores by people not trained their entire lives to successfully take tests are then used against them to justify their poverty. That's not science, it's circular logic. It is not "Politically Correct" to look beyond these outdated measures, but rather a generational shift that seeks a more comprehensive way of seeing worth and dignity in individuals.
Sid Griffiths (Boston)
@Peter Johnson will care to know that in London the children of working class white boys are in the bottom of academic achievement trailing minorities from Ghana, Nigeria etc. Please let go of the IQ phenomena. In our current competitive world, your IQ won't save you. Your work ethic will do.
Louis Anthes (Long Beach, CA)
Psychology's claims of being a medicine must be founded on science, not art. If they cannot be founded on science, then its claims cannot be medicine.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@Louis Anthes. Incorrect. Psychology does not claim to be a medicine. It is not a medicine. I think you may be thinking of psychiatry, which is a medical field. Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior. Psychologists cannot prescribe drugs, for example. I am a psychologist. It is a science; it is not a medicine.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@Louis Anthes. OMG!! Almost every post has misinformation. Psychology is not a medicine (LOL), and does not claim to be. (Psychiatry, not psychology, is a medical field.) Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior. The most advanced degrees in the field are doctorates (PhD's), not medical degrees. (I have one, and I am not a doctor who prescribe drugs).
Tracy Mayne (New York, NY)
In other scientific fields, an experiment must be replicated numerous times before it is published. A study must be replicated in several independent labs before it is considered seminal. One does not accept a finding because it subjectively “feels right.” Indeed, Einstein questioned aspects of quantum mechanics based on that litmus test ("I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it”), but replicable experiments proved he was wrong. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a science does not adhere to the foundational tenants of the scientific method, is it really a science?
pat (chi)
@Tracy Mayne Very few studies have been replicated before publication.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@Tracy Mayne. I think Pat, below, is correct. Certain fields, especially medicine, require replication given risks. In most other fields, publication is based on peer review, with scrutiny towards methodological rigor, accuracy of analyses, logical hypothesis, theoretical foundation, and plausible discussion of results, including the studies limitations and research and/or practical implications.
Steve (New York)
Tracy. Apparently your knowledge of scientific literature is very limited. In fact, much of what is published is new and has yet to be replicated. One of the reasons to publish is to inform others of new thoughts and see if whatever was reported can be replicated. Much of what gets published never is.
James R Dupak (New York, New York)
One difficulty with replicating psychological experiments, and probably other social science studies, is that psychology is not static. There are a small number of base level behaviors that are unchanging, but the rest is pliable, and is subject to the cultural milieu, the flux of the environment. Thus, the famous generational gaps--a base level example of behavior.
frugalfish (rio de janeiro)
"there are a small number of base level behaviors that are unchanging but..." I know nothing of psychology, but I'd be interested in hearing exactly which "base level behaviors" are unchanging thoughout humanity around the globe. I personally don't believe there are any such, but perhaps I"m wrong.
walkman666 (Nyc)
@James R Dupak. ...if it's a field study, then yes. The majority of psychological experiments are done in strict laboratory settings with controlled conditions.
Nancy Rathke (Madison WI)
The human being is so variable and responsive to its environment that it adapts pretty easily but is stupefyingly hard to study. I loved working with Skinner boxes but even as an undergraduate realized how fragmentary was knowledge obtained from them.
See also