In Part One, published yesterday, we reported the views of active research psychologists on the state of their field, as surveyed by Matt Motyl and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Researchers reported a cautious optimism: research practices hadn’t been as bad as feared, and are in any case improving.
But is their optimism warranted? After all, several high-profilereplication projects have found that, more often than not, re-running previously successful studies produces only null results. But defenders of the state of psychology argue that replications fail for many reasons, including defects in the reproduction and differences in samples, so the implications aren’t settled.
To get closer to the truth, Motyl’s team complemented their survey findings with a forensic analysis of published data, uncovering results that seem to bolster their optimistic position. In Part Two of our coverage, we look at these findings and why they’re already proving controversial.
The field of social psychology is reeling from a series of crises that call into question the everyday scientific practices of its researchers. The fuse was lit by statistician John Ioannidis in 2005, in a review that outlined why, thanks particularly to what are now termed “questionable research practices” (QRPs), over half of all published research in social and medical sciences might be invalid. Kaboom. This shook a large swathe of science, but the fires continue to burn especially fiercely in the fields of social and personality psychology, which marshalled its response through a 2012 special issue in Perspectives on Psychological Science that brought these concerns fully out in the open, discussing replication failure, publication biases, and how to reshape incentives to improve the field. The fire flared up again in 2015 with the publication of Brian Nosek and the Open Science Collaboration’s high-profile attempt to replicate 100 studies in these fields, which succeeded in only 36 per cent of cases. Meanwhile, and to its credit, efforts to institute better safeguards like registered reports have gathered pace.
So how bad did things get, and have they really improved?A new article in pre-print at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tries to tackle the issue from two angles: first by asking active researchers what they think of the past and present state of their field, and how they now go about conducting psychology experiments, and second by analysing features of published research to estimate the prevalence of broken practices more objectively.
The paper comes from a large group of authors at the University of Illinois at Chicago under the guidance of Linda Skitka, a distinguished social psychologist who participated in the creation of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and who is on the editorial board of many more social psych journals, and led by Matt Motyl, a social and personality psychologist who has published with Nosek in the past, including on the issue of improving scientific practice.
Psychology research is the air that we breathe at the Digest, making it crucial that we understand its quality. So in this two-part series, we’re going to explore the issues raised in the University of Illinois at Chicago paper, to see if we can make sense of the state of social psychology, beginning in this post with the findings from Motyl et al’s survey of approximately 1,200 social and personality psychologists, from graduate students to full professors, mainly from the US, Europe and Australasia.
Have you heard the riddle about the doctor? A father and his son are involved in a car accident and taken to different hospitals, the boy to a children’s hospital and the father to the general hospital. When the boy arrives at hospital, the doctor on call is shocked, saying “I can’t treat this boy, he’s my son!” The question is: who’s the doctor? The answer, as with many riddles, is obvious once you know it: the doctor is the boy’s mother. Years ago when I first heard this riddle, I was stumped, even though the only doctor I had contact with in my own life happened to be a woman. The very fact that this question works as a riddle is testament to the strength of negative stereotypes surrounding women’s scientific abilities.
Women who take degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects do just as well as their male colleagues, even though they are far outnumbered by them: in the UK, only 14 per cent of engineering and technology students, and 17 per cent of computer science students are women. The picture is similar in the USA, where Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Karisma Morton carried out a study, published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, to investigate why the numbers are so low.
Unfortunately and often with the best of intentions, surveys have shown that a lot of teachers believe these myths (for instance, one survey published in 2012 found that British and Dutch teachers believed around half of the 15 neuromyths they were tested on). Now a study in Frontiers in Psychology has focused on German music teachers and students to see how vulnerable they are to brain myths pertaining specifically to music. Although the participants showed some ability to distinguish between true facts and myths, they still endorsed around 40 per cent of the myths, especially those that contained neuroscientific jargon.
It’s a stereotype that has improved a little over the years but still persists: women are more emotionally expressive than men. Like Bridget Jones, we constantly reveal exactly how we’re feeling, while men, Mark Darcy-like, look on impassively.
Although prior evidence suggests that women really do smile more often, a new study, published in PLOS One, has considered a greater variety of facial expressions, and it finds that the gender pattern is more complex, with some emotions displayed more by men than women. Arguably, this work helps to reveal not only differences in the emotional signals men and women send to others, but also differences in the emotions that we feel.
Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions. Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?
In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally. People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people. As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.
“The truth is that everyone is bored,” according to Albert Camus – but a new article in the journal Emotion gets beyond sweeping statements in the most comprehensive study of everyday boredom to date. The nationally-representative sample of 4000 American adults used an iPhone app to record their mood every waking half-hour, with boredom turning up in only three per cent of entries. When boredom was present, it was often mixed with other negative emotions, like loneliness and sadness, and rarely with positive ones. Surprisingly, boredom had a strong relationship with anger, which goes against the idea that boredom, itself low-arousal, cannot mix with more intense feelings.
You’ve just had a fight with your partner or a confrontation with a colleague. Now your heart’s racing, and you’re struggling to think straight. What should you do?
Psychologists are not short on ideas for how to calm yourself down after a stressful experience. Seek out a friend? Yes, there’s good evidence that can help. But what if there’s no friend to hand? You could try to alter your view of what just happened from “Disaster!” to “Not really so bad”.
But it can be difficult to engage in this kind of “cognitive reappraisal” when you’re in the immediate aftermath of a stressful event – perhaps because acute stress compromises the neural circuitry that’s involved in emotion regulation.
Your brain needs help if it’s to quickly regain control. And, according to a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, you can provide it by thinking back over good times.
Most employers like their workers to think of themselves not as employees but as “citizens” of the organisation, proactively engaging in activities like helping others out or coming up with company improvements – activities that aren’t specified in a job description yet help the organisation thrive. But more and more, these supposedly discretional citizenship behaviours are being demanded by managers more overtly – outlined in ‘The Way We Work’ documents, or threatened informally as necessary to get ahead. Now an article in the Academy of Management Journal suggests being forced to be a good citizen has some perverse consequences: when you’re grudgingly good, you become blasé about doing bad.