A US sociologist has accused baby psych labs of being creative with their results

By Christian Jarrett

A US academic who spent 16 months embedded in three American psychology baby labs reports that he observed numerous examples of researchers cutting corners and bending the rules of science. Writing in Socius, David Peterson at Northwestern University in Chicago says that doing psychology research with babies is so challenging and costly that developmental psychologists routinely do things like: checking early in a study whether their results are going to be significant (and abandoning or changing tack if they don’t look promising); comparing notes with other supposedly independent judges when coding whether babies are looking at a stimulus; taking a relaxed approach to task instructions (for example, telling mothers that it doesn’t really matter too much if their eyes are closed or not during a task); and making up post-hoc explanatory stories to account for surprising results, with those stories later presented as the initial impetus for the research. As an example of that last point, Peterson quotes an exchange between a grad student and her mentor: “You don’t have to reconstruct your logic. You have the results now. If you can come up with an interpretation that works, that will motivate the hypothesis.”

The open-access paper, presented as an ethnographic study of baby labs, comes at a time when psychology is working hard to tighten up its research practices, for example through the Center for Open Science and the introduction of registered reports in which planned hypothesis-driven methodologies are accepted for publication before their results are in. Peterson says that he “took part in nearly every aspect of laboratory life”, that he took notes throughout the course of each day, and recorded all direct quotations immediately. “Ultimately I argue that developmental psychologists meet disciplinary requirements through a set of strategies that bend results toward statistical significance,” he writes.

The Baby Factory
Difficult Research Objects, Disciplinary Standards, and the Production of Statistical Significance

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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