Category: Methods

We are witnessing a renaissance in psychology

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The future looks bright

By Christian Jarrett

There’s been a lot of talk of the crisis in psychology. For decades, and often with the best of intentions, researchers have engaged in practices that have made it likely their results are “false positives” or not real. But that was in the past. The crisis is ending. “We do not call the rain that follows a long drought a ‘water crisis’,” write Leif Nelson at UC Berkeley and Joseph Simmons and Uri Simonsohn at the University of Pennsylvania. “We do not call sustained growth following a recession an ‘economic crisis'”.

In their paper, due for publication in the Annual Review of Psychology, the trio observe that had any psychologists been in hibernation for the last seven years, they would not recognise their field today. The full disclosure of methods and data, the pre-registration of studies, the publication of negative findings, and replication attempts – all of which help reduce risk of false positives – have increased immeasurably. “The improvements to our field have been dramatic,” they write. “This is psychology’s renaissance.”

As well giving the field of psychology a pep talk, their paper provides a useful review of how we got to this point, the reasons things are getting better, and the ongoing controversies.

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Psychologists have developed the first scientific test of everyday charisma

GettyImages-673558204.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

“Figures such as Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, and Adolf Hitler share this triumphant, mysterious, and fascinating descriptor”, write the authors of a new paper on charisma. And yet, they add, “the empirical study of charisma is relatively young and sparse, and no unifying conceptualization of charisma currently exists”. The research and theorizing that has been done has focused on charismatic leadership, they explain, neglecting the everyday variety. In their paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the University of Toronto researchers describe how they developed their new six-item measure “The General Charisma Inventory” (GCI), and they show how scores on the GCI are associated with people’s persuasiveness and likability.

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Booty more amusing than ass, according to first in-depth study of the funniness of English words

GettyImages-484958654.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

When I was at primary school, we used to type out the word “BOOBIES” using upside-down digits on our electronic calculators and we thought it was hilarious. This was an all-boys school in the late 80s, cut us some slack. And anyway, maybe we weren’t so daft. The word (although spelt differently as “Booby”) was among the top-three most funny words as identified in a new paper in Behaviour Research, which is the first in-depth investigation of the perceived funniness of individual English words.

Among the 5000 words that were studied, Booty was rated the funniest of all, scoring 4.32 on average on a scale from 1 (not funny at all) to 5 (most funny). The lowest scoring word was Rape with an average of 1.18. The researchers Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas Hills at the University of Warwick, England hope their findings will provide a useful resource, a “highly rudimentary ‘fruit fly’ version” of humour” for researchers studying the psychology of what makes us laugh.

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Emotionally competent teens have brains that fire “in tune” with their parents’ brains

GettyImages-174967551.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Up and down the land parents and teenagers are engaged in tense negotiation and diplomacy in an effort to maintain domestic peace. Some households are finding more success than others. Their secret, according to a new paper in NeuroImage, is a literal meeting of minds – synchronisation of brain cell firing seems to foster emotional harmony. Moreover, when parents and their teenagers display this “neural similarity”, write Tae-Ho Lee and his colleagues, “this promotes youths’ psychological adjustment”.

These are intriguing findings – in the fact the researchers claim this is the first time that anyone has compared the brain activity of parent-child dyads with their interpersonal relations. However, sceptics will baulk at the rampant neuro-reductionism and at the paper’s repeated claims of brain-based causation on the basis of purely correlational evidence.

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These nine cognitive psychology findings all passed a stringent test of their replicability

By Christian Jarrett

The failure to reproduce established psychology findings on renewed testing, including some famous effects, has been well-publicised and has led to talk of a crisis in the field. However, psychology is a vast topic and there’s a possibility that the findings from some sub-disciplines may be more robust than others, in the sense of replicating reliably, even in unfavourable circumstances, such as when the participants have been tested on the same effect before.

A new paper currently available as a preprint at PsyArXiv has tested whether this might be the case for nine key findings from cognitive psychology, related to perception, memory and learning. Rolf Zwaan at Erasumus University Rotterdam and his colleagues found that all nine effects replicated reliably. “These results represent good news for the field of psychology,” they said.

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Is something rotten in the state of social psychology? Part Two: digging through the past

Victorian lifeboat men rowing to rescue a stricken shipBy Alex Fradera

A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has taken a hard look at psychology’s crisis of replication and research quality and we’re covering its findings in two parts.

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-profile replication 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.

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Was the “crisis” in social psychology really that bad? Have things improved? Part One: the researchers’ perspective

Antique illustration of By Alex Fradera

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.

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Personality differences uncovered between students at different US universities

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Students at more expensive institutions tended to score higher in trait Neuroticism 

By Christian Jarrett

Psychology is overly dependent on student samples, but on the plus side, you might assume that one advantage of comparing across student samples is that you can rule out the influence of complicating background factors, such as differences in average personality profile. In fact, writing in the Journal of Personality, a team of US researchers led by Katherine Corker at Kenyon College has challenged this assumption: their findings suggest that if you test a group of students at one university, it’s not safe to assume that their average personality profile will match that of a sample of students from a university elsewhere in the same country.

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The ways that student samples differ from the public varies around the world

Students sit facing camera in a modern university classroomBy Christian Jarrett

Biologists have their fruit flies and rats, psychologists have students. An overwhelming amount of behavioral science is conducted with young people at universities on the assumption that it’s safe to generalise from this species of human to people more generally. There are some common-sense reasons for thinking this might be a problem and also some more specific issues, which we’ve documented before, such as that burnt out students could be skewing the findings.

Now a recent study in PLOS One shows that the ways students differ from the public is different depending on which country you’re in, meaning it’s extra complicated to figure out if and when it’s appropriate to extrapolate student-based findings to people as a whole.

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A scientific measure of our visual imagination suggests it is surprisingly limited

The ThinkerBy Alex Fradera

The human mind has been so successful in transforming the material world that it is easy to forget that it too is subject to its own constraints. From biases in our judgment to the imperfection of our memory, psychology has done useful work mapping out many of these limits, yet when it comes to the human imagination, most of us still like to see it as something boundless. But new research in the journal Cognition, on the capacity of our visual imagination, suggests that we soon hit its limits.

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