Psychology as a scientific field enjoys a tremendous level of popularity throughout society, a fascination that could even be described as religious. This is likely the reason why it is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in European and American universities. At the same time, it is not uncommon to encounter the firm opinion that psychology in no way qualifies for consideration as a science. Such extremely critical opinions about psychology are often borrowed from authorities – after all, it was none other than the renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who, in a famous interview in 1974, compared the social sciences and psychology in particular to a cargo cult. Scepticism toward psychological science can also arise following encounters with the commonplace simplifications and myths spread by pop-psychology, or as a product of a failure to understand what science is and how it solves its dilemmas.
According to William O’Donohue and Brendan Willis of the University of Nevada, these issues are further compounded by undergraduate psychology textbooks. Writing recently in Archives of Scientific Psychology, they argue that “[a] lack of clarity and accuracy in [psych textbooks] in describing what science is and psychology’s relationship to science are at the heart of these issues.” The authors based their conclusions on a review of 30 US and UK undergraduate psychology textbooks, most updated in the last few years (general texts and others covering abnormal, social and cognitive psych), in which they looked for 18 key contemporary issues in philosophy of science.
Part of the strength of the widely endorsed Big Five model of personality is its efficient explanatory power – in the traits of Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, it removes the redundancy of more fine-grained approaches and manages to capture the most meaningful variance in our habits of thought and behaviour.
So what to make then of the popular proposal that what marks out high achievers from the rest is that they rank highly on another trait labelled as “Grit”?
Is the recognition of Grit, and the development of a scale to measure it, a breakthrough in our understanding of the psychology of success? Or is it a reinvention of the wheel, a redundant addition to the taxonomy of personality psychology?
In 2016, the US-based authors of a meta-analysis on the topic concluded “that Grit as currently measured is simply a repackaging of Conscientiousness”. Now a different research team, based in Germany and Switzerland, has taken a more intricate look at the links between Grit and Conscientiousness, this time including a focus on their respective facets (or sub-traits). Writing in the European Journal of Personality, Fabian Schmidt and his colleagues conclude that “Grit represents yet another contribution to the common problem of redundant labelling of constructs in personality psychology.”
Amid all the talk of a “replication crisis” in psychology, here’s a rare good news story – a new project has found that a sub-field of the discipline, known as “experimental philosophy” or X-phi, is producing results that are impressively robust.
The current crisis in psychology was largely precipitated by a mass replication attempt published by the Open Science Collaboration (OSC) project in 2015. Of 100 previously published significant findings, only 39 per cent replicated unambiguously, rising to 47 per cent on more relaxed criteria.
Part of my role at the Digest involves sifting through journals looking for research worth covering, and I’ve sensed that modern social psychology generates plenty of studies based on questionnaire data, but far fewer that investigate the kind of tangible behavioural outcomes illuminated by the field’s classics, from Asch’s conformity experiments to Milgram’s research on obedience to authority. A new paper in Social Psychological Bulletin examines this apparent change systematically. Based on his findings, Dariusz Doliński at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland asks the bleak question: is psychology still a science of behaviour?
Would you wilfully hurt or kill one person so as to save multiple others? That’s the dilemma at the heart of moral psychology’s favourite thought experiment and its derivatives. In the classic case, you must decide whether or not to pull a lever to divert a runaway mining trolley so that it avoids killing five people and instead kills a single individual on another line. A popular theory in the field states that, to many of us, so abhorrent is the notion of deliberately harming someone that our “deontological” instincts deter us from pulling the lever; on the other hand, the more we intellectualise the problem with cool detachment, the more likely we will make a utilitarian or consequentialist judgment and divert the trolley.
Armed with thought experiments of this kind, psychologists have examined all manner of individual and circumstantial factors that influence the likelihood of people making deontological vs. utilitarian moral decisions. However, there’s a fatal (excuse the pun) problem. A striking new paper in Psychological Science finds that our answers to the thought experiments don’t match up with our real-world moral decisions.
Johannes Eichstaedt was sitting in a coffee shop by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala when he received a slack about a tweet about a preprint. In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and his colleagues published a headline-grabbing article linking heart disease to the language used on Twitter. They’d found that tweets emanating from US counties with high rates of heart disease mortality tended to exhibit high levels of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, disengagement, aggression, and hate. The study, published in Psychological Science, has proven influential, already accruing over 170 citations. But three years later, the preprint authors Nick Brown and James Coyne from the University of Groningen claimed to have identified “numerous conceptual and methodological limitations”. Within the month, Eichstaedt and his colleagues issued a riposte, publishing their own preprint that claims further evidence to support their original conclusions.
As recent revelations surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have highlighted, corporations and political organisations attach a high value to social media data. But, Eichstaedt argues, that same data also offers rich insights into psychological health and well-being. With appropriate ethical oversight, social media analytics could promote population health and perhaps even save lives. That at least is its promise. But with big data come new challenges – as Eichstaedt’s “debate” with Brown and Coyne illustrates.
Does power posing – such as standing with your hands on your hips and your feet spaced well apart – really help to improve your life?
Yes – according to Amy Cuddy, one of the pioneers of the idea, at Harvard University (famous for her massively popular TED talk on the subject and her best-selling book Presence). No – according to a critical analysis by Joseph Simmons and Uri Simonsohn at the University of Pennsylvania, published in Psychological Science in 2017. The pair’s statistical analysis of 33 previous studies of potential posture effects led them to a damning conclusion: “the existing evidence is too weak to… advocate for people to engage in power posing to better their lives.”
But now Cuddy, and colleagues, are back, with a new paper also published in Psychological Science. While Cuddy appears to be softening her claims about what power-posing can achieve, she and her colleagues argue that their new analysis shows that there is strong evidence that posture affects emotions in particular, and that power-posing is likely to have a meaningful impact on people, and should not be discounted.
Many millions of people around the world have taken the “implicit association test (IAT)” hosted by Harvard University. By measuring the speed of your keyboard responses to different word categories (using keys previously paired with a particular social group), it purports to show how much subconscious or “implicit” prejudice you have towards various groups, such as different ethnicities. You might think that you are a morally good, fair-minded person free from racism, but the chances are your IAT results will reveal that you apparently have racial prejudices that are outside of your awareness.
What is it like to receive this news, and what do the public think of the IAT more generally? To find out, a team of researchers, led by Jeffery Yen at the University of Guelph, Ontario, analysed 793 reader comments to seven New York Times articles (op-eds and science stories) about the IAT published between 2008 and 2010. The findings appear in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
It’s common for psychologists to use the terms “self-control” and “cognitive control” interchangeably. Consider the introduction to a review paper published recently in Trends in Cognitive Sciences on whether our self-control is limited or not (I’ve added the emphases): “Whereas cognitive control relies on at least three separate (yet related) executive functions – task switching, working-memory, and inhibition – at its heart, self-control is most clearly related to inhibitory cognitive control …”
When scholars do make a distinction, they mostly use self-control to refer to the ability to delay immediate gratification in the service of a longer-term goal, whereas they use the term cognitive control to refer to the related ability to ignore distracting information or stimuli. Defined this way, do self-control and cognitive control essentially involve the same mental processes? According to a new study by Stefan Scherbaum at Technische Universität Dresden and his colleagues in Acta Psychologica, they do not.
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.