by Tom Chivers
Friday, 23
April 2021
Idea
07:00

Will social psychology ever clean up its act?

Too many famous findings in the field have turned out to be rubbish
by Tom Chivers
Do his findings replicate? Photo by Jay Shaw Baker/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Everyone’s heard of the marshmallow test, right? You put a child in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. And you say to that child, “You can have this marshmallow! Or you can have two, if you can wait until I get back.” Then you go away for 15 minutes or something.

There are two things to say about this. One is that it gives you lots of very cute videos of children trying not to eat a marshmallow. And the other is that a famous study found that children who were able to wait 15 minutes and get the second marshmallow would, over the decades to come, do better in life on various metrics than the ones who didn’t. They earned more, they did better at school, they had fewer behavioural problems, they tended to be slimmer. 

This is one of the most famous results in psychology — one of those ones, like the Dunning-Kruger effect, that is part of popular culture. It’s fair to say that Cookie Monster and Tom Hiddlestone have never been asked to make a video teaching children about the affect heuristic or psychological anchoring. It’s even been in school curricula. I may even have mentioned it myself.

So it will not surprise you to learn that, like almost every other well-known psychological finding from before about 2011, it probably isn’t real. There have been concerns for a while — a study in 2018 found a much smaller effect which disappeared if you controlled for a few basic things, such as the child’s intelligence and social class. (Vox did a good writeup here.) But recently a re-analysis of the original study’s data, looking at the same now-middle-aged subjects of the original 1960s work, found no correlation between whether they resisted the marshmallow and all the outcomes — BMI, behaviour problems, earnings, etc — that have been linked to it. (Again, there’s a longer-form writeup here.)

There are so many things like this that I have started to lose count. The idea that forcing people to smile makes them happier? Didn’t replicate. Standing in “power poses” makes you more confident? Didn’t replicate. “Priming” people with the concept of money makes them act more selfishly? Honnnnnnnnk. The Stanford Prison Experiment: nope. Entire subfields of psychology have become suspect. Growth mindset, violent video games causing aggression, positive psychology, stereotype threat, implicit bias: so much of it is either shaky or false.

It’s all good news, in a way. In 2011, psychology took three big hits: one, a paper called Feeling the Future was published, which used statistical techniques entirely standard within the discipline to apparently show that people could predict the future. Two, another paper deliberately used similar techniques to apparently show that listening to the Beatles literally made you younger. (I wrote about it here.) And a well-known social psychologist, Diederik Stapel, was found to have been fabricating data in many of his widely cited studies. Scientists realised that their house was built on sand.

Since then, psychology (and science in general) has started to clean up its act: to impose much better statistical and data-gathering hygiene, so this sort of nonsense becomes harder. The “replication crisis” is really a story of a scientific discipline becoming actually disciplined.

But still, this is a reminder. Famous psychological experiments with headline-worthy findings have a worrying tendency to be garbage. Often they feel truthy — they feel like they’re explaining something deep — but all too often they haven’t stood up to scrutiny.

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David Stanley
David Stanley
1 year ago

When I was at university almost everyone I met who did psychology was a socially awkward werido who seemed fascinated by the most mundane of revelations about human behavior. Aspects of the human condition that most of us suss out via the normal process of interacting with others seemed like an alien world to them.
Also, the whole subject seems to have degenerated into left wing social engineering (as Jordan Peterson said “all the right wing psychologists are sitting in this room, in this chair”) to the extent that it is now largely useless.
Almost all conclusions are predetermined to show that the left has all the answers and the solutions are delivered by those who have no inherent understanding of human nature. And people wonder why psychology is struggling for credibility.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Stanley
David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

I’d never normally stick up for psychology or psychologists. However, I think it is wrong to say that their conclusions are predetermined, and it is weird to use their lack of ‘inherent understanding of human nature’ against them.
To be as fair to them as possible, they are motivated to explore and understand what human nature is and what it is composed of. Nobody has an inherently correct understanding of human nature; all of us are nurtured (or not-nurtured) which affects both our own ‘nature’ and our empathy (our understanding of the natures of others). Edit: Can you give me an example of ‘inherent human nature?’
I put the failure of psychology down to wrong assumptions (that’s where their intent is premeditated) and bad experimental design (which leads them to wrong conclusions).

Last edited 1 year ago by David Fitzsimons
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago

True. I’d suggest a third reason for failure. People are looking for significant findings – reliable patterns in the data – and it is extremely hard to find anything reliable and general. When the entire area is very important (and it is!) and there are very few significant things to find, there is a strong temptation to run with your finding when you finally get one, rather than stamp it ‘statistically insiginificant’ and throw it in the bin, like you did with all the others.

David Stanley
David Stanley
1 year ago

I would say that the following constitute inherent human nature:
Preferring one’s own tribe to any other. Men are more likely to be violent than women. Young people are more impetuous than older people. Young men have a higher sex drive than anyone else. We become more conservative as we get older.
I mean I could go on but there are clear patterns of human behaviour that are common to all human societies. That doesn’t mean every single person will exhibit these traits but when almost every society has these features it is pretty difficult to put them down to nurture.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

it is pretty difficult to put them down to nurture.”

but they do!

William Harvey
William Harvey
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

nature v nurture . Books like the Selfish Gene pushed everyone down the nature path. Now its all swung back to the nurture path. At the end of the day we are a species of ape that has been evolving for millions of years and we are still evolving. Cultures come and go .. but evolution and the drivers behind that are forever and cannot be ignored. Maybe each persons makeup is a percentage of nature and nature and all the investigation is to determine what bit is what. AS for the current psychologists. Well they have a living to make and a new theory about some trait makes for a good book and some dollars in the bank. They are also trying to raise their status ..because that is what evolution is driving them to do isn’t it?

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago

I’ve downvoted you because to many studies are of the “bears shit in the woods” variety and that’s followed up by using minuscule sample sizes and believing the results can be extrapolated to humanity as a whole.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

It has always been ‘left-wing social engineering’. That is its entire purpose.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

Many of the “knowns” of the”science” of psychology are based on experiments whose subjects were American college students in search of some extra money or donuts.

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

Maybe the field attracts the ‘weirdos’ who are navel-gazing and trying to understand their own ‘weirdness’ relative to the society they are part of. Just a thought.

David Stanley
David Stanley
1 year ago

I think there’s definitely a lot of truth in that. However, their experiences shouldn’t be extrapolated to society as a whole.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

My favourite – as in, it exposed them utterly – example was when psychologists proved to their own satisfaction that people who disagreed with global warming alarmism were all mentally ill. The rigour was all you’d expect.
Psychology seems to attract people who think Soviet-era punitive psychiatry was a golden age. They’re lefties and they desperately want there to be evidence that proves you’re always wrong to disagree with left wing positions.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

To continue our discussion yesterday, you defined ‘religion’ as something which concerned a ‘supreme being’. This is not correct because Buddhism has Buddha but not in the sense of a person who is a creator.
Religion is a belief which does not have reason or proof. Today, environmentalism is a religion. Millions of young people recite the ‘religious’ views without any real knowledge. One young person is heading towards the status of a God with statues and, who knows, buildings for people to pray together for the planet. If Greta writes a book, what would we call it? The Environmental Bible?

Wokeism is the same. BLM stickers are like religious icons.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Wow – Greta can write.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
1 year ago

Given the time she spent at school, i doubt it

William Harvey
William Harvey
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Id agree that all of those things religions.. particularly global warming / environmentalism ..
I would also contend that the belief in the hidden hand of the Free Market and the power of “Free Enterprise” is also a religion to some.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
1 year ago

Time to debunk ‘nudge’. I watched Adam Curtis’ documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head recently, after reading about it in Unherd. It’s truly brilliant. The final episode suggests humans are far stronger than those who think psychological manipulation can be a viable political or economical tool for mass control. I’m not sure whether the arrogant insult or the waste of resources in the adoption of behavioural psychology’s ‘nudge’ nonsense as a pandemic management strategy is worse.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Well that’s a bit like asking if the Mexican drugs cartels will ever clean up their act. As we all know, social psychology is a largely useless and often damaging pursuit designed to keep the clever but useless in employment.
Funnily enough I have just read what is supposed to be a classic text on this approximate subject: Games People Play by Eric Berne. It was mostly very boring and annoying, just statements of the obvious.

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Rather the no-so-clever but useless …

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

That’s the problem with classic texts that break new ground. Games People Play was rather less obvious in the 1950s when it was written. He came up with the whole idea that, instead of looking for things in people’s unconscious, or their memories of their childhood we should watch what people are doing in their social interactions, with other people, right now. Obvious in hindsight, but not at the time.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Yes, that’s a fair point, and I was kind of aware of that. But I still found the book to be incredibly tedious for the most part.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
1 year ago

I agree. I think that Berne’s works are significant in understanding human behaviour.

It should be noted that he was a stern critic of ‘therapies’ that enrich practitioners with slender provable benefits for the patients (eg psycho-analysis: years of intensive and costly therapy with outcomes little better than no therapy at all).

Also, his theories emphasise the individual’s autonomy and agency in making their lives better, and promptly. (Eg: prospective patient: ‘Doctor, I’m desperate for help overcoming problems connected with drinking – divorce, job loss, waking up in strangers’ beds! My life is a nightmare! I need analysis!’ Berne: ‘You don’t need analysis. You need to stop drinking.’

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I remember reading it in my teens (1980s) in translation – at the time, i found it pretty interesting. Not that i can recall any of it, except some bits about the concept of personal space in different cultures (unless i’m mixing it up with a different book?) – and stuff what basically boils down to national / social stereotypes, so i guess it would be on the ‘cancel’ list these days…

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
1 year ago

Psychology mirrors the issue of architecture, art and politics – an extremely important field, with potential for really improving people’s life, that unfortunatelly gets populated by incompetent people.
In all these fields, an effort to regulate admission risks excluding really talented individuals that happen not to fit pre-selection criteria.
The flip side of this argument is what we are experiencing now… obnoxious impostors crowding the space of a few competent individuals. And giving the whole field a bad name.

Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
1 year ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

It’s not been a problem of a few incompetent individuals giving the whole field a bad name so much as one of a widespread and long-standing [tolerance of] scientific incompetence. Andrew Gelman’s article has a more detailed treatment of this issue and rightly points out [see link at bottom] that it’s affected many fields, not just social psychology. Scientists are not as quick to acknowledge and correct error as they should be; as one might expect them to be. Especially not when the correction comes from ‘outsiders’. The “bad statistical inference in science story” has been particularly shocking (see e.g. the second link in my comment here).

Walter Brigham
Walter Brigham
1 year ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

The preselection criteria is ideological. This is a problem in all academia.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

Social Psychology is not really a science at all. It is more of a humanity like history. Both deal with human behaviour and both have recorded observations which depend on the recorder for their veracity. Even when true they can be interpreted in different ways according to the historian’s psychologist’s perspective and can be completely rewritten to serve a political purpose. By all means enjoy them for what they are, but don’t rely on them to help make rational decisions on what to do in the future.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

True. But one might add that lots of people have successfully used history to “help make rational decisions on what to do in the future”. Winston Churchill for one. Social psychology, like history, could have useful contributions to make. It just might do better if it behaved more like a humanity and relied less on experiments where you put groups of undergraduates in contrived situations in order to get something with a p-value.

Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

It is really a science. In some sciences it’s harder to find the reliable patterns and it’s easier to do them badly.

gmdcurrie
gmdcurrie
1 year ago

Reminded of one illustration of the Nature/Nurture debate where the college Professor attributes his own children’s achievements to nature, and those of his students ‘to nurture.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

Picky point RE debunking the marshmallow test. Vox would indeed love to debunk it. But controlling for intelligence and social class is actually silly, because what you are trying to find out is if the test is an indicator of future success (likely via the better self-control that the test indicates). Full stop. If you start to control for things like intelligence it actually muddies things unnecessarily.
An analogy is some terrible research that came out a few years ago that “showed” that exercising too much was bad for you. When you dissected the studies, what the researchers had done was control for things like cholesterol, BP, and BMI. So what the study ended up proving that if you are running a ton, and your weight and cholesterol and BP is still as bad as the slobs who sit on their couch, you are truly screwed. It means you have either really bad genes or are living off a diet of cheesecake, rum and cigarettes. What the study failed to actually prove was that running too much is bad for a person. Similarly, over-controlling doesn’t obviate the original conclusion of the marshmallow study.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

I thought a first that this was a good point. But on reflection, let’s say that experiment did control for intelligence and social class, and found that a homogeneous test-group of intelligent middle-class children produced these results: (a) the ones who held off eating the marshmallows and (b) those who gave in to temptation. If later research showed that those in (a) had done better in adult life than those in (b), wouldn’t that be a more significant finding on the correlation of human predisposition and life outcome?

Sue Julians
Sue Julians
1 year ago

Loved this piece. I’m guilty of using the Stanford prison guard experiment to try and understand the behaviour of some zero covidians’ insistence that authoritarian measures should continue, so I feel a little chastened. (But rightly so)
I’ve always been bemused by the marshmallow test. Surely the question should be why some kids are able to resist with the promise of future reward? If you’re hungry, or have reason to distrust the person promising the second treat, you’d eat the first one. This is less a reflection on moral fibre and potential success, and more one of privilege I’d have thought?

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Thanks, Tom, for debunking psychology. I look forward to you doing something similar for climate science.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

See his article of, I think, Sep19. Not a debunk but a welcome dose of context and perspective