Why replication is funny

A sadly undervalued fact about replication, easily missed amid the clamour over expertise (Strack, 2017), flair (Baumeister, 2016), contextual variability (Crandall & Sherman, 2016), bullying (Schnall, 2014), tone (Chambers, 2017), and of course the “improvement of psychological science”, is that replication is funny. As a case in point, consider this short video. It was prepared by Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, Titia Beek, and Laura Dijkhoff for their replication of a classic study of a ‘facial feedback’ effect (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988; Wagenmakers et al., 2016). The original experiment had purportedly shown that people holding a pen between their teeth (which produces a smile) rate cartoons on average funnier than people holding a pen between their lips (which produces a pout). The facial expression enhances the emotion, even when people do not realise they’re smiling.

Wagenmakers and colleagues had this experiment replicated not once, but seventeen times, by different labs. To show those seventeen labs how to conduct the experiment and make sure that all replications were close copies, Wagenmakers’ team created an instruction video. They made a mock-up of a cubicle, furnished it with the experimental materials, and filmed two people as they enacted the procedure of the experiment.

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Explanation, prediction, replication, application

This is a comment on applied psychology. It is a comment inspired on the one hand by a few very optimistic statements about the good that psychology is doing in the world, that appeared recently in Perspectives on Psychological Science, and on the other hand by a decidedly more pessimistic view to be published soon in the same journal, as well as by a problem in what you could call the ‘conceptual replication’ position in the current crisis debate in psychology.

In July, Perspectives published a ‘Special Symposium on the Future Direction of Psychological Science’, and naturally most of the papers began by reflecting on the current state of the discipline. What struck me was that quite a few of the authors were very positive, almost glowing about psychology’s contributions to society. Susan Fiske wrote that”(a)s a field, we are everywhere in policy advice” (2017, p. 652) producing reports on topics ranging from safe sunbathing to national security and counterfeiting. Likewise, Carol Dweck rejoiced that psychology’s passion for addressing social issues “has earned our field a seat at decision-making tables around the world, advising world leaders, economic councils, and ministries of health and education.” (Dweck, 2017, p. 657) Diane Halpern (2017) and Ethan Kross (2017) presented similar optimistic assessments of psychology’s social impact.

Sitting at the decision-making table is one thing, but how did those psychologically improved decisions work out? There is little to nothing in these four papers about the effects of psychological interventions. There is a lot of ‘working towards …’, ‘beginning to …’, and similar hedging of the difference that psychology makes in practice, but no concrete success stories. It is good to know that government is becoming more evidence-based, but one would also like to see the evidence for the efficacy of psychological interventions. Especially since there are reasons to be more pessimistic of psychology’s technological prowess as well.

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Science and I

The other day my son told me that in his school essays he is not allowed to use a phrase like “I will conclude that…” I agreed that such announcements are inelegant – just do it, and write clearly enough so that the reader knows what it is you’re doing. But that was not the problem. He is not allowed to use “I”, because “it is unscientific”. My heart sank. Why must 15-year olds be corrupted with this nonsense? It is bad enough that this dogma is stamped into our first-year students’ brains. Each year I need to reassure my bachelor thesis students that with me, they can use any personal pronoun they like. And then I have to reassure them again, because after all, they insist, using “I” is unscientific, everyone knows that. When it finally gets through to them that it’s really okay, they giggle. Continue reading “Science and I”

How to be irresistible

In the commercials for Axe deodorant, popular with adolescent boys, its qualities are always advertised in roughly the same way: by showing that a man – however unattractive – becomes irresistible to women when he smells of Axe. This modern variation on the love potion illustrates the kind of fantasy of control over other people that can be found, I suspect, in every culture throughout the ages. Whether by magic or by speech, with charisma or hypnosis, people have tried to make others do what they want in a way that is predictably effective. One could, of course, try to reason with the other, or, the other extreme, resort to violence, but naked reason is often too weak and physical force incites resentment and revolt. People have sought a more subtle, yet powerful force. Continue reading “How to be irresistible”

Flair

Roy Baumeister, a social and personality psychologist of great standing, recently commented on the replication debate in psychology and on the much-discussed non-replications of some of his own studies.1 Baumeister is worried about the current push for more replications and more statistical power. He foresees a social psychology that is obsessed with large samples and precise procedures, at the detriment of the kind of small-scale creative work that social psychologists have excelled at and that has brought the field so much success. Continue reading “Flair”