Given how much I quote psychological research on this blog, I was not comfortable to read a couple of recent articles which call psychology methodology into question from two different angles: one in terms of the use of deception and the other in terms of failure to replicate. In all conscience though I felt I had to share them as I draw on this body of evidence so much: I owe you all a psychological health warning.
The first article, Lying for Science by Antonio Melechi on the Aeon website, is a long and interesting read that a friend flagged up for me and, while his treatment of the issue of deception is important including even a sideswipe in passing at Zimbardo, what grabbed my attention most were the doubts flagged up about the validity of Milgram’s work on obedience.
The Australian psychologist Gina Perry has recently claimed that Milgram, as well as overlooking the sizeable number of volunteers who refused to comply with the experimenter’s demands, ignored the misgivings voiced by those who were skeptical of his learning experiment. At least one of Milgram’s laboratory volunteers withdrew, suspecting that ‘the whole experiment was designed to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders’. Some participants were nonplussed by the experimenter’s indifference towards the ‘learners’ and unconvinced by the anguished cries that came from a nearby loudspeaker; others had an inchoate sense of something being amiss. Far from providing a reliable proxy of real-life behaviour, Milgram had, at best, staged a bold but confusing charade, a ham-fisted invitation to make-believe.
Given how often I quote him to support my line of reasoning, this kind of undermining is not good!
Below is a short extract from this statement of valid concerns marred by the odd cheap shot: for the full post see link.
Nearly 50 years ago, a 35-year-old bank employee from Madrid named Jordán Peña had a fiendish idea: he would contact fellow UFO-spotters across the city, purporting to be an extraterrestrial – DEI 98, from the planet Ummo. Spinning an audaciously convoluted yarn, Peña would proceed to chronicle the turbulent history of the fictitious planet, drip-feeding his saucer-eyed compadres information on the curious physiology of Ummo’s inhabitants, the intricacies of their language and system of government, and the mind-boggling technologies that they had deployed on recent missions to traverse the 14.6 light years from Ummo to earth.
Several hundred letters later, Peña’s Space Age prank was running amok. Letters from DEI 98 were hot property. Academics were beginning to give serious attention to the Ummite language and their constellation of pseudo-scientific formulas. And a Bolivian spiritualist cult, ‘the daughters of Ummo’, embraced the Ummite teachings with messianic fervour. Have faith, the Ummites are coming.
When Señor Peña eventually stepped forward to reveal himself as the author of the Ummo correspondence, ufologists had good reason to suspect that his prodigiously elaborate hoax was probably a government-sponsored exercise in misinformation. Peña remained poker-faced. He had acted alone. He was testing a pet theory of widespread paranoia, and he was using the tried and tested methodology of every social psychologist. Ummo was not a hoax: it was an experiment.
In many ways, this was a plausible cover story. Peña’s alleged experiment was certainly conceived in an era when all manner of risky stratagems and questionable illusions were deemed fair play within the social sciences, especially in the field of social psychology. A few years earlier, to generate evidence for the theory of cognitive dissonance, the American psychologist Leon Festinger had staged a CIA-style undercover operation, infiltrating the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, a Chicago-based Doomsday cult that was nervously awaiting the arrival of an extra-terrestrial rescue party, sent to save them from the Great Deluge which was, they believed, about to engulf North America.
Meanwhile, in order to study the whys and wherefores of inter-group conflict, the Turkish-born psychologist Muzafer Sherif donned caretaker’s overalls, spying on and stirring up enmity between 22 boys on a bogus summer camp in Oklahoma. And in the most controversial of all social psychology experiments, Stanley Milgram at Yale had tried to shed light on the kind of unthinking obedience found within the ranks of the Third Reich by way of a fake ‘learning experiment’, in which volunteers were asked to administer electric shocks to fellow subjects.
With the blustering chutzpah of the short-con artist and the slick artistry of the stage magician, Festinger, Sherif and Milgram led the generation of post-war psychologists that contrived to rewrite the rules of laboratory and field research. Whether hiding out in public toilets, staging blood-splattered accidents, feigning madness to gain entry to psychiatric hospitals, or commissioning Hollywood actors to deliver nonsensical lectures on game theory, these tenured tricksters were convinced of one thing: deception was the only reliable way of studying true-to-life behaviour.
The second article Psychology experiments are failing the replication test by Ian Sample, from the Guardian at the end of August, I stumbled across myself and choked on the evidence indicating that ‘In the investigation, a whopping 75% of the social psychology experiments were not replicated, meaning that the originally reported findings vanished when other scientists repeated the experiments. Half of the cognitive psychology studies failed the same test. Details are published in the journal Science.’
Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.
A major investigation into scores of claims made in psychology research journals has delivered a bleak verdict on the state of the science.
An international team of experts repeated 100 experiments published in top psychology journals and found that they could reproduce only 36% of original findings.
The study, which saw 270 scientists repeat experiments on five continents, was launched by psychologists in the US in response to rising concerns over the reliability of psychology research.
“There is no doubt that I would have loved for the effects to be more reproducible,” said Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology who led the study at the University of Virgina. “I am disappointed, in the sense that I think we can do better.”
“The key caution that an average reader should take away is any one study is not going to be the last word,” he added. “Science is a process of uncertainty reduction, and no one study is almost ever a definitive result on its own.”
All of the experiments the scientists repeated appeared in top ranking journals in 2008 and fell into two broad categories, namely cognitive and social psychology. Cognitive psychology is concerned with basic operations of the mind, and studies tend to look at areas such as perception, attention and memory. Social psychology looks at more social issues, such as self esteem, identity, prejudice and how people interact.