- Psychology has been under fire for over a decade for problems with reproducibility. Recent high-profile cases of alleged fraud against researchers at Duke and Harvard have brought the field’s troubles back into the spotlight.
- One researcher suggested that if discarding a substantial number of psychology studies has a negligible effect on our understanding of human nature, then perhaps psychology is irrelevant.
- However, the field of psychology has made many reliable, important contributions to our understanding of the mind and behavior. Some of these contributions are so well-established and widespread that we fail to appreciate their impact.
If the entire field of psychology disappeared today, would it matter?
After all, many published studies fail to replicate, and influential researchers have admitted to wrongdoing, from engaging in questionable research practices to committing outright fraud. Just this summer, allegations of data tampering have thrown into question numerous studies about (ironically) honesty by high-profile psychologists Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino. Has discarding these findings affected our understanding of human psychology in any meaningful way?
According to a recent piece by Adam Mastroianni, who is now a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School, the answer may be: meh, not really.
The problem with psychology
Mastroianni laments that entire lines of psychology research can (and have) been removed from the literature without any apparent effect. Yet, we go on living our life. Eliminating natural selection would upend biology; uncovering that the periodic table is unreliable would derail chemistry; cutting Einstein’s discoveries would have huge ripple effects in physics. Not so, it seems, with the field of psychology: There’s been no fundamental shift in our understanding of the human mind, brain, or behavior.
In his own words, it is “a terrifying fact that you can reveal whole swaths of a scientific field to be fraudulent and it doesn’t make a difference.” Even the most famous, productive researchers — Albert Bandura, B.F. Skinner, Elizabeth Loftus, Noam Chomsky — haven’t contributed any meaningful theories or paradigms, he implies, at least not recently. Pretty damning. Is he right?
Before we dive in, let’s define what we mean by “psychology.” Psychology is a field that involves the use of scientific methods, such as experimentation, for systematic observation and prediction of human behavior. (Psychoanalysis, dianetics, hypnosis, or any research areas that don’t practice such methods are pseudoscience, not psychology.) As a science, psychology must ensure it does indeed contribute to our understanding of the world with empirical observation, sound measurement, and, ideally, replicable results.
That is why it is a problem when a substantial proportion of so-called cutting-edge findings can’t be reproduced, researchers admit to questionable research practices, top journals publish studies purporting to show evidence for ESP, and credible allegations of fraud are made against Gino, Ariely, and other famous researchers like Diederik Stapel.
Does psychology matter?
Mastroianni, though, does not focus on these reliability problems, per se. Instead, he suggests that if entire lines of research can be thrown out without as much as a shoulder shrug, then psychology probably isn’t contributing much to human knowledge. He states:
“Apparently it is possible to reach the stratosphere of scientific achievement, to publish over and over again in ‘high impact’ journals, to rack up tens of thousands of citations, and for none of it to matter. Every marker of success, the things that are supposed to tell you that you’re on the right track, that you’re making a real contribution to science — they might mean nothing at all.”
That’s a much more frightening possibility — because then psychology wouldn’t need to fix its reliability problems; psychology is just irrelevant. Perhaps it might be fun for some party tricks or self-help books, but it does not shape our basic understanding of the world in the same way the hard sciences do.
But here’s the problem with his argument: A lot of psychology findings are reliable. And not just that, the findings matter, too. They matter for how we see reality and the world.
Major insights from psychology
While Mastroianni acknowledges that psychology does include some reliable “proto-paradigms” and a handful of good ideas, he downplays insights such as cognitive biases. However, the fact that cognitive biases have been replicated hundreds of ways and incorporated into our basic understanding of how people think and behave further supports how fundamental they are. We can’t take that for granted.
Less than 50 years ago, economists assumed people were fully rational, juries assumed confident eyewitness were accurate, and news watchers assumed only evil people would do evil things. Only 20 years ago, most businesspeople believed that cultures from across the world made decisions in the same way, physicians assumed the brain and body were essentially independent, and politicians thought only young people and conspiracy theorists were particularly susceptible to misinformation.
None of those notions are right, and these psychological corrections are now so well-established that they seem banal. We are fish surrounded by so much psychological water, we don’t even notice it. In case you’re still skeptical, here’s just a brief list of robust psychological findings that help us understand humans better and improve our lives.
- Effective treatments for depression, anxiety, and phobias
- The five-factor model of personality traits and how personality relates to life outcomes
- An understanding of typical childhood development and learning
- How memory is constructed and can be altered
- Executive function, inhibitory control, and how they interact with automatic processing
- How attention works, including inattentional blindness and task-switching costs
- Moral judgments and how they affect decision-making
- Many classic cognitive bias findings, including sunk costs, gain-versus-loss framing, and anchoring
- Motivation and the importance of basic human drives for autonomy, competence, and relatedness
There are many more of course. (Paul Bloom’s recent book summarizes others.)
Reproducibility is a widespread problem
While psychology needs to improve its reliability, it is worth highlighting that reproducibility issues and fraud are hardly unique to psychology. A 2021 study found that over half of preclinical cancer biology experiments published in leading journals failed to replicate. A recent superconductor “breakthrough” was probably fraudulent. Multiple studies from every major scientific field have been retracted due to researcher error or misconduct. Indeed, the majority of surveyed chemists, biologists, physicists, engineers, medical researchers, and environmental scientists report that they have attempted and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experimental results at least once. Yet, few would argue that these branches of science are worthless.
And that is because science is not built on individuals or individual findings. It is built on thousands of studies from thousands of researchers on thousands of topics. The important, lasting parts build on each other. As Isaac Newton noted, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Contrary to Mastroianni’s conclusion, removing a handful of studies — or even mini-theories — is fairly inconsequential to the field as a whole. In the recent words of psychologist Paul Bloom responding to Mastroianni: “If our science is going well, discovering that specific findings by single investigators are mistaken (due to error, fraud, poor design, whatever) should NOT have major consequences.”
In other words, it’s a good sign that our field is still standing.