Nonscientific Influences on Social Psychology

Winds of Change I

Posted May 31, 2012

I am a social psychologist; I love social psychology. So, why, then, does "science" appear in quotes above, as if to imply that social psychology is not the science it cracks itself up to be (at least, not always)?

Because social psychology, despite its many great strengths and contributions, is not always as scientific as it cracks itself up to be. Fads, politics, self-interest, self-serving self-promotion, story-telling, and certain dysfunctions in our norms for everything from methods to statistics to publication processes to middle school-style popularity contests all undermine the quality, validity, generalizability, and replicability of some areas of social psychological research and conclusions.

Overstated? I think not. Over the last year or so, recognition of and solutions for social psychology's validity problems have been riding the wings of a strong, hard, cold wind:

1. Jon Haidt gave a poignant and controversial talk on how the extreme disproportionate numbers of liberals in social psychology probably both causes and reflects discrimination, not only against conservative individuals, but, even more seriously, against valid scientific conclusions seeming to support nonliberal positions in potentially politicized fields such as prejudice and political social psychology.

2. Questionable Research Practices. A recent pair of studies has demonstrated that many of the practices that social psychologists routinely use in their research lead to distorted or false conclusions. Amusingly, using these "conventional" practices, one of these teams "demonstrated" that listening to the Beatles "causes" one to become younger. One can only wonder how many "findings" presented as serious science have been obtained using similar methods.

3. Years ago, a study reported that activating young people's stereotypes of the elderly caused them to walk more slowly down a hallway. The paper reporting this became an instant classic, and has been cited almost 2000 times. Recently, the result was found to be irreplicable.

4. My just published book on social perception demonstrates that much of the conventional "wisdom" in social psychology regarding social perception/cognition reflects two types of scientific sins. Sins of scientific commission involve overemphasis on dramatic yet irreplicable studies. Social psychology has numerous dramatic studies supposedly demonstrating bias or self-fulfilling prophecy that have proven to be either irreplicable or widely misinterpreted.

Sins of scientific omission involve ignoring or downplaying powerful replicable results that appear inconsistent with particular theoretical or political agendas. For example, two of the most powerful and replicable relationships in all of social psychology — stereotype accuracy and reliance on individuating information over stereotyping — are routinely ignored, dismissed, or played down by "scientists."

5. Substantial minorities of social psychologists readily admit to supporting discriminating against conservative researchers and research that seems to support conservative positions.

Each of these deserves one or more blogs in their own right, and subsequent entries here will address each in more detail.  For this entry, though, my purpose is to step back from the particulars of each blow of each breeze, and point out that, when taken together, it looks like the Winds of Change are blowing steadily and hard.

Some have reacted quite harshly to these winds of change (at the end of this blog entry, I identify sources for these winds of change and sources for some of the blowback).  But, despite defensiveness in the Social Psychological Halls of Power, the Winds of Change are blowing. I end this entry with an excerpt from a perfect poem, Spring, by A.A. Milne:

If you were a bird and you lived on high

You'd lean on the wind as the breeze came by

You'd say to the wind when it took you away

"That's where I wanted to go today!"


The Winds of Change

Doyen, S., Klein, O., Pichon, C., Cleeremans, A. (2012).  Behavioral priming: It's all in the mind, but whose mind? PLoS One, 7, 1-7.  Failed replication of the study showing priming stereotypes of the elderly causes people to walk more slowly.

Haidt, J. (2011).  The bright future of post-partisan social psychology.  Retrieved 5/31/12 from Talk, in its entirety, taking social psychology to task for being dominated and distorted by leftwing politics.

Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (in press).  Political diversity in social and personality psychology.  Perspectives on Psychological Science.  Paper showing that social psychology is dominated by liberals, many of whom advocate discriminating against conservative researchers and findings

Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2005).  Why most published research findings are false.  PLOS Medicine, 2, 696-701.

John, L.K., Loewenstein, G., Prelec, D. (In press).  Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth-telling.  Psychological Science.

Jussim, L. (2012).  Social perception and social reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Simmons, J.P., Nelson, L.D., & Simonsohn, U. (2011).  False-positive psychology: Undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis allows presenting anything as significant.  Psychological Science, 22, 1359-1366.

The Blowback

Bargh, J. (2012).  Nothing in their heads.  Available at:

 Bargh, J. (2012). Angry birds.  Available at:

 Note: Bargh's blog entries here constituted a defense of his "priming elderly stereotypes leads people to walk slowly down the hall" study in the face of Doyen et al's failure to replicate it.

8/6/12 update: These two entries to Bargh's blog have been taken down.  One can see the first line or two by clicking on Google search's "cached" option, but they are no longer available in full.  Bargh has another defense still posted, and referenced in my Unicorns blog post.

 Gilbert, D. (2011).  Untitled.  Posted commentary on Haidt's talk.  Available at:

 Jost, J. (2011).  Allegations of ideological bias are anti-scientific.  Available at:

Jost, J. (2011). Untitled.  Posted commentary on Haidt's talk.  Available at: