Is Psychology Full of Undead Theories?
Science is embattled in a raging replication crisis, in which researchers are unable to reproduce a number of key findings. On the front lines of this conflict is psychology. In a 2015 review of 98 original psychology papers, just 36 percent of attempted replications returned significant results, whereas 97 percent of the original studies did.
"Don’t trust everything you read in the psychology literature," reporter Monya Baker warned. "In fact, two thirds of it should probably be distrusted."
How did psychology reach such a sorry state of affairs? Back in 2012, when the replication crisis was just beginning to gain prominence in the popular media, psychology professors Moritz Heene and Christopher Ferguson, respectively from Ludwig Maximilian University and Stetson University, offered a blunt, upsetting hypothesis: The field is sliding towards a state of being unfalsifiable, and its adherents either don't notice or don't seem to care.
Driving this trend is publication bias, where researchers publish only flashy or positive results. While this is undoubtedly present in almost every scientific field, in psychology, it may simply be business as usual. A 2010 study showed that 91.5 percent of results in psychology and psychiatry are positive, more than any other scientific field. Such an overwhelming presence of significant results evinces a situation where researchers and journals simply aren't publishing negative results, perhaps because they conflict with beloved theories, Heene and Ferguson suggest. Such a latent disregard for making facts known has slowly transformed psychology into a field where facts simply don't matter anymore.
"The aversion to the null and the persistence of publication bias and denial of the same, renders a situation in which psychological theories are virtually unkillable," Heene and Ferguson write. "Instead of rigid adherence to an objective process of replication and falsification, debates within psychology too easily degenerate into ideological snowball fights, the end result of which is to allow poor quality theories to survive indefinitely."
They dubbed these "poor quality" theories "undead theories." Perhaps because they are politicized, enticing, or fodder for lucrative books, they simply aren't subjected to rigorous evaluation, and so they survive, seemingly forever, with hundreds of studies to back them up. But who knows how many unpublished studies may be out there, which reveal those theories' hollow innards?
"We suspect a good number of theories in popular use within psychology likely fit within this category; theories that explain better how scholars wish the world to be than how it actually is," Heene and Ferguson say.
Could social priming fall under this umbrella? What about ego depletion? Is the notion of contagious yawning no more than a hulking, rotten zombie? Recent rigorous failed replication attempts suggest all three could be theories from beyond the grave.
"Psychological science will benefit greatly from... ending the culture in which null results are aversely treated," Heene and Ferguson conclude. "Otherwise psychology risks never rising above being little more than opinions with numbers."