The Six Stages of a Failed Psychological Theory

The Six Stages of a Failed Psychological Theory
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With the publication of his exhaustingly researched and skillfully reported article, "LOL Something Matters," science writer Daniel Engber convincingly demonstrated that the "backfire effect," the notion that contradictory evidence only strengthens entrenched beliefs, does not hold up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. Bluntly stated, the "backfire effect" probably isn't real.

The debunking of this longstanding psychological theory follows similar academic takedowns of ego depletion, social priming, power posing, and a plethora of other famous findings. Indeed, much of what we "know" in psychology seems to be false.

There's a good reason for this: psychology, as a discipline, is a house made of sand, based on analyzing inherently fickle human behavior, held together with poorly-defined concepts, and explored with often scant methodological rigor. Indeed, there's a strong case to be made that psychology is barely a science.

Seeing how disarray defines psychology, it makes perfect sense that the field's leading theories are vulnerable to collapse. Having watched this process play out a number of times, a clear pattern has emerged. Let's call it the "Six Stages of a Failed Psychological Theory."

Stage 1: The Flashy Finding. An intriguing report is published with subject matter that lends itself to water cooler conversation, say, for example, that sticking a pen in your mouth to force a smile makes things seem funnier. Media outlets provide gushing coverage.

Stage 2: The Fawning Replications. Other psychologists, usually in the early stages of their careers, leap to replicate the finding. Most of their studies corroborate the effect. Those that don't are not published, perhaps because the researchers don't want to step on any toes, or because journal editors would prefer not to publish negative findings.

Stage 3: A Consensus Forms. The finding is now taken for granted, regularly appearing in pop psychology stories and books penned by writers like Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer. Millions of people read about it and "armchair" explain it to their friends and family.

Stage 4: The Rebuttal. After a few decades, a new generation of researchers look to make a splash by questioning prevailing wisdom. One team produces a more methodologically-sound study that debunks the initial finding. Media outlets blare the "counterintuitive" discovery.

Stage 5: Proper Replications Pour In. Research groups attempt to replicate the initial research with the skepticism and precise methodology that should've been used in the first place. As such, the vast majority fail to find any effect.

Stage 6: The Theory Lives On as a Zombie. Despite being debunked, the theory lingers on in published scientific studies, popular books, outdated webpages, and common "wisdom." Adherents in academia cling on in a state of denial – their egos depend upon it.

Will psychologists wisen up and finally break this depressingly predictable cycle? I wouldn't bet on it, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

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