Here’s a Helpful Rundown of the Current State of Psychology’s Replication Crisis

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Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

If you like reading about psychology, you’ve probably heard about the so-called replication crisis by now. In short, a bunch of past psychological findings that have been more or less accepted as true by many researchers seem to run into problems when psychologists try to rediscover them with new, sometimes more rigorously conducted, experiments. Sometimes, it seems, excitement over cool-sounding psychological effects outpaces the actual evidence for them.

For example, as Melissa Dahl recently recently pointed out, some of the early excitement over the idea of teaching kids — particularly underprivileged ones — how to increase their level of “grit,” the idea being this would close the achievement gap, doesn’t seem to be bearing out in follow-up studies. And Slate’s Daniel Engber has written a couple of very comprehensive pieces explaining the difficulty researchers have had in fully replicating studies pertaining to ego depletion — the idea that willpower is a finite resources that can be drained or replenished — and the popular, seemingly research-backed belief that forcing yourself into a smile or a frown can actually affect your mood in the expected direction.

The replication crisis has hit so many different types of research that it can be hard to keep track. That’s why a post by Christian Jarrett published on BPS Research Digest today is so helpful: It runs down, as per its headline, “Ten Famous Psychology Findings That It’s Been Difficult To Replicate.”

One of them, as it turned out, was totally new to me:

Pick up almost any introductory psychology book and inside you’ll read about research conducted in the 1970s that appeared to show that humans are born with the power to imitate, complemented by black and white images of a man sticking his tongue out at a baby, and the tiny baby duly sticking out her tongue in response.

Earlier this year, however, a methodologically rigorous investigation found no evidence to support the idea that newborn babies can imitate. Janine Oostenbroek and her colleagues tested 106 infants four times between the ages of one week and nine weeks. The researcher performed a range of facial movements, actions or sounds for 60 seconds each including tongue protrusions, mouth opening, happy face, sad face, index finger pointing and mmm and eee sounds. Each baby’s behaviour during these 60-second periods was filmed and later coded according to which faces, actions or sounds, if any, he or she performed during the different researcher displays.

It had been coded into my head, as a capital-f Fact, that babies imitate adults in this manner. Probably because I’d been exposed to that “fact” over and over, starting, I bet, with an AP Psychology textbook or something.

So what’s worrisome here is less the idea that none of these results will hold up — some probably will — but more the process by which findings get accepted by facts, disseminated in the media, and even printed in textbooks. Psychology, it seems, has never quite had a sufficiently rigorous braking system to make sure exciting but preliminary findings truly pass muster before they are tossed onto the express train to Factsville.