22 August 2014

(A few weeks ago I wrote a comment on Erik-Jan Wagenmakers' blog. Somebody contacted me to say that they would like to be able to link to my comment, but Disqus doesn't provide individual URLs for comments. So I am using my blog to repeat the comment here. The only change I have made is to italicise two words which was not possible in the original content format, or at least I didn't know how to do it. Please read the original post first to establish a little bit of context and perhaps save yourself wondering what I'm rambling on about.)

The standard human problems of power/status and money seem to be all-pervading in psychology; why should we expect anything else?

I would like to advance the radical thesis that the *entire point* of a whole class of contemporary social-psychological research (i.e., not just a nice side-effect, but the PI's principal purpose in running the study) is to generate "Gladwellizable" results. Such results will, as a minimum, earn you considerable kudos among the less critical of your colleagues and grad students, and probably also keep your institution's director of communications very happy ("University of Madeupstuff research is featured in the Economist/NY Times again"). More advanced practitioners can leverage their research into their own mass-market publications/lectures/audiotape series, thus bypassing the Gladwell/Pink axis and turning the results of their grant-funded research into $$$ for themselves.

I'm with Kahneman: this will not stop until a train wreck occurs, quite probably involving some major public policy decision. The actual train wreck will be 10-15 years down the line when the Government Accountability Office (etc) catches up with things, by which time the damage will have been done (it will take a generation or more to undo some of the myths floating around out there) and the perpetrators will be lying in the sun, untouchable (they will, perhaps, mutter "science self-corrects", aka "heads I win, tails I get away with it"). The asymmetry is visible from space: find a gee-whiz result, speculate loudly on its implications for humanity, and make a pile of money/power/influence; have it refuted (which almost never happens anyway, since in psychology "A" and "not A" seem to be very happy co-existing for ever) and the worst that can happen is that you have to spin your idea as having being "refined" by the latest findings, which in fact "make my idea even stronger".

As EJ is finding out here, defiant denial seems to impose very little cost on those who engage in it. Until the industry [sic] decides to change that, this will continue. But, remind me again what Gladwell's advance was for his latest book? That's what you're up against.


  1. With greatest respect, when you write, "find a gee-whiz result, speculate loudly on its implications for humanity, and make a pile of money/power/influence," about whom are you speaking? Particularly the "pile of money/power/influence" part?

  2. Nick,

    I'm sympathetic to much of what you say, but would also note that there is another "whole class" of social psychological research which is endeavouring to do more than merely generate impeccable trivia.

    Amongst other things, for example, I'd point to three decades of work on the social psychology of crowds that has a lot of important things to say about contemporary social issues -- e.g., see http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26081-crowdcontrol-policing-in-the-us-is-stuck-in-riot-mode.html#.U_ZeNIDkAlx

    Possibly you disagree with the conclusions here, but I think you'd have to agree that the researchers in question were trying to do a lot more than merely identify a couple of nice (but ultimately banal) effects.

  3. Hi Jim and Alex,

    Please excuse me replying to both of your comments at the same time. I don't see a "Reply" button per comment.

    Jim, this post is meant to be a polemic, not empirical research, and the target of my comments is a composite, not any one individual. Obviously I can't demonstrate in front of a court of law that X's research programme has been principally designed for the last 10 years to generate HuffPo content and mass-market books.

    I wrote this comment five months ago in a hurry (it's a reply to someone else's blog, and it's only here now because someone wanted to link to the original comment, and my blog was a convenient place to copy/paste it. (In view of other stuff that's ongoing right now, the timing maybe isn't great either; I didn't know that Neuroskeptic was going to tweet this to 40K followers!)

    All that said, however, this seems to have touched a nerve, judging by the positive reactions it's getting on Twitter. So whatever the "truth" of the matter (whatever that might mean), it seems that the state of affairs I'm describing is not necessarily totally alien to the experience of a number of people.

    Alex, I'm very happy to be in complete agreement with you. I'm relieved to note that when I wrote this post originally (at "comment-on-someone-else's-blog speed", cf. the above), I did still manage to include the "whole class" wording, to make it clear that I was separating this "subset" of social-psychological research from the rest of the field. Perhaps the "Gladwellizable" stuff only represents 1% of what's going on in social psychology --- I have no idea --- but it seems to be getting the lion's share of the media attention. This is extremely dangerous because public policy decisions are often made on the basis of what politicians read in the papers and/or what their constituents have decided is "true" based on the TV news. And of course, every media article reporting studies that show that people in offices with green walls (versus brown) eat more M&Ms is keeping the kind of serious social research that you cite, which might actually make a difference to people's lives, off the agenda.