13 December 2015

A cute story to be told, and self-help books to be sold - so who needs fuddy-duddy peer review?

Daniel Kahneman's warning of a looming train wreck in social psychology took another step closer towards realisation today with the publication of this opinion piece in the New York Times.

In the article, entitled "Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Posture — and Your Mood", Professor Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School reports on "preliminary research" (available here) that she performed with her colleague, Maarten Bos.  Basically, they gave some students some Apple gadgets to play with, ranging in size from an iPhone up to a full-size desktop computer.  The experimenter gave the participants some filler tasks, and then left, telling them that s/he would be back in five minutes to debrief and pay them, but that they could also come and get him/her at the desk outside.  S/he then didn't come back after five minutes as announced, but instead waited ten minutes.  The main outcome variable was whether the participants came to get their money, and if they did how long they waited before doing so, as a function of the size of the device that they had.  This was portrayed as a measure of their assertiveness, or lack thereof.

It turned out that, the smaller the device, the longer they waited, thus showing reduced assertiveness.  The authors' conclusion was that this was caused by the fact that, to use a smaller device, participants had to slouch over more.  The authors even have a cute name for this: the "iHunch".  And — drumroll please, here's the social priming bit — the fact that the participants with smaller devices were hunched over more made them more submissive to authority, which made them more reluctant to go and tell the researcher that they were ready to get paid their $10 participation fee and go home.

It's hard to know where to begin with this.  There are other plausible explanations, starting with the fact that a lot of people don't have an iPhone and might well enjoy playing with one compared to their Android phone, whereas a desktop computer is still just a desktop computer, even if it is a Mac.  And the effect size was pretty large: the partial eta-squared of the headline result is .177, which should be compared to Cohen's (1988) description of a partial eta-squared of .14 as a "large" effect.  Oh, and there were 75 participants in four conditions, making a princely 19 per cell.  In other words, all the usual suspect things about priming studies.

But what I find really annoying here is that we've gone straight from "preliminary research" to the New York Times without any of those awkward little academic niceties such as "peer review".  The article, in "working paper" form (1,000 words) is here; check out the date (May 2013) and ask yourself why this is suddenly front-page news when, after 30 months, the authors don't seem to have had time to write a proper article and send it to a journal, although one of them did have time to write 845 words for an editorial in the New York Times.  But perhaps those 845 words didn't all have to be written from scratch, because — oh my, surprise surprise — Professor Cuddy is "the author of the forthcoming book 'Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.'"  Anyone care to take a guess as to whether this research will appear in that book, and whether its status as an unreviewed working paper will be prominently flagged up?

If this is the future — writing up your study pro forma and getting it into what is arguably the world's leading newspaper, complete with cute message that will appeal to anyone who thinks that everybody else uses their smartphone too much — then maybe we should just bring on the train wreck now.

*** Update 2015-12-17 09:50 UTC: I added a follow-up post here. ***

Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


  1. To be honest, I don't think peer review would have helped here. There are sillier studies out there that *were* peer reviewed.

  2. Could it be that on desktops the time is displayed whilst on phones (depending on what you are doing) the time is not...?

    1. Exactly what I was thinking. Open an app and there goes your clock. Engineered like casinos!

  3. In certain more rigorous fields of social and individual psychology, i am thinking neurophysiology for one, there is a technical term for a narrative that fills in where memory or perceptions have failed. The alcoholic who "remembers" being hit of the party last night and the paralyzed man who excuses himself for not using his paralyzed arm. In both a story is set forth to fill in where no details exist and onw is expected to believe it just as the narrator does. The term is hypothication. Less technical terms are fabrication, cover story, fantasy,some tale...and more, but which are less charatable. Would "peer" review have caught this wopper of logical rigor? It depends on one's peers, or the journal's. Which is the value of journal shopping. Somebody invented themself a more lucrative work around!

  4. "In certain more rigorous fields of social and individual psychology, i am thinking neurophysiology for one, there is a technical term for a narrative that fills in where memory or perceptions have failed."

    I recall when was a student long-ago in the Zoology Dept. there was a term for unfalsifiable evolutionary behavioural biology theories : "Just-So Stories" -- after the Rudyard Kipling fables with fanciful origins for all the animals.

    I remember one elderly Prof listening to a long talk from a visiting US academic then at the end putting his hand up to ask a question but instead of a question he just nodded, stated "Just So!" then got up and left to much sniggering in the room.

  5. @Anonymous Much more appealing to me is the notion that people are used to (seeing other people) fiddling with pocket-sized device when idling.

    So having a time-killing machine at the handy "primes" for killing time?

    The big machines could be associated with productivity and as such "prime" for task completion, delivering on-time.

    Just a thought.

  6. Plus, two of the other dependent variables -- gambling decisions -- did not show the predicted effect.

  7. Prof. Cuddy's work on postures determining feelings of self-esteem, power, etc was featured on this very date (Sunday, Decmber 13) on the "CBS News Sunday Morning" program. Though this study of ipod-influenced posture was not mentioned on the tv show, it does seem that the two media appearances may have been connected -- perhaps parts of a publicity launch for the book. As a veteran of print media myself I would suggest that the study discussed was chosen for its likely appeal to the editor(s) of the NYT OpEd page rather than its contribution to neurophysiology. At the same time, Prof Cuddy's scheduled appearance on "Sunday Morning" would have added weight to her "platform" as a candidate to be given space for comment on the OpEd page.

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