Social Psychology Is Junk Science

In case you still think that social psychology (the branch of pseudo-science that the mainstream media loves because it produces snappy, quotable, and completely idiotic “studies”) has some value, you have got to wake up:

The three social psychologists set up a test experiment, then played by current academic methodologies and widely permissible statistical rules. By going on what amounted to a fishing expedition (that is, by recording many, many variables but reporting only the results that came out to their liking); by failing to establish in advance the number of human subjects in an experiment; and by analyzing the data as they went, so they could end the experiment when the results suited them, they produced a howler of a result, a truly absurd finding. They then ran a series of computer simulations using other experimental data to show that these methods could increase the odds of a false-positive result—a statistical fluke, basically—to nearly two-thirds.

Read the entire article. It’s very good. And after you do, please stop quoting “studies” you read about in the NYTimes or a similarly unreliable publication.

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15 comments on “Social Psychology Is Junk Science

  1. Every textbook on Social Psychology starts by explaining how it’s ‘really a science’. It made me suspicious in the first place. This whole idea is huge news here in the Netherlands, because a report just came out on a frauduleus professor (remarkable anecdote: he got fat by eating the M&Ms that were for his made-up subjects). The news that he was commiting fraud wasn’t new, but the report shows how big the problem is.

    • What made me initially suspect this field was how much the mainstream media LOVE to publish their “findings.” If your research routinely makes it to Cosmo, then I have got to wonder.

  2. Pingback: Social Psychology Is Junk Science | Clarissa's Blog | Social Fobi - Det Du Behöver Veta

    • It’s called publication bias, and it’s not restricted to social psychology.

      Journal editors figure a paper that confirms its hypothesis is more interesting than one that does not, that just ends with, “We don’t know what causes x, but we can probably rule y out” as opposed to “y causes x” (or, more often, “y is somehow related to x, but we don’t know how”). So they publish the papers with the more grandly-worded conclusions, with the least emphasis on what the researchers still don’t know.

      I think people tend to underrate the importance of negative findings, thinking that studies finding “x has no relationship to y” tell them nothing while studies finding x and y to be related are telling them something.

      • Exacty. What would be needed are meta-analysis taking into account the studies with negative results. But even if this is done at some later point, negative results never make it to the press. It is probably best to just ignore most ‘hot’ science result about medicine and psychology that make it to normal newspapers. Unfortunately many people take them so serious that they even adapt their lifestyle, like their diet, depending on the newest craze about olive oil or whatever. Then a few years later you read that they forgot to control for other things that accompany a high consumption of olive oil in Southern countries, and olive oil alone actually does not help you anything. It is annoying.

  3. What has always amazed me about social psychology is that people want to be told what makes them tick. Really!? It’s like they’ve become adults, they’re making their own decisions and moving through the world, and yet they don’t know what is causing them to do what they do. One has to really ask how such an unusual set of circumstances could come about.

  4. Nazi sympathizer, Carl Schmitt’s views represent the roots of socially conservative, right-wing thinking: human nature is evil and ordinary humans need to be controlled by authorities who are not godless. His views coincide with the social psychology which is engendered within class societies, a social psychology which results in the social formation of an authoritarian personality character structure. Socialist humanists like Eric Fromm have developed a dialectically opposite position from Schmitt and reactionary philosophers like Heidegger. As opposed to right-wing, conservative thinking, Fromm found that human nature was instinctually connected to an urge for freedom, an urge which had to be continually tampened down within the political power hierarchies of class, sex, race and so on, so that the power of rulers and their ideas could remain in charge of the majority, the wealth producers of society, the working class of the modern world.

    Eric Fromm on the social psychology of fascism:
    The love for the powerful and the hatred for the powerless which is so typical for the sado-masochistic character explains a great deal of Hitler’s and his follower’s political actions. While the Republican government thought they could “appease” the Nazis by treating them leniently, they not only failed to appease them but aroused their hatred by the very lack of power and firmness they showed.
    –Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 256-257
    Hitler’s — and for that matter, Mussolini’s — “revolution” happened under protection of existing power and their favorite objects were those who could not defend themselves. One might even venture to assume that Hitler’s attitude toward Great Britain was determined, among other factors, by this psychological complex. As long he felt Britain to be powerful, he loved and admired her. His book gives expression to this love for Britain. When he recognized the weakness of the British position before and after Munich his love changed into hatred and the wish to destroy it. From this viewpoint “appeasement” was a policy which for a personality like Hitler was bound to arouse hatred, not friendship.
    –Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 257
    Hitler recognizes clearly that his philosophy of self-denial and sacrifice is meant for those whose economic situation does not allow them any happiness. He does not want to bring about a social order which would make personal happiness possible for very individual; he wants to exploit the very poverty of the masses in order to make them believe in his evangelism of self-annihilation.
    –Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 259
    Given the psychological conditions, does Nazism not fulfill the emotional needs of the population, and is this psychological function not one factor that makes for its growing stability?
    From all that has been said so far, it is evident that the answer to this question is in the negative. The fact of human individuation, of the destruction of all “primary bonds,” cannot be reversed. The process of the destruction of the medieval world has taken four hundred years and is being completed in our era. Unless the whole industrial system, the whole mode of production, should be destroyed and changed to the preindustrial level, man will remain an individual who has completely emerged from the world surrounding him. We have seen that man cannot endure this negative freedom; that he tries to escape into new bondage which he has given up. But these new bonds do not constitute real union with the world. He pays for the new security by giving up the integrity of his self.
    –Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 262-263

  5. I know almost nothing about Social Pscychology, but my feeling is Simonsohn was not objecting to the idea of Social Psychology as an area of study, but rather at sloppy or even dishonest methodology. And in fact feels the study does in fact have value.

    “The more painful allegation, however, is that he is trying to discredit social psychology. He adores his chosen field, he said, funky, counterintuitive results and all. He studied economics as an undergrad … an encounter with the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s work convinced him to switch fields. He prefers psychology’s close-up focus on the quirks of actual human minds to the sweeping theory and deduction involved in economics.”

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