Is there a dark reason that psychology studies are so often ‘right’?

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[Editor's note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Science.]

By Ross Pomeroy
Real Clear Science

Psychological scientists have quite an impeccable track record.

"Nearly 100% of the published studies in psychology confirm the initial hypothesis," Gerald J. Haeffel, an Associate Professor in Psychology at Notre Dame University, bragged in a paper published Wednesday to the journal Royal Society Open Science. "This is an amazing accomplishment given the complexity of the human mind and human behaviour. Somehow, as psychological scientists, we always find the expected result; we always win!"

Despite his ebullient tone, Haeffel is by no means high on his discipline's success. On the contrary, he suspects that it may be a result of cheating. Mischievous tricks such as hacking statistics to garner a glowing result, hypothesizing after results are known, and choosing to publish only positive findings combine to give the impression that most psychological theories are on solid empirical ground.

Large replication projects suggest they are not. When other scientists repeat prior psychological experiments, they've found that only about half give results in line with the original works. This has cast doubt on many prominent theories once seen as rock solid, including ego depletion, priming, and the growth mindset.

"The question now is whether psychologists will revise these theories to explain the contradictory results, or will they move on to more popular areas of psychology in which positive results are less scrutinized and easier to find," Haeffel wrote.

Seeing as how 'Pop Psychology' is often more lucrative than rigorous psychology, the latter seems to be the likelier outcome.

But if psychological scientists are interested in reinvigorating their field's standing, Haeffel has an idea for doing so.

"The best option for fixing psychology’s ‘winning’ problem is the Registered Report format in which articles are accepted or rejected prior to knowing the results of the study," he wrote. That would ensure that methodologically sound studies are published regardless of their outcomes.

Haeffel hypothesizes that psychology's impossibly high rate of positive results can be primarily attributed to journals' penchant for publishing flashy findings that advance theories. Thus, if researchers want to publish, they must therefore deliver confirmatory results. But what if they could get published regardless of what their experiments turned up?

"Psychologists are willing to be wrong as long as they can still get a publication," Haeffel writes. "Thus, Registered Reports may be a powerful tool for fixing psychology; theories can lose while researchers continue to win."

This outcome would be good for psychology and society as a whole. Stagnating theories kept alive by questionable results will die, and new theories that more accurately explain human nature can emerge to take their place.

"The field must stop the idea of progress by confirmation approach whereby if a study ‘works’, then we get to publish it, and if it does not work, then we hide it away," Haeffel wrote. "If psychology is to ever develop into a cumulative science, then it must get over the idea that being wrong is bad or a ‘crisis’ and recommit to the scientific method."

[Editor's note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Science.]

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