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Daniel Kahneman Sees ‘Train-Wreck Looming’ for Social Psychology

Daniel Kahneman (Princeton U.)

Daniel Kahneman sent an e-mail last week to a dozen social psychologists, spelling out what he sees as a way to restore the credibility of priming research. The research, which has found that small cues can cause strong subconscious effects, have come under fire after attempts to replicate some high-profile studies failed. It hasn’t helped that some prominent social psychologists have committed flat-out fraud.

Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, a section of which is titled “the marvels of priming,” is worried that all of those problems will undermine a field he believes in and will make it difficult for young researchers who study priming to find jobs. “My reason for writing this letter is that I see a train-wreck looming,” he wrote in the e-mail.

That’s why he spelled out a possible solution to the crisis of credibility in his e-mail, first reported by Nature. In it he told social psychologists:

I believe that you should collectively do something about this mess. To deal effectively with the doubts you should acknowledge their existence and confront them straight on, because a posture of defiant denial is self-defeating.

He suggested setting up a “daisy chain” of replication, in which each lab would propose a priming study that another lab would attempt to replicate. Moreover, he wanted labs to select work they considered to be robust, and to have the lab that performed the original study help the replicating lab vet its procedure.

That is just one suggestion, he wrote in the e-mail. The important thing is for social psychologists to “act as a group and avoid defensiveness.”

I talked to Kahneman on the phone on Thursday, while he was waiting to get on a plane. He was upset about the headline on the Nature article that reported his e-mail: “Nobel laureate challenges psychologists to clean up their act.” He called it “totally inaccurate” and said that, because of the headline, he’s received lots of angry e-mails from psychologists and “may lose some friendships.”

It’s not that he thinks social psychologists need to “clean up their act.” It’s that he thinks the field has been, in some cases, unfairly maligned. A failure to replicate doesn’t mean, Kahneman said, that the original study was flawed. Priming research is often subtle, and those who replicate studies may not follow the same procedures—which is why he emphasizes communication between labs. “Some of these failures to replicate are not utterly convincing,” Kahneman said.

His point was not to “suggest that I have my doubts” about priming. Rather, it was to encourage social psychologists to save their field by putting in place better procedures and thereby vindicating priming. Often, he said, when researchers choose a study to replicate, they pick one they believe is flawed, and they may not carry out the research with the same attention to detail as the original authors did. That’s why he wants labs to offer up for replication the studies they believe to be strong.

Kahneman decided to write the e-mail after conversations with John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale who wrote an article for Psychology Today in March that defends priming.

In it he complained about research that had failed to replicate his well-known study in which participants who were reminded of aging walked more slowly. Bargh cited other studies that replicated his finding and wrote that priming effects “are quite real and replicate just fine, thank you.”

Psychology’s problems have received a good deal of attention lately, and multiple efforts are under way to deal with them—for instance, Brian Nosek’s replication effort and a new journal titled Archives of Scientific Psychology (here’s an article about it). The journal’s editor, Harris Cooper, wasn’t on Kahneman’s list of recipients, but the message has been forwarded widely, and he’s read it.

“The notion of a replication circle is a good one,” said Cooper. But he said that “Kahneman does not address how the results of such efforts will reward those who take on the replication task.”

And that’s why he plans, as editor of Archives, to look favorably on attempted replications. “Publication,” Cooper said, “is the coin of the realm.”

Kahneman said he had been reassuring psychologists that his e-mail wasn’t intended as an attack but instead as a plan for a way forward. “I wanted to give that advice because I felt for them,” he said, “and because I believe their results.”

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