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Unconscious track to disciplinary train wreck

When Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman sees a "train wreck looming" for social psychology, alarm bells should ring among its researchers. It is therefore regrettable to read Stephen Gibson, honorary secretary of the British Psychological Society's social psychology section, denying that the field is in trouble ("Don't tar discipline with Stapel brush", Letters, 20/27 December). The Levelt, Noort and Drenth committees' joint report into Diederik Stapel's fraudulent activities highlighted practices on the part of co-researchers and journals that contributed to Stapel's rise and helped him to evade detection for so long. These same practices have facilitated the development of a body of research and a pervasive theory of human social behaviour that looks more and more fragile as time goes by.

Many social psychologists have bought into the notion that social behaviour is not the result of deliberation and reflection but is instead driven by unconscious motives and attitudes. We are reeds in the wind, blown this way and that by subtle cues. Those operating within this theory have rediscovered what many previous generations found, namely that striking but bogus evidence of unconscious influences is easy to obtain and publish. The reason such evidence is easily obtained is that it usually rests on null results, namely finding that people's reports about (and hence awareness of) the causes of their behaviour fail to acknowledge the relevant cues. Null results are easily obtained if one's methods are poor.

Thus journals (prominent among them Science) have in recent years published extraordinary reports of unconscious social influences on behaviour, including claims that people are more likely to take a cleansing wipe at the end of an experiment in which they are induced to recall an immoral act, walk more slowly after reading words related to the concept "old age", and answer different numbers of general knowledge questions correctly depending on whether they previously thought about Albert Einstein or Claudia Schiffer. Journal editors seem to lose their critical faculties when judging such reports and tend not to ask whether they are robust, replicable, plausible and based on sound statistical methodology. In fact, failures to replicate the effects described above have been reported, though often papers reporting such failures are rejected out of hand by the journals that published the initial studies. I await with interest the outcome of efforts to replicate the recent claim that touching a teddy bear makes lonely people more sociable.

Gibson claims that social psychology is no more prone to fraud than any other discipline, but outright fraud is not the major problem: the biggest concern is sloppy research practice, such as running several experiments and only reporting the ones that work. The committees' report concludes: "Time and again journals and experienced researchers in ... social psychology accepted that ... Stapel's hypotheses had been confirmed by a single experiment, with extremely large effect sizes." Until the field, its journals and its professional bodies accept such criticism, remedial efforts will go nowhere.

David Shanks, Head, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London

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