New study undermines psychology research findings

Researchers say the latest results aren't all that surprising or alarming -- this is just how science works.

By Brooks Hays

WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Can psychology studies be trusted? Maybe. But comparatively few can be replicated. New research suggests many produce faulty or overstated findings.

For the last four years, a team of 270 scientists have been hard at work trying to replicate the results of more than 100 psychology studies. More than half were unable to replicate the original findings. In fact, only 36 results were replicated. And of those 36, the replicated results were weaker.


"A large portion of replications produced weaker evidence for the original findings," scientists wrote in the new survey, published this week in the journal Science.

The effort was was dubbed The Reproducibility Project: Psychology, and was headed by researcher Brian Nosek, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia.

Nosek says the latest results aren't all that surprising or alarming -- this is just how science works.

"Any temptation to interpret these results as a defeat for psychology, or science more generally, must contend with the fact that this project demonstrates science behaving as it should," Nosek told The Washington Post.

Colleague and co-author Cody Christopherson, a psychologist at Southern Oregon University, agrees.


"This project is not evidence that anything is broken. Rather, it's an example of science doing what science does," Christopherson told Smithsonian Magazine. "It's impossible to be wrong in a final sense in science. You have to be temporarily wrong, perhaps many times, before you are ever right."

Researchers say the new results aren't proof the old results are false. It's likely some of them are, indeed, flawed, but it's also possible that the researchers mucked up their replication attempt.

Still, Nosek says he isn't satisfied. He's disappointed.

"There is no doubt that I would have loved for the effects to be more reproducible," he told The Guardian. "I am disappointed, in the sense that I think we can do better."

The findings are proof, he says, that researchers can work harder at producing reproducible findings. But there is also an onus on the reader and interpreter of scientific papers to approach each new study with skepticism. Rarely is a science paper -- peer-reviewed or not -- the final word on a subject.

At the same time, a responsibility lies with scientists to present their findings in an accurate and honest way, not to overstate things.


And perhaps this is the most important revelation from the new findings: the disconnect between the scientific process and the need to get ahead, to grab academic attention and advance one's career.

"If I want to get promoted or get a grant, I need to be writing lots of papers," explained Marcus Munafo, a co-author on the study and professor of psychology at Bristol University.

"But writing lots of papers and doing lots of small experiments isn't the way to get one really robust right answer. What it takes to be a successful academic is not necessarily that well aligned with what it takes to be a good scientist."

Latest Headlines