Rows over replication: the ‘cornerstone of science’
A row has erupted online after an eminent social psychologist in the USA reacted angrily to a failed replication of one of his classic stereotype priming studies. John Bargh, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University, used his blog on Psychology Today to launch a stinging criticism of the researchers who failed to replicate his 1996 study, the journal they published in, and the British science blogger who reported on their new research (tinyurl.com/7xjyxtq).
In a post that extends to several pages, Bargh implied that Stéphane Doyen (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and her colleagues are ‘incompetent and ill-informed’; he claimed that the open-access journal PLoS One allows researchers to ‘self-publish’ their studies without appropriate peer review so long as they are willing to pay the $1350 fee; and he described Ed Yong’s Discover magazine blog coverage (tinyurl.com/7nenrtn) of the failed replication as ‘superficial online journalism’.
The new paper by Doyen et al. ‘Behavioural priming: It’s all in the mind, but whose mind?’ (PLoS One; tinyurl.com/7n5zy6m) attempted to replicate Bargh’s highly cited 1996 article, co-authored with Mark Chen and Lara Burrows, which showed that participants primed non-consciously by the elderly stereotype walked away from a psychology lab more slowly (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: tinyurl.com/7km8bqk).
Doyen’s team made some changes to Bargh’s methodology, including doubling the number of participants and using infra-red beams to time participants’ walking speed (as opposed to a research assistant with a stop-watch). Their attempt at replication failed – participants exposed to ageing-related words in a scrambled sentence task didn’t walk away any more slowly than control participants.
However, when the study was repeated with the experimenters knowing the expected results of the study and which condition participants had been allocated to, the slowing effect was observed. In another twist, experimenters told to expect participants to walk away faster actually obtained data supporting this reverse-effect, but only if they used a stop-watch. A final important detail is that there was evidence that some participants in the prime condition had noticed the ageing-related words they’d been exposed to, thus casting doubt on the scrambled sentence task as a way to deliver primes non-consciously.
Based on their results, Doyen’s team concluded that ‘experimenters’ expectations seem to provide a favourable context to the behavioural expression of a prime.’ They argued further that it was important to consider the limitations of automatic behavioural priming: ‘…it seems that these methods need to be taken as an object of research per se before using it can be considered as an established phenomenon.’
In his blog post, Bargh argued there was no way that experimenter expectancies could have interfered with the results he and his colleagues obtained. He blamed the replication failure on ‘gross’ methodological changes made by Doyen’s team. For example, he quoted them as having instructed participants to ‘go straight down the hall when leaving’, in contrast to his study, which he said let participants ‘leave in the most natural way’. In fact, as Yong has pointed out in a response on his blog (tinyurl.com/7ffztux), Doyen’s team wrote that ‘participants were clearly directed to the end of the corridor’; similarly, Bargh and his colleagues wrote in their study that the experimenter told the participant that ‘the elevator was down the hall’.
Bargh concluded his blog post by arguing for the robustness of the concept of stereotype priming, which he said has been replicated ‘dozens if not hundreds’ of times and is solidly embedded in several theories across multiple scientific fields. ‘I am not so much worried about the impact on science of essentially self-published failures to replicate,’ he wrote, ‘as much as I’m worried about your ability to trust supposedly reputable online media sources for accurate information on psychological science.’
As we went to press the controversy was playing out online with several psychologists contributing their views: Matt Craddock commented on Bargh’s Psychology Today post; Matthew Lieberman has written a piece on his blog Social Brain, Social Mind (tinyurl.com/7gty5k4); and Daniel Simons posted his views on Google+ as ‘A primer for how not to respond when someone fails to replicate your work’ (tinyurl.com/7rctma7).
In a related incident, the failed replication attempt of Daryl Bem’s ‘precognition’ study, by Chris French (Goldsmiths, University of London), Stuart Ritchie (University of Edinburgh) and Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire), has finally been published, also in PLoS One, with Bem responding in the comments. Their report was rejected by several journals including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (see ‘News’, June 2011), which originally published Bem’s findings along with his appeal for attempted replications. Writing in The Guardian, Chris French said: ‘Although we are always being told that “replication is the cornerstone of science”, the truth is that the “top” journals are simply not interested in straight replications – especially failed replications. They only want to report findings that are new and positive.’ cj
Does psychoanalysis have a place in health services?
There was a time not so long ago when psychiatry and psychotherapy were dominated by the psychoanalytic approach. Today, observed Professor Robin Murray, chair of the latest Maudsley Debate, psychoanalysts are an ‘endangered species’. For this, the 44th Maudsley Debate hosted by the Institute of Psychiatry, the house proposed to a packed auditorium that ‘psychoanalysis has a valuable place in modern mental health services’. The audience’s initial vote was 251 for the motion, 32 against with 42 abstainers.
First to propose the motion was Peter Fonagy, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the BPS and the Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis at UCL. Fonagy said this was a ‘deadly serious’ issue and that psychoanalytic psychotherapy was ‘fighting for its life’. In the race to demonstrate the relative merits of different therapeutic approaches, Fonagy said psychodynamic psychotherapy was at a distinct disadvantage. Most randomly controlled trials are focused on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and success is measured by symptom reduction. Despite psychodynamic psychotherapy not being focused on symptoms, Fonagy said the few trials that had been conducted with this approach were showing it to be an effective treatment. He added that brain science and its revelations about developmental effects were also converging with the psychoanalytic model and its emphasis on early relationships.
BPS Fellow Paul Salkovskis, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Applied Science at the University of Bath, was the first to oppose the motion. He said it was a ‘confidence trick’ to confuse psychoanalysis with psychodynamic psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis, he argued, was wedded to several harmful beliefs and doctrines: including the rejection of a symptom focus, the rejection of evaluation, the idea of training by undergoing one’s own analysis, and ‘really bad’ theories from the comic (e.g the Oedipus complex) to the dangerous (e.g.
in relation to obsessive compulsive disorder). ‘Go and look at the psychoanalytic explanation for OCD and tremble’ Salkovskis,’ said.
He concluded that the philosophical and theoretical tenets of psychoanalysis put it at odds with a modern mental health service – remove those tenets and it’s not psychoanalysis any more.
The motion was seconded by Alessandra Lemma, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the BPS and Visiting Professor in the Psychoanalysis Unit at UCL. She argued that CBT only works for 50 to 60 per cent of clients and that there’s a need for an alternative approach for the remainder. Psychodynamic psychotherapy focuses on the person, not the disorder, she said.
For chronic, complex difficulties you need a theory of interactional processes, she said, and ‘psychoanalysis is unrivalled in providing
a highly sophisticated theory of interactional processes’.
Last up, Professor Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist and the author of Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (which charts his own experience of the illness), said he’d undertaken psychoanalysis and it was a ‘total disaster’. He stressed how it is conscious thoughts that play a central role in conditions like depression, not the unconscious. It’s things that happened yesterday – losing a job, being ill – that most often trigger depression, not events in childhood. He said there was no evidence for the basic psychoanalytic ideas of ego, super ego and so on – ‘mystical nonsense’, he called them. Psychoanalysts were not interested in cure, he claimed: ‘It’s all nonsense and we should abandon it completely.’
At the closing vote, there were 260 for the motion, 43 against
and 35 abstainers. cj
Behavioural insights to save £millions
The UK government’s Behavioural Insight Team, led by psychology graduate David Halpern, has claimed that hundreds of millions of pounds could be saved using simple, psychologically inspired interventions to reduce fraud, debt and error.
The claims are made in a new report, published in February, that details seven ways public organisations could save money: make it easier for people to fill out forms, including tax returns; highlight key messages early in communications; use personal language; prompt honesty at key moments when people are filling in forms or answering questions; use the influence of social norms by emphasising that most other people behave prosocially; reward desired behaviour; and highlight the risks and impact of dishonesty.
These ideas are being put to the test in eight ongoing trials by the Behavioural Insight Team in partnership with public bodies. For instance, HM Revenue and Customs has experimented with tax reminder letters and found that they seem to be more effective if they include a message saying that the majority of people in the recipient’s local area pay their tax on time. A trial with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is testing the influence of including a picture of a person’s untaxed car in reminder letters. Another with HM Courts and Tribunals Service is testing whether people are more likely to respond to text message reminders to pay fines if the text mentions them by name and states how much they owe.
‘This is the first time that the Government has explicitly sought to draw upon behavioural insights to tackle fraud, error and debt in a systematic way,’ the report says. ‘The insights outlined in this document, applied in a range of different contexts and settings, show that not only is it possible to apply behavioural insights to reduce fraud, error and debt, but also that it can be done in a highly cost-effective way.’ cj
I Applying Behavioural Insights to Reduce Fraud, Error and Debt is available to download at tinyurl.com/7gwwcbe
I See www.kcl.ac.uk/iop/news/Podcasts.aspx
Security applications of neuroscience
The Royal Society has published the report from the third of its Brain Waves modules, which is focused on the military and civil law enforcement implications of new neuroscience findings. The report calls for increased awareness among scientists as to how their findings could be turned to potential military and enforcement uses. It also calls for the UK government to be more open about the research that it is funding is this area.
The module ‘Neuroscience, conflict and security’ was chaired by Rod Flower, Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at the William Harvey Research Institute, Queen Mary University of London. There was psychological input from Susan Iversen, Emeritus Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, and BPS Fellow Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, both of whom were members of the module’s working group. Professor of Experimental Psychology Barry Everitt at the University of Cambridge was a member of the review panel for the module.
The report describes how neuroscience advances can be used to enhance the performance of the military and to harm the performance of its enemies. On the side of performance-enhancement, it highlights the potential for neuroimaging to improve recruitment; for brain–machine interfaces to enhance sensory performance and to help with rehabilitation from injury; and for drugs to overcome fatigue and help with recovery from PTSD. In relation to degrading enemy performance, the report describes work on the use of chemical agents designed to affect the central nervous system, and the development
of non-lethal high-energy laser weapons designed to interfere with neurotransmitter release and other physiological functions.
A substantial section of the report deals with the treaties related to the ban of the use of biological and chemical weapons, to which the UK is a signatory – The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. The latter includes an ambiguous exception allowing for ‘law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes’. The report says there is an urgent need for the UK government to clarify its position in relation to this exception, in particular whether it applies to incapacitating chemical agents and not only to riot control agents, which have a less drastic, irritant effect. cj
I The third Brain Waves report Neuroscience, Conflict and Security is available at tinyurl.com/7o963j8
A preliminary map of the nation’s happiness is taking shape following analysis of initial well-being results collected by the Office for National Statistics (ONS: see tinyurl.com/6vth933). It seems we are a relatively content people. The average life satisfaction score was 7.4 out of 10; the average ‘life is worthwhile’ score was 7.6 out of 10; ‘happiness yesterday’ averaged at 7.3 out of 10; whilst the average ‘anxiety yesterday’ score was 3.2 out of 10.
The ONS began including four subjective well-being questions from last April in its Annual Population Survey of 80,000 UK citizens aged over 16 (for background see ‘News’, January 2011: ‘National well-being and the wandering mind’). Respondents were asked how satisfied they were with their lives; to what extent their life is worthwhile; how happy they felt yesterday; and how anxious they felt yesterday (all scored 1–10). The questions are designed to tap three aspects of subjective well-being: evaluative, eudenomic (people’s sense of meaning and purpose), and experiential. The initial data was collected from April to September last year.
There were age and gender differences in the results. Women scored marginally higher then men on all four questions, especially life feeling worthwhile. Life satisfaction and life worthwhile scores were higher for younger and older participants relative to middle-aged respondents. Conversely, anxiety was higher among the middle-aged.
In terms of geographic differences across the UK, subjective well-being scores were highest in Northern Ireland (7.6 out of 10 compared with 7.5 for Scotland and 7.4 for both England and Wales). Within England, well-being was lowest in London and the West Midlands and highest in the South East and South West. Anxiety yesterday was highest in London compared with all other UK regions.
Other observations to emerge from the initial data: people living in a household with children rated life as more worthwhile, but showed no advantages in life satisfaction or happiness yesterday, and they reported no more anxiety; having a partner was associated with higher scores in satisfaction, life worthwhile and happiness yesterday; conversely, being unemployed was associated with lower scores on those three questions.
‘It’s good to see the project under way, but this initial account is not likely to inspire politicians or the public,’ said Peter Warr, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield. ‘The approach is almost entirely through average subgroup scores with no apparent overarching framework or psychological basis. Findings to date repeat what is already known, but maybe more sophisticated analyses in the future or observed changes over time will be more interesting.’ cj
The ubiquitous rise of smartphone and tablet applications (‘apps’) is beginning to filter through to the world of psychology. An app called Buddy that allows users to keep track of their activities and feelings has just been rolled out to mental health service providers nationally after a successful trial.
The Buddy app (www.buddyapp.org) was designed by London-based Sidekick Studios in association with South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust and with financial support from the NHS Regional Innovation Fund and NESTA. The app works via the sending and receiving of text messages to users’ phones (this makes it compatible with any phone).
The app sends reminders, helps with diary keeping and goal-setting, allows analysis of patterns between a person’s feelings and behaviours, and aids session planning.
In trials, clients using the app were less likely to miss therapy sessions.
The app has now been adopted by four boroughs in south east London, by North East Essex, and by the Five Boroughs Partnership in the north west. Organisations purchase licences for the app allowing them to provide it to a given number of people.
Meanwhile, Wiley-Blackwell, which publishes the Society’s journals, has also launched a free psychology app called Spotlight (http://t.co/NJJWv4TI) for use with iPhones and iPads. The app allows users to keep track of psychology conferences, abstracts, books, blogs (including the Society’s Research Digest) and journal special issues.Elsewhere, Richard McNally’s lab at Harvard University has reportedly just completed a trial of an iPhone intervention for anxiety.
There’s a Mobilyze app in development at Northwestern University, which is designed to detect signs of depression;a Tell Me About It! app – a language development tool for autistic children based on the principles of applied behavioural analysis; there’s an app in development at Samsung that determines user emotions based on factors such as typing speed and shaking of the phone; and the memory training guru Tony Buzan is planning a series of iMindMap apps around his Mind Mapping techniques. cj
I Have you come across any good-quality psychology apps? Let us know via Twitter on @psychmag
Have you ever submitted to a journal and received a request from the editor to add in some extra citations to unspecified papers published in that same journal? According to a survey by Allen Wilhite and Eric Fong (University of Alabama in Huntsville), published in Science (tinyurl.com/892qvkz), this practice is called ‘coercive self-citation’ and it’s worryingly widespread. Receiving editorial advice on relevant papers to cite is acceptable, they say, but being asked to add superfluous papers, presumably to boost a journal’s impact factor, is unethical.
Of 6672 social science researchers (including psychologists; most were American) who answered a survey, around 20 per cent said they had been subjected to these kinds of requests. A further 20 per cent were aware of the practice but hadn’t experienced it firsthand. Junior researchers were more likely to say they’d been coerced, as were the authors of papers with fewer co-authors. The practice also varied with discipline, being more common in business and economics, and less common in psychology and sociology (although Wilhite and Fong stressed that ‘every discipline reported multiple instances of coercion’). More highly ranked journals were more likely to coerce, although it’s not possible to say whether their ranking was a cause or consequence of the practice.
Overall, although 86 per cent of survey respondents said the practice of citation coercion was unethical, 57 per cent said that, prior to submission, they would add superfluous citations to journals known to coerce. Junior researchers were more likely to acquiesce. Familiarity may breed acceptance: researchers who admitted to adding superfluous citations viewed the practice less harshly.
‘We find that coercion is uncomfortably common and appears to be practiced opportunistically,’ Wilhite and Fong wrote. The pair concluded by calling on academic associations to condemn the practice and for journal self-citations to not count towards a journal’s impact factor. cj
National Stalking Clinic
The world’s first National Stalking Clinic has opened in London and is run by Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust (tinyurl.com/6waumgu). The clinic takes referrals from multiple sources including courts, probations services and mental health trusts and will provide psychological treatment, assessment and rehabilitation of stalkers. The head of therapies at the clinic is Chartered Clinical and Forensic Psychologist Sarah Henley, an Associate Fellow of the BPS.
online child therapy
The NSPCC’s ChildLine service has launched an online therapeutic game, The Sky’s The Limit (tinyurl.com/86yzyqm). Lucy Mann, ChildLine Digital Manager, said: ‘Games like this are designed to have a therapeutic element to them; we hope that the young people who play them can use the game to take their minds off things that are making them feel sad, like family problems or being bullied.’ The game involves the player naming things that make them sad and then jumping through the sky via springs on clouds. They can smash through rocks with their sources of sadness written on them, or just relax and fly through the sky.
Psychologists at York University in Canada have launched a series of podcasts about the history of psychology. Christopher Green, co-founder of the Advances in the History of Psychology blog (http://ahp.apps01.yorku.ca) and the former producer and presenter of the This Week in the History of Psychology podcast series, is to front a new occasional series Discussions in the History of Psychology. He’s also started two other new series: History of Psychology Laboratory and This Week in the History of Psychology: Shorts (see www.yorku.ca/christo/podcasts/). Collaborators include Jeremy Burman and Jacy Young.
tweets predict impact
The amount of buzz generated by a journal article on Twitter is a reliable predictor of the ultimate scholarly impact that article will have. Gunther Eysenbach (University Health Network, Toronto) analysed thousands of tweets about new articles published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Articles that generated a high number of tweets in the days following their publication were 11 times more likely to be highly cited 17 to 29 months later compared with less-tweeted articles (jmir.org/2011/4/e123/).
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