Monday, July 16, 2018

Psychology Itself Is Under Scrutiny


The urge to tug down statues extends well beyond the general public squares of countries in

Lately, it's been stirring the air in some corners of science, particularly psychology.

In recent months, researchers and a few journalists have strung cables around the necks of a minimum of three monuments of the fashionable psychological canon:

The famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which found that folks playacting as guards quickly exhibited uncharacteristic cruelty.

The landmark marshmallow test, which found that young children who could delay gratification showed greater educational achievement years later than those that could not.

And the lesser-known but influential concept of ego depletion — the thought that willpower is sort of a muscle which will be built up but also tires.

The assaults on these studies aren’t all new. Each may be the story in its title, involving debates over methodology and statistical bias that have surfaced before in some form.

But since 2011, the psychology field has been giving itself an intensive background check, redoing quite 100 well-known studies.

Often the first results can't be reproduced, and therefore the entire contentious process has been colored, inevitably, by generational change and charges of patriarchy.

“This may be a phase of cleaning the house and we’re finding that a lot of things aren’t as robust as we thought,” said Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who has led the replication drive? 

“This may be a reformation moment — to mention let’s self-correct, and repose on the knowledge that we all know is solid.”

Still, the study of human behavior will never be as clean as physics or cardiology — how could it be? — and psychology’s elaborate simulations are just that.

At an equivalent time, its findings are much more accessible and personally relevant to the general public than those in most other scientific fields.

Psychology has many amateur theorists who test the findings against their own experience.

The public’s judgments interest the sector, too.

It is one thing to frisk the studies appearing almost daily in journals that form the present the back-and-forth of behavior research.

it's somewhat different to call out experiments that became classics — and world-famous outside of psychology — because they dramatized something people recognized in themselves and in others.

They sleep in the common culture as powerful metaphors, explanations for aspects of our behavior that we sense are true which are captured somehow during a laboratory minidrama constructed by an ingenious researcher, or research team.

The Stanford prison experiment may be a case in point.

In the summer of 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a mid-career psychologist recruited 24 college students through newspaper ads and randomly cast half them as “prisoners” and half as “guards,” setting them up during a mock prison, complete with cells and uniforms.

He had the simulation filmed.

After six days, Dr. Zimbardo called the experiment off, reporting that the “guards” began
to assume their roles too well. They became abusive, a number of them shockingly so.

Dr. Zimbardo published dispatches about the experiment during a few obscure journals.

He provided a more complete report in a piece of writing he wrote within the NY Times, describing how cruel instincts could emerge spontaneously in ordinary people as results of situational pressures and expectations.

That article and “Quiet Rage,” a documentary about the experiment helped make Dr. Zimbardo a star within the field and media favorite, last within the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal within the early 2000s.

Perhaps the central challenge to the study’s claims is that its author coached the “guards”
to be hard cases.

Is this coaching “not an overt invitation to be abusive altogether kinds of psychological ways?” wrote Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College who decided to exclude any mention of the simulation from his popular introductory textbook.

“And, when the guards did behave in these ways and escalated that behavior, with Zimbardo watching and apparently (by his silence) approving, would that not have confirmed within the subjects’ minds that they were behaving as they should?”

Recent challenges have echoed Dr. Gray’s, and earlier this month Dr. Zimbardo was moved to post a response online.

“My instructions to the guards, as documented by recordings of guard orientation, were that they might not hit the prisoners but could create feelings of boredom, frustration, fear and a way of powerlessness — that's, ‘we have total power of things and they have none,’” he wrote.

“We didn't give any formal or detailed instructions about how to be an efficient guard.”

In an interview, Dr. Zimbardo said that the simulation was a “demonstration of what could happen” to some people influenced by powerful social roles and doors pressures, and that his critics had missed now.

Which argument is more persuasive depends to some extent on where you sit and what you may consider Dr. Zimbardo.

Is it better to explain his experiment, questions, and everyone — or to ignore it entirely as not real psychology?

One psychologist who doesn’t need to choose is David Baker, executive of the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron, which hosts the National Museum of Psychology.

“We put everything in that’s a crucial a part of our history, including the controversy,” Dr. Baker said.

“To me, the target question of an experiment should be considered,” he added. “In this case, do social context and expectations significantly change behavior. And if so, when and how so?”

The issues surrounding the marshmallow studies and therefore the ego depletion work is different, but land researchers within the same fundamental bind: is that this something, or is it nothing?

Even younger psychologists who are eloquent partisans on the side of self-correction can be conflicted.

“With ego depletion especially, it looks like there’s some truth there — we have got the subjective feeling of cognitive fatigue” after exercising self-control said Katie Corker, as an assistant professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.


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