Crimes and Misdemeanors: Reforming Social Psychology

 Dave Nussbaum with a very smart take on how honest researchers wander astray. 

Crimes and Misdemeanors: Reforming Social Psychology

by Dave Nussbaum,
November 30th -0001

The recent news of Dirk Smeesters’ resignation is certainly not good news for social psychology, particularly so soon after the Diedrik Stapel case, but I believe it can serve as an opportunity for the field to take important steps towards reform. The reforms that are needed the most, however, are not restricted to preventing or detecting the few instances of fraud by unscrupulous researchers who are intentionally falsifying data. What we should be more concerned about are the far less egregious, but much more common offenses that many of us commit, often unknowingly or unintentionally, and almost never with fraudulent intent.

In an excerpt from his new book that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last month, Dan Ariely (@danariely) relates an anecdote about a locksmith who explains that, “locks are on doors to keep honest people honest.” Ariely goes on to say that:

One percent of people will always be honest and never steal. Another 1% will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television; locks won’t do much to protect you from the hardened thieves, who can get into your house if they really want to. The purpose of locks, the locksmith said, is to protect you from the 98% of mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock.

The same is true of psychologists. A very small fraction of us are “hardened thieves” who are intent on falsifying their data. This is a problem and we should do our best to identify these individuals and expunge their publications from the field. But the vast majority of psychologists are honest people who – while motivated to produce publications and to get jobs, promotions, and prestige – are genuinely committed to the pursuit of the truth. It has become increasingly clear, however, that it is easy for the pursuit of the truth to be derailed by seemingly minor methodological mistakes that yield significant effects, even where none exist. These mistakes – or doors, to stick with the locksmith’s metaphor – are usually entered into without fraudulent or malicious intent. That’s why we need locks: to keep honest people from wandering through these doors.

Photo Credits:

Locked Door by Swastiverma (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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