Category Archives: News/Current Events

New APS replication initiative aims to open the file drawer, heralding a positive step for psychological science.

During the past couple of years, psychological science has been in the midst of a PR disaster. Academics have publicly announced that they failed to replicate some of the most classic findings in our field, bringing the original effects themselves — and often the integrity of the original researchers reporting them — into question. These pronouncements and subsequent push to estimate the true effect sizes of various findings led to the even more disturbing realization that it is far too difficult to publish these failed replications — or successful replications, for that matter — in the peer-reviewed, academic journals that serve as our bread and butter.

A new initiative, backed by the Association for Psychological Science and co-headed by Dr. Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Dr. Alex Holcombe of the University of Sydney, is ripping the dirty laundry  that’s been airing in public for the past two years off of the clothesline and finally giving it the good, thorough cleaning that it has so desperately needed. This initiative aims to make rigorous replication a rewarding and beneficial aspect of a productive scientific career by establishing a special section dedicated to publishing replications in one of the top journals in our field, Perspectives on Psychological Science (one of the official journals of the Association for Psychological Science).

Psychologists have been calling for a widespread replication effort for years. However, there are several good reasons why this initiative is the first that truly has the gleaming possibility of revitalizing our field.

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Why I Will Not Be Writing About Newtown

I’m not the type of person who shies away from sensitive topics. I like to think that I do a fairly good job of being appropriate when I know that I’m dealing with a particularly difficult or controversial issue. So when something like the Newtown massacre happens, a lot of people — including myself — think that this seems exactly like the sort of thing that I should be addressing in my blog. Finding ways to tie timely current events to psychological research is essentially the very mission statement of this blog, after all.

I’m writing this to explain why I’m not going to be writing about what happened in Newtown here. Or anywhere.

My Intro Social Psych students could tell you that I’m very fond of following up every discussion of a theory or experiment by quickly saying, “Well, it’s not actually that simple, really.” Most students hate this. Eager undergrads often sign up for Social Psychology hoping to get all of the answers to life, the universe, and everything over the course of just a few months – they want to understand why people are the way that they are, why people make the decisions that they make, why people do the things that they do. And, in a lot of ways, social psych theories — and the researchers who create them – do want to explain it all. Many of them are even quick to claim that their theories actually do just that.

But they can’t. Not really.

Every theory comes with caveats. With moderators. With individual differences. With contextual conditions that must be satisfied. With exceptions. And with nuance.

Just as people who come into my class wanting “explain-it-all theories” usually leave feeling disappointed, many people who have been searching for answers about the Newtown tragedy have found themselves coming up short as well. Why do people feel the way that they do about gun control or the right to bear arms? When faced with an insurmountable trauma or personal tragedy, how do we cope? How do we find resilience? How do we move on?

Why would someone walk into an elementary school and savagely murder dozens of innocent children? And how can we stop this from happening again?

These are the questions for which we desperately want to find the answers right now. What I often find myself doing on this blog is, in some way, providing those types of explanations that people so often crave. I know that many times, the things that I write are simplistic – of course, I can’t actually explain everything that happens in the world using academic theories and single-sample laboratory studies. It would be ridiculous to think that I could. But, in some small way, I like to think I’m providing an explanation for some things. Some part of things.

But this time, I can’t. I can’t sit here and honestly attempt to tell you that I have any sort of an answer or explanation for anything that has to do with Newtown. And I’ve tried. I’ve sat down so many times over the past few days and tried to write something about compassion. About empathy. About dealing with trauma. About mental illness. About resilience. About a search for meaning in a world that seems unpredictable and frightening. Yet no matter how much I tried to write about these things, the words never came. I could not think of any study or theory that would even come close to being an acceptable reference. My mind was blank. I couldn’t find a single thing that felt remotely helpful – or even appropriate – to say.

That’s not to say that other writers haven’t found meaningful, important things to say in the wake of this horrible tragedy. Take Emily Willingham’s wonderful piece on the dangers of conflating autism with violent tendencies, or Amanda Marcotte’s piece on the problem with our pro-gun culture. Other writers have had stunning, beautiful insights into small parts of this tragedy and, put together, these parts have come together to form a complex, nuanced, and multifaceted view of a horrific event. It’s just that this time, I won’t – I can’t – be one of those people.

Every scientist and every science writer is, first and foremost, also a human being. We feel scared and confused. We feel emotional. Even in a profession requiring the ability to consistently find the right words to say, they will still sometimes escape us — and we know that no matter how hard we look, we will never find them. They will simply never come.

Social psychology can be a truly amazing discipline. It helps us understand the world around us. It helps us understand why people do the things that they do. But it can’t give us the answer to everything, and it certainly can’t give us a black-and-white answer for this. For example, what could I really have written about how people deal with unimaginable trauma? Some will benefit by trying to imbue what has happened to them with a sense of meaning or greater purpose. Some people will feel offended and belittled by this approach. Some people will respond to this tragedy with compassion and care. Some will respond with aggression and anger. Some will appreciate insights based on logic and reason. Others will only appreciate a shoulder to cry on. I can’t tell you what psychology “says” about this tragedy, because there is no one, all-encompassing, singular thing that psychology says about this tragedy — to pretend otherwise would be presumptuous and irresponsible.

The only thing I know right now is that it’s complicated. The only thing I know is that nothing I can ever possibly say on this small, silly corner of the Internet will bring those babies and those selfless teachers back. Nothing I could ever say would ever come close to explaining why something this unconscionable has happened, and nothing I could ever say would give everyone who reads it a sense of peace, or even a sense of true understanding.

That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to try. Not this time.

Did you vote? Wear your sticker! Update your status! Send all the tweets!

Many polls are still open, meaning it’s not too late to encourage your friends and family to get out and rock the vote!
Yesterday I mentioned that using channel factors to make voting seem easy and convenient can increase voter turnout.
Know what else can? Norms! Especially when you use the right kinds of norms.
There are two types of norms – descriptive and prescriptive. Prescriptive norms are what society says you should do (like telling your friends that they should vote, or that voting is the “right thing” to do). Descriptive norms, on the other hand, simply describe what people actually do, like merely saying that the majority of people that you know have voted. 
As it turns out, people are remarkably sensitive to descriptive norms – sometimes even moreso than norms that try to provide moral or societal guidance. Simply telling people what other people actually do, even without explicitly saying that the target person should do that thing as well, can be a surprisingly strong motivator.
Take hotel rooms, for example. Have you been in a hotel room recently? Have you seen those little cards encouraging you to be green and re-use your towels? In one study looking at norms, Noah Goldstein and colleagues tried out different  towel-reuse-cards to see which one would work the best. Each guest at a certain hotel either saw a “Please Reuse Your Towel” card with no normative information, a card mentioning that the “majority of past guests at this hotel have reused their towels,” or an even more specific card mentioning that “the majority of past guests who stayed in this room have reused their towels.” The researchers found that the more specific the normative information, the more likely the guests were to reuse their towels themselves. Telling people that the majority of past guests who stayed in that room reused their towels had an especially strong effect on their likelihood of reusing the towels themselves.
That’s fine and all, but can they really work better than prescriptive norms?
Sure they can. In a different study, Robert Cialdini was trying to combat a big problem in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Many people would visit this park and then take the petrified wood from the forest with them after they visited, as a sort of souvenir…but this small action, multipled by thousands of visitors, had a dramatically negative effect on the local ecosystem. Cialdini had to find a way to get people to stop taking the wood with them.
So what did he do? He placed different norm-based signs in the forest. The sign either used prescriptive norms to tell people what they should do (e.g. “Please don’t take the wood from the forest”) or they used descriptive norms to tell people what others actually do, either telling the truth (“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest”) or lying (“The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest”). In this situation, prescriptive norms worked the best, but the next-best option was the descriptive norm telling people that most other visitors do not take the wood. When people saw the descriptive norm stating that most people take the wood, even though the point of this message was to show how damaging this is, they were significantly more likely to take the wood themselves — because everyone else was doing it. When they saw the descriptive norm saying that most people don’t take the wood, however, it discouraged from taking the wood because doing so would have made them different. 
The researchers conclude that when it comes to getting people not to do something (e.g. “Don’t take the wood!”), prescriptive norms work best. However, when you are trying to get people to act, it’s actually more effective to send out an “Everybody’s doing it!” descriptive norm, which will encourage people to fit themselves into the norm.
What does this tell us about voting? Since you are trying to get people to do something (not avoid doing something), set strong, positive descriptive norms! Wear your “I Voted” stickers, tweet that you voted, update your Facebook status, and encourage everyone to broadcast the simple fact that they voted to the world! Setting a strong descriptive norm by making it clear that the majority of people are voting is the most effective way to use norm-based compliance to get people out to the polls – it should be even more effective than prescriptive norms stating that it’s what they should be doing. It also helps if these descriptive norms are as specific as possible – knowing that most other people in your age group, sorority/fraternity, neighborhood, club, school, whatever have voted can make the norm more powerful, just like the hotel room norms with the towels. And whatever you do, do NOT accidentally set a descriptive norm saying that most members of someone’s group do not vote (e.g. by saying something like, “Most young people don’t vote! You should go be a leader and let your voice be heard!”) Even though it sounds inspiring, a descriptive norm like that can backfire — BIG time.
So slap on that sticker, be a loudmouth, and set some good, strong descriptive norms! You have a few hours left to let people know that everyone’s doin’ it!

Goldstein, N., Cialdini, R., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (3), 472-482 DOI: 10.1086/586910
Cialdini, R., Demaine, L., Sagarin, B., Barrett, D., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact Social Influence, 1 (1), 3-15 DOI: 10.1080/15534510500181459

Where will you be voting? Figure it out now!

With everyone talking about the importance of “voter turnout,” how do you make sure potential voters make it to the polls?

Simple – make them figure out ahead of time how and when they’ll get there.

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Can we predict the “undecided voters”?

Lars Plougmann / Creative Commons

Now that Election Day is upon us, can you remember way back (a whole few weeks ago!) when there were still those mystical Undecided Voters? Even aside from the sketch comedy skits that mocked their very existence, many people were still wondering how voters could possibly have been “undecided” so close to the election.

However, according to research from Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, and Bertram Gawronski, those voters might have been “decided” after all – even if they didn’t realize it at the time.

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, How Does Psych Reflect Us All?

“Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.” – Earl Nightingale, American motivational speaker

ResearchBlogging.orgIn 1898, Norman Triplett stumbled upon an interesting observation as he watched a group of cyclists competing in a race: He noticed that the athletes tended to ride faster when they were around other people than when they were alone. He successfully replicated this phenomenon in the laboratory by asking groups of children to reel in spools of fishing line, noting that the children working in pairs reeled the line in faster than those who worked alone. Triplett published the findings, labeled the phenomenon “social facilitation,” and kicked off the entire field of experimental social psychology as we know it with (arguably) the first-ever published social psychology paper.*

The fact that the first paper in social psychology derived its hypotheses from a real-life experience is not surprising. After all, social psychology itself is supposed to be the “scientific study of how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.”1 If people in a field that revolves around interpersonal interactions don’t draw our examples and scientific questions from real life, from where exactly are we supposed to get them?

Yet it’s not only casual anecdotes, observations, or everyday happenings that have influenced the trajectory of our field. Social psychology has actually served a truly interesting historical function: Throughout the years, the field has managed to become a cultural mirror, consistently reflecting society’s standards, norms, and cultural traditions in its zeitgeists and trends. Going back through the annals of social psychological science can almost feel like reading a history textbook; as you parse through the findings, you see how the current events, pop culture, societal phenomena, and core values of each era shifted and grew along with the research trends.

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Are your 9/11 memories really your own?

I can remember exactly where I was eleven years ago when I learned why the sky was starting to fill with smoke about 30 miles to the west.

Though I live in Illinois now, I’m originally from Long Island. In September 2001, I was just beginning the 9th grade at Friends Academy, my new high school in Locust Valley. I had just started getting to know the people who would become my closest friends over the next four years. I was on my way to Computer Programming when I ran into Molly, a girl on my bus.

“Hey, did you hear?” Molly asked, somewhat casually.

“No, what’s up? Oh, is Maggie taking the bus today?!” I asked excitedly. Maggie was Molly’s adorable baby sister, whose expeditions onto our bus were rare (but exciting) events.

“No…apparently something really big just happened in the city. They’re canceling class right now and calling an all-school assembly in the Dolan Center. You didn’t hear?”

“Oh, no, but thank God. I didn’t finish my math homework last night and I didn’t have time to do it on the bus, this is awesome,” I said with a smile. “Do you have any idea why they’re canceling class, though?!”

I had no idea at the time how much I would cringe for the rest of my life whenever I looked back and thought about my first reaction to hearing that “something big” was going on in the city.
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