This is bigger than social psychology

January 24, 2013

David Shanks suggests that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman “sees a ‘train wreck looming’ for social psychology” (“Unconscious track to disciplinary train wreck”, Letters, 17 January). This is inaccurate. In fact, Kahneman’s warning concerns the specific area of social priming research, which Shanks (but not Kahneman) goes on to treat as essentially synonymous with social psychology as a whole.

Indeed, Kahneman’s recommendation to social-priming researchers is that the solution to problems in the area may be addressed in part through collaboration with social psychologists working on other issues: “I believe that you should have an association, with a board that might include prominent social psychologists from other field(s).”

So, Kahneman does not diagnose a problem in social psychology as a whole but in research on one particular issue (and it is worth noting that his comments have provoked a wealth of responses ranging from the narrowly defensive to some critically engaged attempts to act on his suggestions).

To suggest, as Shanks does, that “many social psychologists have bought into the notion that social behaviour is … driven by unconscious motives and attitudes” is too simplistic a characterisation of the discipline. The field incorporates an array of perspectives - from those influenced by emerging research in neuroscience to those whose concern is primarily with social cognition, and those who adopt a social constructionist perspective (and many more besides).

None of this is to downplay the importance of wider critical reflection on research practices, both in social psychology and beyond, and we agree with Shanks that “outright fraud is not the major problem”. Indeed, this was the point of our original suggestion - not mentioned by Shanks - that researchers in all fields would benefit from consideration of work in the sociology of science.

Problems such as selective reporting, the low value typically accorded to replications and pressures to publish and to be “newsworthy” are not unique to social psychology. Indeed, it is striking that Shanks singles out the prominent journal Science as exemplifying an editorial loss of “critical faculties”. The selection of such a leading cross-disciplinary journal as indicative of the problems Shanks identifies suggests that his arguments concern a much broader systemic and institutional constituency than simply the field of social psychology.

Stephen Gibson, Honorary secretary, British Psychological Society, Social psychology section

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