C&B Notes

Daniel Kahneman’s Challenge

Daniel Kahneman challenges his colleagues to meaningfully enhance the rigor in their field.

Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, addressed his open e-mail to researchers who work on social priming, the study of how subtle cues can unconsciously influence our thoughts or behavior.  For example, volunteers might walk more slowly down a corridor after seeing words related to old age, or fare better in general-knowledge tests after writing down the attributes of a typical professor.  Such tests are widely used in psychology, and Kahneman counts himself as a “general believer” in priming effects.  But in his e-mail, seen by Nature, he writes that there is a “train wreck looming” for the field, due to a “storm of doubt” about the robustness of priming results.

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Norbert Schwarz, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who received the e-mail, says that priming studies attract skeptical attention because their results are often surprising, not necessarily because they are scientifically flawed.  “There is no empirical evidence that work in this area is more or less replicable than work in other areas,” he says, although the “iconic status” of individual findings has distracted from a larger body of supportive evidence.  “You can think of this as psychology’s version of the climate-change debate,” says Schwarz.  “The consensus of the vast majority of psychologists closely familiar with work in this area gets drowned out by claims of a few persistent priming skeptics.”  Still, Schwarz broadly supports Kahneman’s suggestion.  “I will participate in such a daisy-chain if the field decides that it is something that should be implemented,” says Schwarz, but not if it is “merely directed at one single area of research”.

“I hope that this becomes part of a broader movement in psychology to be more self-critical, and to see if there are gaps in the way we do everyday science,” says Nosek.  “I suspect those who are really committed to doing the best science possible will say that this or some alternative is a good idea.”