Much about what we know about human behaviour and cognition comes from psychological research. This research informs much of what we know about the human condition and influences how we promote optimum psychological functioning and how we treat mental illness. Experts in the field of psychology have strived to validate psychology as a true science. This attempt of validation has caused significant debate, with many critics arguing that psychology with its hazy definitions and reliance on subjective matter, does not have the capability of standing shoulder to shoulder with other related scientific disciplines such as biology or neurology. Nevertheless it has caused researchers in the field to aim to act scientifically when conducting psychological research. By employing the scientific method, researchers in psychology follow standardised procedures in a hope find scientific results.
In order for findings to be scientific, they must meet certain criteria: they must be replicable (the same findings should be found by anyone else conducting the same experiment under the same conditions), they must be falsifiable (they must be stated in a way that acknowledges that there is a possibility to reject them), they must be precise (they must be stated in a way that allows them to be interpreted correctly), and they must be parsimonious (they must be presented in their simplest form).
A groundbreaking study published by the Open Science Collaboration in the middle of last year however, shone major doubt on the on the first of these criteria. In this study, an international team of approximately 270 scientists repeated 100 of the highest ranking published psychology studies from 2008 in a bid to determine if their findings would be replicated. Their results were somewhat unprecedented when they found that between two thirds to a half of the original findings were not replicated. Given that replicability is a defining feature of scientific practice, these findings threw the credibility of psychological research into turmoil. If findings are not replicable, do they hold any merit at all?
This is a difficult question to answer. Firstly all research being scientific should be falsifiable and so even the current study could be subject to doubt! However as is the nature of science there are many reasons why the studies chosen may not have been replicated. This may have occurred by chance, the replication studies may have run into their own difficulties or the originals may have produced false positive results. As psychological research focuses on such complex and detailed subject matter and encompasses countless variables, there can be any number of reasons why a study might not be replicated and therefore the original findings should not be discounted entirely. Still however, it is evident that there is a serious discipline-wide problem occurring in the area of psychological research which needs to be addressed urgently. One positive of the replicability findings is that they have caused a significant stir in the world of academic psychology that may lead to an overhaul of scientific practice in the area and ultimately bring psychology closer to being a science than ever before.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.