A textbook case: Definitely true. Maybe.

Yesterday, I discussed a recent paper which looked at whether introductory psychology textbooks promote or correct “myths” about psychology.

A few years back, I came across an interesting book published in 2009, specifically about correcting myths in psychology, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, by Lilienfeld et al. They discuss misconceptions about how much of our brains we use, hypnosis, polygraphs, positive attitudes and disease, self-esteem, criminal profiling, expert judgment and so on. While some researchers are sure to disagree with their characterizations, at a minimum their critiques suggest substantial caution in accepting the claims as facts.

At the end of the book, in a postscript, they list 13 findings that they characterize as “Difficult to Believe, But True” (p. 248-250).

The irony?  One of the findings they list as true is implicit egotism, the theory that people are more likely to select options in major life choices (including professions, locations and spouses) that have similar names to their own name (i.e., “Dennis the Dentist”). Much of the evidence for this, however, has been found by Uri Simonsohn, in his 2011 paper “Spurious? Name similarity effect (implicit egotism) in marriage, job and moving decisions” to be replicable, but accounted for by other explanations.

Another on their list of true findings? The finding that holding a warm object makes people feel warmer to others, which other researchers recently have not replicated.

This is not to say that implicit egotism or social-warmth priming are now known to be false. Perhaps subsequent research will revise the currently negative prognoses of these effects.  But it is telling, I think, that even in a book about skepticism towards psychological theories, at least two of thirteen findings were oversold as being known to be true.

There has been a lot of discussion about how to change the publication process to try to make individual papers’ findings more reliable. This is definitely important.  But perhaps it’s just as important that we lower our expectations about what any one paper will achieve.  In most cases, we simply can’t adopt the conclusions of a paper until they have been subjected to critical debate and replication attempts, direct and conceptual, especially by those skeptical of the theory. The less enthusiastically a field supports such debate, the longer it will take until we can reliably consider a finding well-established. Until then, every finding is definitely true. But only maybe.

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