What is the Replication Crisis a Crisis Of?

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While many by now acknowledge that wide-spread replication failures are indicative of a crisis in psychology, there is less agreement about questions such as (a) what this “replication crisis” is a crisis of, precisely (i.e., whether it is really, at heart, a crisis of replication) and (b) what socio-historical factors have contributed (and continue to contribute) to its existence. One standard answer in the literature is that replication failures are often due to questionable research practices in the original studies (p-hacking, retroactive hypothesis-fitting, etc.) (Simmons et al 2011), in turn giving rise to hypotheses about the institutional structures (e.g., incentive structures) that may be responsible for such practices. More recently, others have argued that the narrow focus on (the replicability of) experimental effects is itself part of a larger problem, namely a relative sparsity of sustained theoretical work in psychology. In turn, this has given rise to some efforts to develop methodologies of theory-construction (e.g., fried, 2020; van Roji & Baggio 2021). Both of these discussions make valuable contributions to a fuller understanding of the crisis. However, in my talk I will argue that there is a missing link here, having to do with questions about the very subject matter of psychology. What is missing in both types of analyses (i.e., those that focus on flaws in statistical and theoretical procedures) is a discussion of what (kinds of things) can be objects of psychological research, such that (1) we can generate (and perhaps even replicate) experimental effects pertaining to them, and (2) we can try to construct theories about them. In making psychological objects the focal point of my analysis, I follow a recent suggestion by Jill Morawski (2021), who notes that different responses to the replication-crisis reveal different underlying notions of the objects under investigation. Thus, she argues that “some researchers assume objects to be stable and singular while others posit them to be dynamic and complex” (Morawski 2021, 1). After clarifying my understanding of the psychological subject matter, I will come down in favor of an understanding of psychological objects as complex and dynamic, i.e., as multi-track capacities of individuals, which can be moderated by a large number of factors, both person-specific and environmental. With this in mind, we should expect experimental effects to be sensitive to small changes in experimental settings and, thus, be hard to replicate. My point is not that we should throw up our hands in the face of the inevitability of replication failures but rather that we need to recognize that the context-sensitivity of psychological objects is itself worthy of experimental study and that replication failures can provide valuable insights in this regard (see also Feest in press). In making this point, I am pushing for a revival of more “ecological” approaches to psychology (as was present, for example, in early 20th-century functionalism). In this vein, I will trace the current crisis, in part, to (i) a lack of attention to psychological objects in general and (ii) to a failure to appreciate the complexity and embeddedness of psychological objects. With regard to etiology, this analysis suggests the following two questions, i.e., first, why did parts of psychology get so fixated on effects as their objects, and second, why did parts of psychology get so fixated on cognitive systems in isolation from their environments? I will provide sketches of some historical answers to these questions. References Feest, Uljana (2022), Data Quality, Experimental Artifacts, and the Reactivity of the Psychological Subject Matter. European Journal for the Philosophy of Science (in press). Fried, Eiko I. (2020, February 7), Lack of theory building and testing impedes progress in the factor and network literature. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/zg84s Morawski, Jill (2021), How to True Psychology’s Objects. Review of General Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/10892680211046518 Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D., & Simonsohn, U. (2011). False-positive psychology: Undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis allows presenting anything as significant. Psychological science, 22(11), 1359-1366. van Rooij, Iris & Baggio, G. (2021). Theory before the test: How to build high-verisimilitude explanatory theories in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745691620970604
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Leibniz Universität Hannover

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