Here are some examples of classical and more recent effects reported by social psychologists:
- Trying actively not to think about a white bear makes you think more about it
- Writing a few lines to affirm their values makes obese women lose several pounds a few months later
- People who think about 12 instances in which they have behaved in an introverted way define themselves as less introverted than those who think of 6 instances
- People are more likely to internalize an attitude if they receive a moderate than a low or high reward for expressing support for this attitude
- Merely seeing an American flag for a few seconds makes Americans more likely to vote Republican 8 months later
- Teacher's expectations influence students' performance
- The greater the number of bystanders, the lower the probability that the victim of an emergency will be helped
The french philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1938) argued that science was inherently opposed to "opinion" (i.e., doxa). "Opinion thinks wrongly, it does not think, it merely translates needs (...) One cannot build anything on opinion, one must destroy it first " (p. 14, my translation). In social psychology, findings that contradict common sense are more likely to be published because they are deemed more interesting by the research community. Indeed, findings that confirm common sense expectations (what McGuire (1997) called "bubbapsychology") or that do not successfully reject the null hypothesis, are often considered as unworthy of further attention. Paradoxical findings play a crucial role in the development of novel theories of human behavior. And many of the examples cited above actually have generated rich and productive research programmes. The curiosity aroused by these paradoxes played an important role in this development.
Paradoxical findings are one of the main sources of interest for social psychological research among nonspecialists. When I teach my social cognition class for example, not only do I feel that my students are most interested in the paradoxical and surprising findings but it is much more exciting to describe them. One feels a bit like a storyteller revealing the name of the murderer no one had suspected.
The interest generated by such findings does not only influence teaching but has consequences on their likelihood of publication. Given that access to publication is extremely competitive (in social psychology journals, the rejection rate of most journals lies between 70% and 90%), and that publication is essential to survival in academia ("publish or perish"), this interest may offer an an edge in publication. In other words, the likelihood that a finding is published may be higher for a paradoxical finding than for a "normal" finding. This may affect all stages of the publication process:
- researchers may be more likely to run studies that test paradoxical hypotheses
- researchers may be more likely to report these studies
- researchers may be more likely to submit these studies to scientific journals
- scientific journals may be more likely to accept articles presenting these studies
Several responses can be proposed: replicate the research finding, use statistical methods that take into account the prior probability of a finding (i.e., bayesian methods), and provide a compelling and testable theory accounting for it (which has been done for some of the findings mentioned above). Although this is what should be done, as there are yet very few incentives for replication, it is not obvious that such advice will be followed. This argument about validity, or variations thereof, has been proposed by several colleagues (see e.g., this, this or this).
Finally, given that debunking common sense has become a new doxa, it may be time to question this paradox and appreciate the strengths of common sense as well.
Bachelard, G. (1938). La Formation de l'esprit scientifique, Gaston Bachelard, éd. Vrin, 1938, p. 14
PS: Thanks to my colleague Christian Orange, for the Bachelard reference.