Here Is Why Another Psychological Study Has Failed The Reproducibility Test


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The field of psychology has never seen such an existential crisis in its entire history ever. Some old and “trusted” physiological tests are continuously failing the reproducibility tests. Although this reproducibility crisis is a dire problem for one group, another group of psychologists proclaims that the concerns are greatly exaggerated.

The crisis originated last year when “the Reproducibility Project,” held at the University of Virginia, took 100 experiments for the study, but failed to replicate at least one-third of them. Recently, another classic test of a 30-years-old study has failed which concluded that:

The people who smiled while holding a pen between their teeth thought cartoons were funnier.

This experiment was part of the “facial feedback hypothesis,” and it was carried out by William James, a 19th-century American psychologist. His theory converted cause into the effect, and effect into the cause. For example, he stated that sweaty palms, high adrenaline, and blood pressure are not the results of emotions like anxiety, panic, or fear, but these emotions are rather caused by them. Another example stated that we don’t smile because we are happy, but we smile to become happy, and vice versa for frowning. A 1988 German study further affirmed the theory.

Subject holds a pen in her teeth while smiling (left) and in her lips, forming a pout. (Image: Quentin Gronau/Flick)
The subject holds a pen in her teeth while smiling (left) and in her lips, forming a pout (Image via Quentin Gronau/Flick)

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam felt like reaffirming this theory themselves, so they decided to replicate this famous experiment. But their failure to reproduce the 30-year-old findings “in a statistically compelling fashion,” as published in a newspaper in Perspectives on Psychological Science, has left the world of psychology in disdain. They also said, “Overall, the results were inconsistent with the original result.”

Nine of the labs decided to replicate the original 1988 study, but their results suggested that the effects weren’t statistically strong.

However, Christian Jarrett mentioned in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest,

“This does not mean the entire facial feedback hypothesis is dead in the water. Many diverse studies have supported the hypothesis, including research involving participants who have undergone botox treatment, which affects their facial muscles”

The experimental setup. (Image: Quentin Gronau/Flickr)
The experimental setup (Image via Quentin Gronau/Flickr)

The reason of failure might be the inability to replicate the conditions of the original experiment perfectly. Even though the researchers used the original cartoon of Gary Larson’s iconic Far Side, but still there were differences as the participants were wary of the continuous videotaping and tasks.

Strack, the lead researcher in the University of Virginia study, himself pointed out that the methodology and statistical analysis suggest that his findings should not be deemed conclusive just yet. For example, he used psychology students for the study, who would have been already aware of the original 1988 experiment and its results, thus skewing the observations.

Furthermore, self-conscious participants could also be the reason for these results. Since The Far Side’s 1980’s brand of humor is not relatable for the students, one in four students said he didn’t find it funny because he couldn’t even understand the comic.

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