Chris Chambers: The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology

ChambersPsychological science has made extraordinary discoveries about the human mind, but can we trust everything its practitioners are telling us? In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that a lot of research in psychology is based on weak evidence, questionable practices, and sometimes even fraud. The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology by Chris Chambers diagnoses the ills besetting the discipline today and proposes sensible, practical solutions to ensure that it remains a legitimate and reliable science in the years ahead.

Why did you decide to write this book?

CC: Over the last fifteen years I‘ve become increasingly fed up with the “academic game” in psychology, and I strongly believe we need to raise standards to make our research more transparent and reliable. As a psychologist myself, one of the key lessons I’ve learned is that there is a huge difference between how the public thinks science works and how it actually works. The public have this impression of scientists as objective truth seekers on a selfless mission to understand nature. That’s a noble picture but bears little resemblance to reality. Over time, the mission of psychological science has eroded from something that originally was probably quite close to that vision but has now become a contest for short-term prestige and career status, corrupted by biased research practices, bad incentives and occasionally even fraud.

Many psychologists struggle valiantly against the current system but they are swimming against a tide. I trained within that system. I understand how it works, how to use it, and how it can distort your thinking. After 10 years of “playing the game” I realized I didn’t like the kind of scientist I was turning into, so I decided to try and change the system and my own practices—not only to improve science but to help younger scientists avoid my predicament. At its heart this book lays out my view of how we can reinvigorate psychology by adopting an emerging philosophy called “open science.” Some people will agree with this solution. Many will not. But, above all, the debate is important to have.

It sounds like you’re quite skeptical about science generally.

CC: Even though I’m quite critical about psychology, the book shouldn’t be seen as anti-science—far from it. Science is without doubt the best way to discover the truth about the world and make rational decisions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved. We need to face the problems in psychology head-on and develop practical solutions. The stakes are high. If we succeed then psychology can lead the way in helping other sciences solve similar problems. If we fail then I believe psychology will fade into obscurity and become obsolete.

Would it matter if psychology disappeared? Is it really that important?

CC: Psychology is a huge part of our lives. We need it in every domain where it is important to understand human thought or behavior, from treating mental illness, to designing traffic signs, to addressing global problems like climate change, to understanding basic (but extraordinarily complex) mental functions such as how we see or hear. Understanding how our minds work is the ultimate journey of self-discovery and one of the fundamental sciences. And it’s precisely because the world needs robust psychological science that researchers have an ethical obligation to meet the high standards expected of us by the public.

Who do you think will find your book most useful?

CC: I have tried to tailor the content for a variety of different audiences, including anyone who is interested in psychology or how science works. Among non-scientists, I think the book may be especially valuable for journalists who report on psychological research, helping them overcome common pitfalls and identify the signs of bad or weak studies. At another level, I’ve written this as a call-to-arms for my fellow psychologists and scientists in closely aligned disciplines, because we need to act collectively in order to fix these problems. And the most important readers of all are the younger researchers and students who are coming up in the current academic system and will one day inherit psychological science. We need to get our house in order to prepare this generation for what lies ahead and help solve the difficulties we inherited.

So what exactly are the problems facing psychology research?

CC: I’ve identified seven major ills, which (a little flippantly, I admit) can be cast as seven deadly sins. In order they are Bias, Hidden Flexibility, Unreliability, Data Hoarding, Corruptibility, Internment, and Bean Counting. I won’t ruin the suspense by describing them in detail, but they all stem from the same root cause: we have allowed the incentives that drive individual scientists to fall out of step with what’s best for scientific advancement. When you combine this with the intense competition of academia, it creates a research culture that is biased, closed, fearful and poorly accountable—and just as a damp bathroom encourages mold, a closed research culture becomes the perfect environment for cultivating malpractice and fraud.

It all sounds pretty bad. Is psychology doomed?

CC: No. And I say this emphatically: there is still time to turn this around. Beneath all of these problems, psychology has a strong foundation; we’ve just forgotten about it in the rat race of modern academia. There is a growing movement to reform research practices in psychology, particularly among the younger generation. We can solve many problems by adopting open scientific practices—practices such as pre-registering study designs to reduce bias, making data and study materials as publicly available as possible, and changing the way we assess scientists for career advancement. Many of these problems are common to other fields in the life sciences and social sciences, which means that if we solve them in psychology we can solve them in those areas too. In short, it is time for psychology to grow up, step up, and take the lead.

How will we know when we’ve fixed the deadly sins?

CC: The main test is that our published results should become a lot more reliable and repeatable. As things currently stand, there is a high chance that any new result published in a psychology journal is a false discovery. So we’ll know we’ve cracked these problems when we can start to believe the published literature and truly rely on it. When this happens, and open practices become the norm, the closed practices and weak science that define our current culture will seem as primitive as alchemy.

Chris Chambers is professor of cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and a contributor to the Guardian science blog network. He is the author of The 7 Deadly Sins of Psychology: A Manifesto for Reforming the Culture of Scientific Practice.