Research Lead: Prospect Theory Replicates, UnWEIRDing Psychology, a Challenge to Evolutionary Psychology, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

Prospect Theory replicates

A large, multicountry attempt to replicate Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s prospect theory suggests the theory holds up quite well. The original 1979 study involved a relatively limited sample—university students and faculty from the United States, Israel, and Sweden. Given the widespread impact of the theory—at one time dubbed “the most influential theoretical framework in all the social sciences”—and the recent replication failures in the social sciences, a large-scale replication effort was due.

The current work performed a direct replication of the original 1979 study, across 19 countries in 13 languages, with over 4,000 participants. “We find that Kahneman and Tversky’s 1979 empirical foundation for proposing prospect theory broadly replicates,” the authors write. It’s important to note that there are nuances as to effect sizes and how participants responded to certain items across different countries. Nevertheless, the authors conclude that they continue to consider the theory “a viable explanation of individual behaviour, and therefore valuable for informing public policy.” [Nature Human Behaviour]

Don’t keep psychology WEIRD

A team of researchers has developed a tool to help measure the psychological and cultural distance between different societies, which could help make the field less WEIRD. Psychology has been dominated by WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) population samples, meaning the search for broad truths about human psychology may only represent a sliver of what exists. Needless to say this is a problem, not only in the quest to understand human psychology but also as psychological science is used to inform policy around the world.

The new tool, the authors explain, will allow researchers to better test the generalizability of their hypotheses by providing a method to target sufficiently diverse populations. It could also help open the field to populations around the world, who are underrepresented in the literature. These regions, the author write, “may in fact hold a treasure trove of findings for the next wave of cultural psychologists…. This may not only shape the breadth of existing psychological outcomes but also lead to questions we have not even thought to ask, new psychologies, and new ways of organizing psychology.” [Psychological Science; open-access SSRN, thread from the lead author]

Can a new tool help psychology unWEIRD? Image: Behavioral Scientist

“Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?”

A new paper, which calls into question several fundamental assumptions of evolutionary psychology, is sure to provoke a debate among scholars. From the abstract: 

“Evolutionary psychology is committed to the view that the mind has an architecture that has been conserved since the Pleistocene, and that our psychology can be fruitfully understood in terms of the original, fitness enhancing functions of these conserved psychological mechanisms.

“But for evolutionary psychological explanations to succeed, practitioners must be able to show that contemporary cognitive mechanisms correspond to those that were selected for in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, that these present-day cognitive mechanisms are descended from the corresponding ancestral mechanisms, and that they have retained the functions of the ancestral mechanisms from which they are descended.

“I refer to the problem of demonstrating that these conditions obtain as ‘the matching problem,’ argue that evolutionary psychology does not have the resources to address it, and conclude that evolutionary psychology, as it is currently understood, is therefore impossible.”

What do you think?

[Biological Theory, a summary of the argument by the author at The Evolution Institute]

Rediscovery: What lessons did scientists 100 years ago draw from their own pandemic experience?

Writing in 1919, George A. Soper of the United States Sanitary Corps laid out the lessons he learned from the flu epidemic that had swept around the world. His article stood out to me because it touches on so many of the same themes dominating the headlines today: public indifference, worry about a second wave, the difficulties of collecting real-time data. Certain parts feel like they could have been written yesterday:

“Never before has there been a catastrophe at once so sudden, so devastating and so universal.”

“Your fate may be in your own hands—wash your hands before eating.”

“The highly infectious nature of the respiratory infections adds to the difficulty of their control. The period of incubation varies considerably; in some infections it may be as short as a day or two. And the disease may be transmissible before the patient himself is aware that he is attacked.”

Of course, other parts betray the time period and seem simplistic, if not silly.

“Food will win the war if you give it a chance—help by choosing and chewing your food well.”

“Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves-seek to make nature your ally not your prisoner.”

Credit to Soper, he did display a good bit of epistemic humility. “What is said here of the influenza pandemic is put forward only as the writer’s view at the present time. Nobody can now speak authoritatively upon this subject…We are still too close to the event to fully measure it.”

What will scientists 100 years from now make of our lessons from the coronavirus pandemic? For that matter, what will we make of our own lessons in 10, 20, or 30 years? [Science; HT: Nature Human Behavior]

“Which interventions work best in a pandemic?”

A recent article in Science makes the case for the use of RCTs to aid policy decisions during a pandemic. The authors, Johannes Haushofer and Jessica Metcalf, argue that RCTs can be implemented in a way that is both practical and ethical. “The only approaches currently available to reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) are behavioral … However, [non-pharmaceutical] interventions are often used without rigorous empirical evidence: They make sense in theory, and mathematical models can be used to predict their likely impact, but with different policies being tried in different places … we cannot confidently attribute any given reduction in transmission to a specific policy.” [Science]

What do nudgees think of nudges?

A new study investigates how people perceive behavioral interventions that would be targeted at themselves, in domains like finance, exercise, health. The researchers explore how the level of transparency, the designer of the intervention, and the intervention’s aim influence perceptions of acceptability and effectiveness from would-be intervention recipients. [Behavioural Public Policy]

Rejection, imposter syndrome, and burnout

Academia can be a strange and lonely place to navigate, with its puzzling incentives and personal politics often in conflict with its ideals of knowledge creation and service. In a recent article, a group of scholars opened up about their personal experience with rejection, feeling out of place, and burnout, which remain common, yet under-acknowledged, experiences. The authors also offer advice for how to deal with these three obstacles, at both the individual and structural level. While geared toward academics, those who work in other fields are sure to take something away from the paper as well. [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Other noteworthy research, quick hits:

“The tropes of celebrity environmentalism”

A review of the various ways that celebrity advocacy influences environmental causes. The review is not a list of Hollywood actors, but an analysis of the different tropes that continue to play out on issues like climate change, including the celebrity animal, the guru, the entrepreneur, and the ordinary person. [Annual Review of Environment and Resources]

The Sisyphean cycle of technology panics

In this pre-print, Amy Orben argues that psychologists attempting to understand how new technology influences individuals and society continue to repeat the same mistakes because of a lack of theoretical grounding. [PsyArXiv pre-print]

Creating a disconnected psychology?

A paper argues for a version of psychology that’s independent of the current conventions, norms, and expectations. But what would this “disconnected psychology” look like? [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Looking to dip your toes in open-science?

A guide for graduate students looking to get acquainted with open-science methods. [PsyArXiv pre-print]