Thursday, November 30, 2023

Whoops! Is thinking fast/slow out of control?

Leif Weatherby, You Can’t Nudge Human Behavior Into Perfection, NYTimes, Nov. 30, 2023:

Behavioral economics is at the center of the so-called replication crisis, a euphemism for the uncomfortable fact that the results of a significant percentage of social science experiments can’t be reproduced in subsequent trials. Nudges are related to a larger area of research on “priming,” which tests how behavior changes in response to what we think about or even see without noticing. One of the foundational experiments for priming showed that undergraduates walked out of the lab more slowly after focusing on words associated with old people, like “bingo” and “Florida.” But this key result was not replicated in similar experiments, undermining confidence in a whole area of study. It’s obvious that we do associate old age and slower walking, and we probably do slow down sometimes when thinking about older people. It’s just not clear that that’s a law of the mind.

It also turns out that people without any scientific training are good at correctly guessing or betting on which studies can’t be replicated based only on their descriptions. What some people claim is science might just be common sense dressed up in bad data.

Even Dr. Kahneman is affected by the replication crisis. Outside researchers have found that Dr. Kahneman’s best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” relies heavily on studies that may not be replicable — troubling given that this widely read book popularized behavioral economics. It’s now everywhere, from what kind of medical care you receive to what your workplace atmosphere is like.

And these attempts to “correct” human behavior are based on tenuous science. The replication crisis doesn’t have a simple solution. Journals have instituted reforms like having scientists preregister their hypotheses to avoid the possibility of results being manipulated during the research. But that doesn’t change how many uncertain results are already out there, with a knock-on effect that ripples through huge segments of quantitative social science. The Johns Hopkins science historian Ruth Leys, author of a forthcoming book on priming research, points out that cognitive science is especially prone to building future studies off disputed results. Despite the replication crisis, these fields are a “train on wheels, the track is laid and almost nothing stops them,” Dr. Leys said.

There's much more at the link.

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