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David Brooks and unreplicable research claims: “I saw a unicorn the other night … ”

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Why do I think psychology prof Christopher F. Chabris agrees with PZ (Darwin foulmouth) Myers and me in not liking Brook’s thesis in The Social Animal (“The Mind Readers,” The Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2011):

In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble. He describes in some detail, for example, clever experiments by Dutch psychologists who found that consumers make better purchasing decisions if they mull the relevant information unconsciously while their minds are occupied with other tasks—as opposed to making a quick decision or consciously analyzing the options and then deciding. But he doesn’t tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Other researchers have been unable to reproduce their results.This is a chronic problem in “The Social Animal.” The literature in the social and medical sciences is full of results and claims that either don’t replicate or haven’t been tested by anyone other than the original researchers. The first study on a topic is rarely the last word.

No, I bet not. If those results held up, just about everything we know about paying attention to evidence is wrong, which means we are living in a different universe. Only, we aren’t.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


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