UO psychologist uses a fake class to ask real questions

Psychology is facing a reproducibility crisis but not everyone is despairing. (en.wikipedia.org)

Psy 607: Everything is Fucked was set to be taught by professor Srivastava Monday mornings in Straub Hall.

A common concern among psychology researchers was summed up in a joke syllabus written by University of Oregon associate professor Sanjay Srivastava earlier this month.

The syllabus was never intended to represent a real class, but a number of visitors to Srivastava’s blog jumped at the idea of it.

“I just want you to make sure, this is a fake class,” Srivastava told the Emerald in an interview. “I have talked to some people who actually thought it was real and were disappointed when it wasn’t.”

Srivastava’s class got laughs out of lay people and chuckles from other psychological researchers — the target audience of the blog according to Srivastava— but is facilitating a very real conversation. All of the readings “assigned” in the class are actual papers that deal with the “reproducibility crisis” facing psychology.

A number of researchers are finding that age-old experiments that have been reproduced many times over are now beginning to turn up different results, prompting the feeling behind Srivastava’s course title. Research has been done on top of foundations that are crumbling, because so many factors in recreating past experiments have changed, including confirmation bias and poorly controlled variables.

“A normal, well-functioning science should be producing ideas that after a while don’t pan out. That’s just what happens when you push boundaries,” Srivastava said. “In psychology, really in the last five years or so, there’s been a sense from a lot of people that we may be falling short of the expected amount of dead ends.”

With questions about his profession and livelihood at hand, Srivastava responded with humor rather than despair.

Working off of Michael Inzlicht’s comment in a Slate article that says “meta-analyses are fucked,” Srivastava compiled his own list of potential problem areas.

“I started making a list in my mind of ‘What are all the things that are fucked?’” Srivastava said. “It was just sort of floating in the back of my mind, and at some point I thought, ‘Ok, this would be funny to turn into a syllabus.”

It didn’t take long for him to realize that he successfully planned an entire quarter of readings and discussions about psychological topics that are “fucked.”

Despite the relative ease that Srivastava had in compiling the list, he says that he isn’t pessimistic about the field moving forward. Pointing to evidence that psychology is not the only science that is facing these problems, Srivastava is, “actually very optimistic about these issues.”

“This is a set of real and important issues,” Srivastava said. “Some of them are sort of fundamental issues in science that are never going to be solved.”

As a member of a brand new society, the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science, which had its first meeting this summer, he is involved in working on the very issues he is joking about.

Srivastava is battling the pessimistic view choking the field, using his undergraduate class, Psy 468: Motivation and Emotion, to explain the problem. Addressing the change in the historically consensual view of self-control as a depletable resource through a scientific lens, he is teaching his students to analyze the self-control experiment from its origins to the point when it was called into doubt.

“If science is about discovery […] about pushing into the unknown, then that means taking risks,” he said. “Maybe this sort of thing is happening too much, maybe there are things we can do to make it happen less likely to happen […] but this is how science progresses.”

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